Dear Mr Gove,
It has been a busy month for education so far – September always is. Particularly in my house as me and my family are now in all levels of education: my littlest sister in primary, my brother in secondary, my sisters in further, me in higher and my mum is an academic. We are an education household, if you will. We are all into different subjects and despite being the same family we all have very different educational needs. And so the fact that all of us have, are or will be in some way being failed by your persistent and sweeping changes in education policy and, for want of a better phrase, “the system” in general is pretty telling.
Cutbacks and changes in academia are making my mother’s job harder – in Environmental Science, where considering the state of the planet and people’s awareness of it we need more people teaching to the next generation and conducting research.
My sister was under pressure to study things she hates and isn’t good at for A Level, simply because children now are forced to second guess the job/education market and predict what subjects everyone will “want” and at what grades. The GCSE gradings rigmarole of this year didn’t help her either, destroying her confidence in herself and presumably doing the same to many other students. (A form of this “Well they’re getting easier, aren’t they” happens every year and it’s always helped students of every level feel stupid, but one so well publicised and ending in policy changes to take effect mid way through study is taking it to another level, truly.)
My brother and sister are, at such tender ages, already feeling pressurised to know what they’re good at and where they want to take it in their adult lives, when there is plenty of time to change – even when you’re an adult.
And me, I’m bemoaning the art/science divide that is becoming more and more enshrined in the minds of those in power (despite a noticable lack of science degrees among those in power…) which means that my degree and now the masters I study are tarred and feathered with words like “worthless”, “useless” and phrases like “but what are you going to *do* with it?” (to which the answer is “be a better person”) and “you’re not going to make any money from that, you know!” (to which the answer is “money isn’t everything, I’m doing it because I want to, not because I feel the economy necessitates it”.)
[Aside: The art/science “two cultures” thing always gets to me, as an arts graduate from a scientific household. Da Vinci was a great scientist as well as an artist, and Darwin’s Origin of Species would never have been so popular were it not an absolutely beautiful piece of literature. Art and science are infinitely and inextricably linked and any attempts to malign one and treat it as somehow less worthy than the other are merely displays of an ugly form of ignorance and attitude towards the myriad levels of human intelligence and potential. I probably know more about moths and ferns than many a science graduate because those are the things I grew up with from a young age… and because damn it moths are cool! And having an arts degree does not somehow exclude you from being interested or knowledgable in different areas of science and engineering, just as a science graduate might know loads about painting or music or literature because they paint or play or read. I’ll bet you everyone knows at least one cool science fact and one cool art fact, but when we ask someone for (or offer up) a cool fact we don’t specify. Well rounded humans, unite!
….. but this isn’t really the point of my letter… apologies. \rant over]
But weirdly enough, these things don’t make me want to hurt you, or lock you in a hospital and attempt to drip feed you a conscience, or rally together an army of academics, teachers, students and children to ceremoniously throw you out of your office with a red box containing all of your ill-thought-out policies flung after you while we cheer, drink champagne, toss mortarboards and shout “Good riddance!”….. okay, well maybe that last one, but not as much as you might think.
What they, and many other things about your time in government, actually make me want to do is ask you a question. I’m not sure you’ll see it as particularly relevant, which is a shame, but trust me, it really does bear thinking about:
How much did you enjoy education?
I know it sounds like an insane question, I really do. But the more I’ve thought about it the more I feel it needs to be asked, by someone, to you. And mainly by yourself to you.
Because I didn’t really enjoy “school” as a whole. I got beaten up, I got called names, and my god did I *hate* PE with a passion. But education? I loved it. Properly loved it. Especially subjects that I enjoyed. And those subjects I enjoyed were the ones I was best at and the ones I was best at became the ones I did when I left school and so on and so forth to the stage where I think I’d really like to teach them to other people. And I noticed a trend as well, while I was thinking. The subjects I enjoyed where the ones where I enjoyed being taught them. And I know that the lessons where I just learned things by rote in the way you advocate are not ones I remember anything from.
How many of your lessons in school do you remember? – as in actually remember the content, not just the attractive person you had a crush on looking as if they were bathed in some kind of ethereal light that rendered everything else dull and grey by comparison, rendering the information on the board to blurry squiggles and the teacher’s voice to a muted brass instrument like in the Charlie Brown cartoons. (If you’re wondering how I know all this, we’ve all been there. All of us.) Because I don’t remember a lot of them and, like I say, I was a *total* nerd. But I got bored, daydreamed, wrote jokes in the margins of my notes because, hey, I’m only human. But the ones I do remember are the ones that I’ve carried with me all my life, and the information comes with that.
I know how a mummy is wrapped because Miss Gutteridge made us mummify a doll in Year 3 (I got to take the brain out through the nose). In our first history lesson in Year 7, we learned about the Norman invasion of Britain in 1066 by re-enacting the Battle of Hastings on the bank on the school field (we swapped countries and did it again so we all got turns to show off our theatrical deaths!) The only column of the Periodic Table of the Elements I actually remember properly is the first on the left, because that’s the lesson in which my Science teacher Mr Ross put Lithium, Sodium and Potassium in water and we watched their various forms of combustion (do you remember this one? Lithium fizzes and whizzes round the tub, Sodium bursts into flame, and Potassium does too only the flame is the most amazing pinky-purple colour). I only got a B in Maths GCSE because my teacher saw me struggling and gave me a book called the Number devil (I really recommend it). And in A-Level English Language I learned that a semi-colon should not be used causally using the sample sentences “The Queen was on television. I masturbated furiously.” (I now use this in my stand-up as an act out to a joke…. sorry Guy.)
My point is I only really remember these things because they were taught in ways that made them memorable. And I know that not everything can be taught like this, but the more we can engage people with learning the better it will be.
I spoke to my Smallest Sister about her favourite subjects – History and Astronomy (take that art/science divide!!) and the more I spoke to her about them the more I see that these things are still in place. She doesn’t seem to take in things that don’t interest her, and it’s very lucky that she’s interested in so many different things. She told me all about Howard Carter’s discovery of Tutankhamen and it’s horrendously detailed – I found out that she remembers it so well because they learned it in lots of different creative ways. And the same for Astronomy – the things she knows about the planets and stars (especially Saturn) are the things she reads in books and then, instead of just sitting there with the information and writing it out, she goes and tells people about it, comes up with ideas, asks questions and tries to find the answers (such as how we could send a probe to Saturn without it melting in the atmosphere… we’re still working on that problem. I think if NASA is having trouble with it we’re not going to get too far.) She draws and creates and looks through telescopes and discovers.
I spoke to my brother about books. He’s dyslexic and doesn’t like to read. But he does like stories and games and videos and things he can interact with. He listens to audiobooks, but he’d much rather be told a story so that he can ask questions and probe deeper. He learns by asking questions and having conversations and doing things, and in these ways he learns so seamlessly and well you find yourself amazed by his knowledge.
I spoke to one of my other sisters about her A Level choices. She agonised over them for ages, months, and went to everyone for advice, everyone saying something a little bit different, usually saying the words “Oh you don’t want to take *that*”. In the end, after a bit of trial and error, she finally went back to the choices she had thought about in the first place, the things she wanted to do, thinking not about where she could go with them, but where studying something you actually want to can take you. And though she’s only two weeks in, she’s happy. And that means that even with the stress of study she won’t spend two years of her life abjectly miserable doing things she hates. Because that’s what life should be, trying to minimise the amount of time you spend miserable in the things you do.
I speak to my mum about science. A lot. And the more she talks about it the more I realise that even before she did her degree she was always a scientist, and always will be, no matter what she goes on to do. Her subject and her passion is like a talisman she carries with her through life so she will never be bored and she will never be unhappy. I also spoke to her about my masters choice, and my fears of joblessness and my experience of everyone telling me to go and do something else (law conversion course, business masters, find a trade &c. &c.). She told me she was about to ask me the most important question of my life and I braced myself.
“Will this course make you happy?”
I thought hard.
“Yes. Yes, it really will.”
“Then fuck the lot of them and do what you love.”
And I think, overall, “Fuck the lot of them and do what you love” would be a good motto for education. Maybe consider it for the department… though maybe translate it into Latin or something, first. And the best question to ask at any stage of the process? “Are people enjoying education?”
Because I don’t want to have my life, or anyone else’s, ruled by decisions that are defended using the phrase “Well it never did me any harm!” Because it doesn’t really suggest that it did you any good, either, does it?
Yours enjoying every second of the decision she’s made,