Just as my morning train arrives in London, another one is usually departing. As I stride towards the ticket barrier, I am treated to the sight of people rushing to get on before the doors are locked. Quite often the conductor will let a few last latecomers board, keeping one door open until just before the train moves off. I can’t help thinking that if this were Germany, none of those passengers would even try to board, just as no one crosses the road in Germany unless the green man is showing.
Our slightly anarchic, individualistic British ways give some of us the idea that the train should wait just one more minute. We really couldn’t have got there any earlier, you know, and can’t an exception be made just this once? I’ve even seen cross passengers disputing with station porters after the train has left. One can easily imagine the conversation.
“I’m sorry sir, but the train leaves at six minutes past.”
“But I was only one minute late! What difference would one minute make?”
“Sir, we need to make sure it leaves on time.”
“Within one minute is close enough, isn’t it? I would have made it if it wasn’t for the traffic / the fiddly ticket barrier / the rubbish bus service etc etc etc.”
Train transportation is a wonderfully efficient way of moving large numbers of people rapidly around the country. But for it to work, everyone must accept the rules of engagement. The train really cannot wait for you. If you want individualised transport, you’re welcome to go and sit in a traffic jam on the M25.
Likewise, Britain, just like every other developed nation, has created a system for educating large numbers of people, for moving them from their natural condition of illiterate ignorance to their destination: becoming literate, knowledgeable adults, able to take a full part in democratic society. This system could be wonderfully efficient if people would accept the rules of engagement, and realise that individualised education is no more possible than an individualised train timetable.
A coherent, content-specific curriculum is the timetable, and whole class teaching is the train. Get on board for a smooth, efficient ride towards cultural literacy.
But many of us are far too addicted to cars to accept this. We demand the right to make our own journey at our own pace. That’s why there are so many traffic jams in the British education system, and so many drivers and passengers who’ve lost their way entirely.
It’s also why our national curriculum is still at the level of general guidance rather than crystal clear core knowledge criteria. It’s the equivalent of having a train timetable that specifies that the train will leave early in the morning and arrive punctually, but failing to give its actual times of departure and arrival. How much use would that be to train drivers or passengers?
Individual, one to one instruction is a wonderful thing, but not something that can possibly be provided in a large scale education system. Without a proper timetable, and a commitment to the necessary rules of engagement, we’re not likely to start moving any more quickly any time soon.