Moralism in UK Education: The Classroom Experiment

In many parts of the UK’s national life, education notably, people may usefully be divided into moralists and realists.

Moralists treat the world around them as if it conformed to their own view of what it should be.  Realists treat the world around them as it actually is.

Nothing illustrates this difference more than the world of schools administration and teaching.  Deep in their hearts it seems that large parts of the Schools Educational Establishment (SEE) – in a direct line from Jean Jacques Rousseau – believe that all children are born pretty much the same in academic potential.  The intellectual differences which are obvious to their parents from about the age of 3 are supposedly products of a child’s upbringing and life experiences, which can be corrected at school, given enough “resources”, i.e. taxpayer-funded teachers.

This is why any form of competition, be it through exams or sports is detested by many teachers and by the administrators in the SEE and Ofsted, some of whom may have been (briefly) teachers themselves.  While even Ofsted has to accept that publishing GCSE and A-level exam results is here to stay, there is a constant struggle to abolish the Key Stage (KS) exams.  KS1 at 7 has now gone.  KS2 at 11 is under attack in England, while even KS3 (at 14) has been abolished in Wales.

This latter means that while English children living in Wales, and English-speaking Welsh children have to continue studying Welsh until they are 14, at that age they will no longer be able to obtain an objective view of their progress in English, Maths and Science, subjects which will most likely determine their chances of getting a decent job in life.  Nor will they be examined in history and geography, subjects which will tell them something of who and where they are in the world.

In place of objective measures like exam results, so-called “experts” in the SEE seek to impose purely subjective ideas as to what is good and bad practice.  The latest, anti-competitive fad is “hands down”, profiled recently in a BBC2 TV documentary, on 27th and 28th September, entitled “The Classroom Experiment” and featuring Dylan Williams as chief proponent.

In this classroom rigmarole, teachers are forbidden from inviting children to put their hands up to answer a question in case some children feel “left out”.  In one variant of the approach teachers questioning the class had to pick children’s names at random from a beaker of wooden lolly sticks on their desk.  This led to a few children stealing the sticks with their names on to avoid being questioned.  Finally, frustrated children who did know the answers were allowed to write their answers on mini white boards, which they could hold up for the teachers to see.  (See also “Hands up if you want a child to feel good” by Katharine Birbalsingh, Daily Telegraph Blog 19/11/10).

This is all to prevent some children in the eyes of the teacher feeling excluded and losing self respect.  The prominence given to issues of supposed feelings is at the heart of the attack on competition.  No matter that the real world runs on competition – sporting, academic, economic, industrial – the moralist maintains it shouldn’t, and in the case of teaching imposes this view on their charges.

Looked at another way, the moralist outlook is often subconsciously dependent on the concept of transference.  This is a concept from psychotherapy where the patient’s attitudes are supposedly transferred to the analyst.  Because a teacher, say, might feel resentful or humiliated to fail an exam, or on not making it into a sports team, then they believe their pupils must feel the same, and be protected from such feelings by abolishing or emasculating competitive activities.  A comprehensive and frightening account of this attitude applied in our own schools is given in “All must have prizes” by Melanie Phillips, published by Warner Books in 1998.

That children may see competition as an opportunity to achieve something and not worry too much about failing in any particular case, is a reality which completely eludes many teachers and the body of the SEE.

That bringing up children never to try, and thus never to fail, would be the most disastrous preparation for the real world and for the UK as a nation and will be obvious to everyone outside the public sector and, to be fair, many inside it too.

In another field where the triumph of moralism over realism has led to and currently is leading to egregious folly on the largest scale, we may consider the perverse order of priorities in the present round of budget cuts which is planning to actually increase the international aid budget by more than the cost of the to-be-scrapped Ark Royal and its squadrons of Harrier jets (see subsequent post of 25th November).

Only a political class entranced by the alleged power of fine words and the durability of treaties could believe that these and other cuts will not have any effect on the way other countries perceive the UK’s resolve to defend itself and its interests.  As the Englishman Thomas Hobbes, the ultimate realist, says in the “Leviathan” (1651): “Covenants without swords are but words”.

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