Teaching Rioters The Right Lessons

Low academic standards are producing undisciplined young people. The English Baccalaureate (EBac) offers a renewed rigour

Our cities have been set ablaze and our dignity trampled upon by the worst attack on Britain since the Second World War. But these were not outsiders who declared war on us. They were some of our own working-class and even middle-class children who lacked a moral compass when they turned on us, their elders, demonstrating little or no respect for everything we have taught them.

Of course, this may be because we haven’t really taught them much. Neither our parents, schools, nor our communities have managed to teach our children right from wrong. While Rousseau claimed that man is inherently good, even he recognised that for morality and self-restraint to inculcate themselves within the human heart and mind, they must be taught. But too often parents presume that their children are born with an innate instinct to know right from wrong. As adults, having developed instinctual moral feeling themselves, they forget that they were in fact taught right from wrong by their own parents. 

A child will exercise power over whatever he perceives to be weaker — a younger sibling, a small animal, an insect. For a child to learn how to be good, his parents must punish him when he does something wrong and reward him when he does something right. His parents must also spend enough time with him in order to set a good example so that he can copy their actions, learn that he cannot do whatever he likes, and see that every choice has a consequence.  Eventually, through constant repetition, the child will learn a moral code that will become instinctive as he grows older. As Aristotle says, “Excellence is not an act; it is a habit.” It is a habit that is learnt in childhood, when “choice” is managed by the control of parents.

But if fathers are absent and mothers are too busy, they are unlikely to fulfil their parental duty by setting boundaries that are meant to stop the child from satisfying his deeper and more selfish desires. The child’s choices must be limited by the parents, to guide him carefully towards self-restraint, or else he will simply do as he pleases. If parents fail at this, later in life, when this young person is confronted with moral choice, he will be at sea, incapable of distinguishing between right and wrong. 

Children must be given the chance to develop the moral instinct we all take for granted — an instinct that is fundamental to our survival as a society. If as a child you get to eat what you want, sit in front of the television as much as you like, satisfy your personal desires even if it means harming others, the likelihood is that you will not make the correct moral choice when faced with a decision to either steal an Xbox or stay at home and do your homework. Absence of boundaries, aversion to order, disregard and disrespect for others then become guiding principles throughout the child’s life and later into adulthood. 

The extreme liberal approach to parenting, which contributed towards these riots, has implications in the classroom too. In the same way that morality is best taught by restricting choice, skills and knowledge are best taught at school in a choice-restricted atmosphere. But just as some parents can misjudge how much direction or guidance is needed when teaching a child morality, some people don’t recognise that restriction of choice in terms of subjects at school ensures that a child will learn basic attitudes that will equip him with the instinctive knowledge and skills required to lead a successful life.

Not only do we think that giving children unbridled choice is good, we also believe that spending fleeting moments on topics is entertaining and interesting, that intensive commitment to one subject is too much for our children’s short attention spans. As Aristotle explains, constancy is crucial: repetition leads to mastery. Malcolm Gladwell says this as well: to be an expert at something, one needs to do it for 10,000 hours. While we don’t need our children to be experts in all subjects, certainly we would like them to be knowledgeable in the basics. Yet we often don’t understand that to do this, revisiting topics over and over is absolutely necessary. 

This is precisely what the English Baccalaureate (EBac) does, by encouraging children to stick with difficult academic subjects until they are 16, allowing them the opportunity to revisit algebra and Shakespeare time and time again. Yet the EBac has come under the firing line because it is said to restrict choice. The EBac is what Michael Gove calls a “4×4” qualification that can take you anywhere. To get the EBac, one must get five C grades in maths, English, science, a language, and either history or geography. It is academic and balanced, giving a broad understanding of important areas.  As such, Michael Gove is correct: it will keep doors open, since academic subjects are what universities are looking for in prospective pupils, as are employers. When you consider that 84 per cent of our country’s children do not currently achieve the 5 C grades required for the Ebac, you begin to realise the severity of the situation. After all, the subjects above are pretty ordinary, are they not? Most families assume, when they send their children to school that this is what their children are learning: maths, English, science, a language, history or geography. They may be learning other subjects as well, but most families would assume these subjects are core.

What most families don’t realise, though, is that so many schools participate in what I like to call “gaming” their way through the system. Until Michael Gove introduced the EBac, schools were only measured by the number of children getting five GCSEs including English and maths; in other words, English, maths, plus any other three GCSEs they wished, including the less demanding Btecs.

It is worth noting that this is still the benchmark by which schools will be judged to be failing or succeeding by Ofsted. The EBac results simply provide more information for parents and are not a judgment tool. They tell parents whether any given school is providing the opportunity for its pupils to learn these academic subjects. No single indicator can sum up a school’s performance, so isn’t it preferable that parents have access to as much information about the school as possible?

“Gaming” the system consists of aiming to get as many children as possible five GCSEs, and, frankly, some schools will do it by any means necessary in order to climb the league tables. The geography or history GCSE is harder than the travel and tourism Btec, yet geography and history are only worth one GCSE, whereas the travel and tourism Btec is worth two GCSEs. A head teacher who “games” the system will have his humanities teachers teach travel and tourism and will abandon the more traditional geography and history in order to stand a better chance of more of his pupils getting more GSCEs. He may not offer languages at GCSE level at all since they’re too difficult. In fact, he may force all of his pupils to take GCSE PE because he knows most of the boys will pass it. Some subjects are easier than others. We all know it although we don’t want to admit it. If any GCSE will get the head his crucial five, he’ll do whatever he has to, sacrifice any number of open doors for his pupils, to ensure his school makes the grade.

This “gaming” is done under the guise of giving a child “choice”. Tell a 14-year-old that he can do a “fun” subject that will give him either two or four GCSEs, or do a “difficult” one that will only give him one, and you can be sure which option he’ll choose. Some children, most likely the middle-class ones, will feel pressure from their parents, who will insist on physics and French. But parents who don’t understand the school system, those who are working around the clock, will presume that the school is only offering their child what is good for him. The idea that the school might feel pressure to climb league tables and may sacrifice what is best for their child would never occur to these parents. 

The “gaming” situation is so bad that when asked, some academies actually refused to disclose what subjects they were teaching their children. In 2004, 15,000 vocational qualifications were taken. By 2010, this number had increased 39 times to 575,000. Why? Because in 2004, Labour made vocational qualifications “equivalent” to GCSEs. In fact, Btecs were often worth more than   GCSEs. And those children and parents who didn’t know any better signed up for them in droves. We have spent the last decade equipping our most vulnerable young people with qualifications that, like subprime mortgages, would prove absolutely worthless in the end.

This is the beauty of the EBac. Like a good parent who restricts a young child’s moral choices to teach him right from wrong, the EBac guides the teenager towards subjects that will enlighten his life in the future. It strongly encourages schools to restrict children’s choices so that they will get a good grounding in basic academic subjects. Remember that children choose their GCSEs — choices that will affect the rest of their lives — at age 14. They are not meant to do this alone. They need guidance.

The EBac makes explicit the subjects that are valued by universities. This is crucial for those families who don’t know what universities and employers are looking for. Because the EBac comprises only five subjects, it leaves the child with five (or more) other options. These subjects are not arbitrary. English, maths and science were already compulsory. In fact, a language at GCSE was compulsory in our schools until 2004, when it was made optional essentially because the government was struggling to find enough language teachers. Indeed, history is compulsory to age 16 in every European country apart from Iceland and the UK. 

Those who cannot handle such a rigorous academic load need not do it. The EBac is just a guide: history, geography and languages will still be optional. But schools ought to give the proper guidance to children when choosing GCSEs based on the future of the child, not on the future of the school. Just as restriction of moral choices for the younger child is crucial in teaching self-restraint, choice of subject for the teenager should be restricted for the benefit of the child’s future. Our better private schools do this all of the time, as a matter of routine. Indeed schools in most European countries do this, and many state schools used to do this before 2004.

Interestingly, some who oppose the EBac can be very fond of the International Baccalaureate. They hail the middle-years International Baccalaureate which restricts choice considerably until age 16. Pupils are required to study their mother tongue, a second language, a humanities subject, sciences, mathematics, arts, physical education and technology.  The normal IB diploma continues to age 18. It is difficult to see why one would criticise the EBac for being too restrictive but praise the IB, unless one is simply against any new ideas that come from the Conservatives. No doubt one of the reasons for the huge success of the International Baccalaureate is because of its careful guidance of its children until they are old enough to choose for themselves. 

It is often thought that freedom means unbridled choice, but this is not always the case, particularly when it comes to children. Choices need to be limited or controlled early on so that a child can learn right from wrong, and so that he can also learn the core academic subjects that are required for a prosperous future. 

Freedom without boundaries means chaos. Chaos is what we had in our streets as our cities burned during the riots. People keep asking for an explanation for what is now called our “feral youth”. The explanation is that we have given them rampant freedom without guidance. In an age of moral relativism, this is rarely questioned. 

As John Stuart Mill, the founder of modern liberalism, said, “Those who are still in a state to require being taken care of by others must be protected against their own actions.” It is our duty as adults to restrict children’s choices so that they can grow up into educated, morally courageous, and truly free human beings.

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