Options sound like a good idea. Giving pupils choices is supposed to help them develop maturity, and to increase motivation, as they are thought to have more of a stake in something they have chosen. Thus in English schools, we usually allow thirteen and fourteen year olds to drop some subjects and select those which particularly appeal to them. There are even schools which allow, or actually encourage for some pupils, the abandonment of most academic subjects at this age.
I’ve always been sheltered from this business, as an English teacher, and yet I’ve often reflected on the impact it has on other subjects. There are many problems with offering the chance to choose too early.
The worst problem of all is that options turn teenagers into consumers, and teachers into salesmen. The role of consumer gives the pupil power over the teacher, subtly undermining their authority. It promotes the attitude that it is up to the teacher to entice pupils, not up to pupils to work hard and impress teachers.
Consumerism also tends to reduce academic rigour. If you have to persuade a certain number of pupils to take your subject beyond year nine, or even beyond year eight in some cases, then you will be tempted to make it more appealing to your customers. You will be tempted to reduce rigour and increase fun and games, in order to avoid putting them off with too much serious hard work. Thus options can lead to dumbing-down, especially at key stage three. The more marginal the subject, the more desperate the teachers can become to package it attractively to maintain their share of the market.
There are other temptations for teachers of optional subjects. I’ve often heard teachers talking about how a struggling pupil ‘won’t cope’ with their subject at GCSE. Should teachers of history or geography really be allowed to shed less able pupils? Shouldn’t everyone have the opportunity to learn about the history of the human race into which they were born, and the planet they inhabit? Maths and English teachers smile wryly when they hear comments like this. There’s no point in my saying anything about a pupil ‘not coping’. Up to sixteen, I have to find ways of enabling all to make progress.
In addition to the dangerous temptations it creates for salesmen and consumers in the subject marketplace, offering options could be seen as an abdication from curricular responsibility. Isn’t it the job of those in authority to decide what is really important for pupils to know? Shouldn’t schools be focusing on building a curriculum that will equip all of their pupils with broad knowledge, thus laying the foundations for a lifetime of active and informed thinking? If so, how much of the precious time available can be allowed to subjects which are ‘non essential’? Because if we make something an option, that is the message we are giving: that it doesn’t matter that much, that it is disposable.
This is an area where we see the powerful impact of differing educational philosophies. A traditional philosophy, that there is an important body of knowledge which it is the school’s responsibility to transmit to all pupils, logically leads to the minimising of choice. When a school is serious about producing cultivated and knowledgeable pupils, it will have very few options, because it will have the intellectual courage to say that history, for example, is too important for anyone to drop at thirteen. If, on the other hand, our educational philosophy emphasises self discovery and individual liberation, and views authoritative knowledge as tyrannical, we will maximise choice. Who are we to decide what young people should learn?
Accepting authority means taking on responsibility, and that requires courage. As G K Chesterton put it in 1910:
‘Now most modern freedom is at root fear. It is not so much that we are too bold to endure rules; it is rather that we are too timid to endure responsibilities. And Mr Shaw and such people are especially shrinking from that awful and ancestral responsibility to which our fathers committed us when they took the wild step of becoming men. I mean the responsibility of affirming the truth of our human tradition and handing it on with the voice of authority, an unshaken voice. That is the one eternal education; to be sure enough that something is true that you dare to tell it to a child.’ (What’s Wrong With the World)