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Must Try Harder
September 2009


Secondary school is rather like a funnel. The pupil enters at the wide end and is presented with a timetable containing a lot of subjects but as the years proceed, the number of subjects decreases. At GCSE, depending on the school, it has come down to between five and ten, in the sixth form only three or at most four are studied to A Level. Eventually, the pupil is squeezed out of the narrowest point accompanied by one or perhaps two subjects to be studied at university. 

For "academic" pupils, at least, the funnel analogy still holds good. My daily timetable in c. 1956 looked something like this: 

First Period: RI or Scripture — first because God comes first.

Period 2: Maths — early in the day when the brain was supposedly sharpest.

Period 3: English.

These were the same every day and for Periods 4 and 5 Geography, History, French, Spanish, Latin, Physics, Chemistry and Biology alternated. In the afternoons came the less-regarded Music, Art, Domestic Science — and Sports. This might be recognised in general outline by a pupil today, though God no longer takes pride of place, virtually no state school offers Latin and there are some new subjects, principally IT and PSHE, aka sex lessons. 

The principal difference is that schools then were not dictated to by government, let alone political correctness, in the way they are now. And it is in relation to those things, as well as to the attitudes and prejudices of the teaching unions and examination boards, as well as to the general dumbed-down social ethos, that things in schools after the age of 11 have gone badly wrong, so that we have betrayed several generations of young people. 

The unacademic pupil, whose practical talents and potential were once recognised and catered for both in secondary modern school and via apprenticeships, is forced, resentful and struggling, into the same funnel to emerge at a low-grade university doing media studies or tourism, until they drop out or leave ill-equipped for employment other than the sort which could have been learned in a week "on the job" — if at all. That is one sort of betrayal. But what about the more academic pupil: bright, interested, motivated, who should not only be heading for a high-flying career earning a good salary, but has the potential and desire to become a well-rounded individual with a broad general knowledge, the ability both to study one or two things in depth and an interest in many wider aspects of culture and society? Yes, they still exist, emerging overwhelmingly from the independent sector, simply because with the demise of most grammar schools, the door has been slammed shut on bright but poor pupils. 

What has happened? 

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Retired Head Master
September 12th, 2009
12:09 PM
Another wise and relevant article from Susan Hill. Her percipient words about academic bullying are backed up by educational research. The independent schools are fine but the state schools are hampered by not having the freedom to sort out their own problems, and having to be politically correct. The government's guidelines on bullying mention many kinds of bullying (including "homophobic") but not the academic kind, the most prevalent in the state sector according to educational research.

September 11th, 2009
5:09 PM
Great article--but Susan Hill is wrong about multiple-choice exams. They are by far the most efficient and objective way of assessing pupils' knowledge, and modern exams are capable of doing this at a very sophisticated level. This has long been recognised in the private sector, where the multiple-choice format is ubiquitous. As useful as it is to be able to organise one's thoughts and put them on paper in coherent prose, this is not an ability which is easily assessed by any objective standard. The repeated exam fiascos are a result of the difficulty in finding an objective marking scheme which is not so formulaic that it destroys the whole purpose of writing essays. Of course, teachers and lecturers should set essay papers for internal consumption. But relatively few students write well. A lot of very bright and capable people can barely string two sentences together. To get an idea of just how bad it is, visit

September 5th, 2009
12:09 AM
Maybe the content of the curriculum doesnt really matter, especially as we are all completely over-whelmed by the information out available out there. And when was the purpose of education to teach people to think for themselves, ask real questions about everything (and thus get REAL answers), and to kindle their imaginations? It was mostly about crowd control and providing disciplined workers who knew their "place" and did what they were told to do--including marching off to be slaughtered in the imperial wars. But then again children are exposed to the real curriculum which now governs every aspect of our lives almost from day one. A curriculum which is telling them how to be a good unquestioning consumer. I am of course referring to TV and the now wall to wall 24/7 existence of advertising. A new book titled This Little Kiddy Went To Market by Sharon Beder gives a well researched picture of the situation. In the USA there are even cable TV stations targeted at TWO YEAR OLDS. Plus this reference gives a unique perspective of the tragedy of what we have done to our children, and hence ourselves, for a long time now. !7 years after the publication of the book the situation is now very much worse---unmeasurably and INCURABLY so.

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