Down with Skool

When all right-thinking people are agreed they are certainly wrong. Yesterday Gordon Brown announced that he would be spending another £19bn on education in the next three years; and al right-thinking people agreed that this was marvellous. So, for that matter, did all left- and centre-thinking people — anyone, in fact, who has any pretensions to thought at all.

The only complaints came from the teachers who saw none of this money coming there way: there will be more teachers, but no better paid. And teachers must be the most powerless constituency in the country, if only because every voter has gone to school and there learnt to filter out almost everything any teacher says.

It is this simple observation which first suggests there is something wrong with the chancellor's plan. If one of the chief effects of school system is to instil in pupils the belief that teachers are ignorant and education unimportant, it's not obvious that the cure for this is more teachers and more schools. Perhaps I have not been educated enough myself to grasp the subtleties of the chancellor's argument. I was thrown out of school at sixteen and have not sat in a classroom since, apart from a brief period studying German in Vienna where I learnt to speak fluently and almost coherently after two litres of cheap wine.

I have, however, taught from time to time. Anyone who teaches children for a living is worth twice at least what they are paid. The problem, of course is that after the age of fourteen or so children no longer want to learn for the sake of it. There are some things which any school should have taught them by then, whether they want to learn or not: reading, writing, sitting still and silently, elementary table manners. These things can be justified as part of compulsory schooling because all of society benefits from them. Why my taxes — or anyone's — should go to teaching English literature is a much harder question to answer.

I don't say this because I despise English literature, philosophy, ancient Greek or any of the other supposedly useless subjects I learnt while still in school. On the contrary, I think they are all immensely important. Knowledge of them is part of the point of being human. If no one gave a damn about literature or philosophy, even in the debased form that I peddle them in, I would starve or at least have to find a job.

But is precisely because pure learning of this sort is so valuable that it is a gift that must be freely accepted and not forced on people. I have no objection to paying to teach people who want to learn. But it is no use loading a blunderbuss with the pearls of Western culture and discharging it at teenage swine in the hope that some will stick. Spend the money on libraries instead, and let anyone interested find there way there.

Mr Brown's answer— if the blunderbuss does not work —  is to corral the teenagers so they are easier to hit. Quite the most sinister part of his proposals is the idea that child benefit should be linked to school attendance: teenagers are to be bribed to be bored. You wouldn't have thought they needed bribing.

The real reason of course is that bored teenagers in a classroom do less damage, or seem to, than bored teenagers on the loose. School may not be able to teach much, but at least it keeps them off the streets.  The price, however, is to discredit the idea of education. I really believe that people, even teenagers, love to learn. But most of them want some practical reward. They learn by doing. Best of all, they learn by earning too.

What is needed for older children is not more classroom space, or half a million extra places in further education. It is apprenticeships, properly paid, and in useful skills. Most apprenticeships have disappeared because the industries in which they were offered have gone too. You can't learn shipbuilding when no one any longer builds ships.

Spending money to extend the benefits of schooling to the youngest children, as Mr Brown also proposes to do, is wonderful. But if he really wants to make life easier for teenagers, and ensure that they learn things, he shouldn't fund more schools, but proper apprenticeships in jobs that people want to have: there are skills that can only be learnt by doing even in trades like journalism or web design. That way, the pupils would be paid to learn; not bribed to go to school.

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