Sometimes when a state school gets ahead of the pack by insisting on discipline and academic standards, commentators worry that it will start to ‘cream off the high achievers.’
I wonder how often people think through the logical consequences of such a statement.
Underlying this attitude is the inaccurate and damaging idea that the human race is clearly divided into those who can and those who cannot benefit from an academic education. In reality, every human being who is not actually severely disabled can profit from thorough, rigorous direct instruction. It is progressive methods that lead people to think that only those from articulate, literate families can do well, because progressive methods prevent teachers from addressing many pupils’ lack of cultural capital.
Such despairing determinism is not limited to the state sector. I was at an educational conference dominated by independent schools recently, and I discussed curriculum decisions with a fellow delegate. I explained that I intended to give all pupils access to classic literature. My interlocutor insisted that there were some in her school who just wouldn’t cope with such demanding material. I pointed out that with an emphasis on direct instruction, core knowledge and memorisation, everyone would be able to make progress. She looked at me incredulously, as it dawned on her that I was not dancing to the dreary tune of so-called innovation that dominated the conference (half-baked ideas a century old that have already been tried and failed in state schools, but appear exciting and new to many in the independent sector). “So you’re like a grammar school?” she asked. Her tone of voice indicated that she thought such an idea would never catch on in the twenty-first century.
In both the state and the independent sector, schools often believe that the only way to raise academic standards is to ‘improve’ their intake. Not believing they are able to add significant cultural capital themselves, they want to profit from the efforts of literate and knowledgeable parents who take the time to talk to their children.
It’s very liberating to be able to stop worrying about the ‘quality’ of the school intake. It’s really a great relief to embrace traditional methods, and leave such moaning and hand-wringing behind. It’s so much simpler to expect everyone to master core knowledge.