A Desolation of Learning

When I was on a teacher training course during the mid 1980s, the education academics running the course were cock-a-hoop that the nasty old O level was about to be consigned to history and replaced by the all inclusive, all embracing GCSE, with its A to G grades, all of which were equally worth having. Some of us were suspicious. The establishment in question being an ancient seat of learning, our tutors were even more concerned to promote their Inner London Education Authority – worshipping political credentials.

Everything was about impressing upon us the importance of getting children working in groups, working in pairs, rearranging the furniture to this end, having lots of talk and movement, yes, noise if necessary. Was this drama for nine year olds? No, we’re talking secondary school English. Was this meant to be a classroom management and teaching style to be tried now and again? No, this was how it should be all the time.

There was to be no whole class teaching (or only in rare circumstances), no expectation that pupils (as they were called back then) should ever work quietly on individual endeavours. This was the era when teachers were starting to be thought of as learning facilitators, libraries became resource centres and child centred learning was the only show in town.   

Sir Chris Woodhead, the scourge of the teaching unions and the educationalist establishment, was a formidable personality throughout the six years up to 2000 that he was HM Chief Inspector of Schools and head of Ofsted. When he died three years ago, national newspapers on both the right and the left paid tribute. The Daily Telegraph obituary highlighted his belief that he was ‘paid to challenge mediocrity, failure and complacency’, his resistance to the orthodoxy that smaller classes automatically led to better results, his unwavering conviction that phonics was the best way to teach reading and his visceral opposition to the control of schools by local authorities.

Even the obituary in The Guardian stated that he “never changed his belief that Labour, in its quest for equality, had betrayed children by denying them what he saw as a given: that children are destined for different things.” His assertion that there were 15000 incompetent teachers and 3000 heads, together with his targeting of methodology and thinking that were sacrosanct in the profession, caused fury within the teaching unions and they never forgave him. Indeed, the NUT campaigned for his removal. This was something that Prime Minister Tony Blair refused to do, to the wrath of his own party’s education establishment, headed up by Roy Hattersley.  

It is approaching the tenth anniversary of Woodhead’s “A Desolation of Learning – Is this The Education Our Children Deserve?” The Conservative Coalition had not yet happened so there are references to Ed Balls as Education Secretary, Michael Gove as the opposition’s spokesman on Education and a section that finds wanting Sir Jim Rose’s Interim review in 2008 of the primary school curriculum. That said, Woodhead’s arguments in a work whose chapters are titled Dumbing Down – the Proof; The Myth of the Knowledge Economy and the Death of Liberal Education; The Flight From Knowledge; The Thought World; and the Failure to Re-invent the Comprehensive School, carry as much weight today as they ever did.

Bear in mind that to attain a good pass now at GCSE in some subjects a mark of about 20 per cent is required. Bear in mind the move in some schools to get rid of intelligent, diagnostic marking and replace with`conferencing’ sessions with children. Bear in mind that many 13 to 16 year olds today cannot read a clock face in the examination hall. Oh and don’t forget that in some parts of the country (according to a 2018 report by the Education Policy Institute), more than three quarters of physics teachers have no relevant degree, let alone one in physics, and in maths some two thirds do not hold a degree for teaching the subject.

Key among Woodhead’s battlegrounds with what Gove would come to describe as “The Blob” is the matter of what it is children need to be taught. He relates the “considerable opposition” from primary school teachers who were antagonised by the idea of having to teach “subjects.”They would, he claims, assert “We teach children, not subjects.’He adds that at secondary school level there is the prevailing sense that if the “wretched curriculum had to be divided up into subjects, then every opportunity should be taken… for the teaching of (cross-curricular) themes and skills.” He observes that one leading emeritus professor of education is uninterested in “intellectual culture”, saying that in “his view, subject disciplines are middle class constructs that working class children find alien.”

Woodhead is clear that what should matter more than children’s enjoyment of learning, “is their actual attainment: what they have mastered.” He deplores the situation where, “knowledge has been marginalised to the point where ignorance is inevitable.”

The teacher as maverick genius is, Woodhead predicts, a thing of the past and we won’t see its like again. He remembers one such headmaster of a prep school that was damned by Ofsted for ignoring “just about every rule in the book and worse still, it was employing traditional teaching methods to achieve dangerously high academic standards.”This “legendary figure in the world of independent education” had an “independence of mind and spirit” and Woodhead states poignantly, “children are increasingly unlikely to be taught by men and women whose maverick genius inspires a real love of learning.”His despair is about a modern lobotomised teaching profession that has been “programmed into a robotic conformity.” Woodhead, it is important to say, does not blame teachers; he says their “promotion depends upon the enthusiasm with which they espouse the latest modern fad.”

Woodhead is clear in his thesis that there is a responsibility to initiate the young into the best that has been thought and written, and that this is not about a “skills-based, socially responsible, politicised curriculum.” This is the “road to freedom” and it goes beyond the utilitarian. He is also clear (and this is true, however much left wing educational orthodoxy refutes it) that not every child is capable of travelling “very far along this road.” He champions the idea of vocational courses and refers to the country’s skills shortages, but he has no truck with “educationalists and politicians, tortured by their egalitarian obsessions, who agonise over ‘parity of esteem.”

It is all about context, as we know if a pipe bursts in the middle of the night. Vocational courses, a good idea for anybody’s children he says, have been “sabotaged by woolly thinking, ministerial gullibility and white collar snobbery.” He is also firm in his conviction that there needs to be a democritisation of education, that state education has to be “less centralist” where schools are allowed “to develop their own particular identity and purpose to compete with one another in the marketplace.”

What comes through powerfully in the book is not simply the lucidity and intellectual force of Woodhead’s arguments, but also the resilience and character of the man who would become a rock climber as well as one able to square up to the damaging group think of pretty much the entire educational establishment.

At his grammar school there were “foul” dinners and several hours of homework a night, and his playing up landed him a few times in the headmaster’s study for the customary corporal punishment. He recalls, however: “I can remember standing in the rain waiting for the bus one November night after a detention thinking that I had one advantage over the teachers who were persecuting me: I was younger than they were, and the odds were they would die first.’’

His passion for his subject, English, is plain and it is significant that the title words “desolation of learning” comes from a poem by Geoffrey Hill, one of his favourite writers. That passion finds expression in another piercing, but this time joyful, recollection of youth, when he first arrived at Bristol University. “I was an 18 year old who wanted to spend three years of his life reading English literature. I had no idea where my studies would lead and I did not care…it was enough…to walk down from Clifton …to the University Library at the top of Park Street and to revel in the fact that there were so many books I had not read.” It  would go on to inform his unshakeable belief that education matters for its own sake.

He despairs of the dismissal by educationalists, employers and politicians as an “elitist and anachronistic embarrassment” the notion that an academic student might read for a degree because they want to study more about a subject they love. The “agenda”, he laments, is about increasing participation, widening access, making courses more relevant to the supposed needs of the economy, in short getting the “walls of the ivory tower torn down.”

His words are clear. “Nobody believes in universities as centres of liberal learning any more.’’ He says that while writing the book he flicked through the latest edition of his old university’s magazine and found it dedicated to “enterprise” and how to spot business opportunities, with articles like “How I Became a Pie Shop Owner”. He is dismayed by the Vice Chancellor’s trite summing up in the mission statement of the institution’s essential purposes as “learning, discovery and enterprise”. In his days as a student, the university did not feel it needed a mission statement “and its Vice Chancellor would not have dreamt of descending to this level of banality.”

Two decades into the twenty first century, it’s becoming clear that a generation of young people have been conned into taking degrees that lead them into £50,000 worth of debt and into jobs for which they don’t need a degree anyway. Vice chancellors, however, have done very well with their packages, thanks very much. Many of us, Woodhead among those with the highest profile, saw this coming and that it would end in tears. This is what happens when you lose sight of what something is actually for: what education is for, what university is for. It is to learn to think for oneself. On which note, it feels right to quote novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch, to whom Woodhead refers in his conclusion: “Education is no longer seen as the road to freedom; it is seen as the road to a higher salary.’’

Freedom is the theme of this book, the freedom that education can and should bring: “A liberation from the tyranny of the majority view, a release from the monotony of the quotidian.” Ironic, then, that it was Woodhead’s vocal detractors all along, with all their received wisdom and dogma about “relevance,” “personalisation” and skills over knowledge, that would do most to usher in utilitarianism and conformity. Free speech in the staffroom anyone? Free speech on campus? 


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2 Comments on A Desolation of Learning

  1. Hooray for The Intellectual Life : Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods; Sertillanges O.P.
    Worth a look if you enjoyed this essay.

  2. As a young Research Associate, I recall being told by a lecturer, who had decided to take early retirement, that what clinched his decision was attending a meeting during which the new and ambitious head of department had stated that there was to be a ‘reduction of factual content’. On being questioned over whether this meant that the course and exams would be easier from this point. He just blandly re-stated his point ‘No, No, Not at all, just a reduction of factual content’. Since then, this strangulated language has come to all spheres of life, and with it the lazy thinking, shabby ambition , and success defined only in pounds and dollars that the education system, discussed in Julie Lynn’s excellent article, must result in. I left academia, soon after the lecturer retired, never to return.