A writer branded ‘unteachable’ as a child, and diagnosed as severely dyslexic aged 12, wins children’s literature’s most prestigious prize, the Carnegie medal. An Indian professor and TED prize-winner proposes an educational system that produces people who can ’think like children’. And the newly appointed Children’s Laureate calls for children to be read to daily in schools.
In the educational universe envisioned by Michael Gove, Sally Gardner, the Carnegie medal winner, would find herself being ‘tested into failure … depression and worthlessness’. Sugata Mitra, professor of educational technology at Newcastle University, would have to resign himself to a system whose ultimate aim is to produce mono-disciplinary academics of the kind famously described by Sir Ken Robinson as those whose only use for their bodies is to convey their heads to meetings. And the teachers that Malorie Blackman encourages to read stories to their pupils every day would be more likely to find themselves having to test five-year-olds on the meanings of those stories.
Gove’s universe sounds remarkably similar to the one I was educated in, which surely of itself makes his current plans retrograde. My education consisted of being tested and tested and tested again in three subjects, two of which, Latin and Greek, I found extremely difficult, and the third, Ancient History, merely dull (as it was taught to me, at any rate). I left school in 1967 with miserable exam results, rejected by Oxford.
Yet by the standard of the day I was extremely well educated. I could translate bits of Homer and Virgil, had acted in a Greek-language production of Euripides’ The Bacchae, and could write Latin verse (held to the metre by the revolting mnemonic: ‘down in a deep dark dell / sat an old sow chewing a beanstalk / out of her mouth came forth / yesterday’s dinner and tea’). In fairness, that education did give me an understanding of the roots of a large part of our English vocabulary, which of course is handy for a writer. But the thing I was actually good at, imaginative writing, was never even acknowledged.
Raw creativity, the power of a child’s imagination and ability to express itself, has always baffled our educationalists. They just don’t know how to harness it or value it. And when reactionary forces are in charge, as they are now, they fall back on rote learning and cramming to produce a set of skills which are almost wholly redundant in a world where a Google search can provide answers in seconds. A world where, it seems to me, the real visionaries are those who understand that creativity, cross-disciplinary thinking, collaborative problem-solving, intelligent use of the available technology – all those things children will do quite naturally if given the freedom – must be placed centre stage.
Professor Mitra won his $1m prize for putting a computer in a hole in the wall in a Delhi slum for children to use freely and without tuition. Sally Gardner’s prize-winning novel is about a dyslexic boy who stands up against a repressive regime. Malorie Blackman’s many young adult novels have allowed teenagers to think about the serious issues of society today in a far more penetrating way than any study of set texts or questions in an exam paper can ever promote.
I once heard a former Children’s Laureate, Michael Morpurgo, say: ‘The adults who really interest me are the ones who know that the child in them is their soul’. These adults are the ones who know that play and learning and reasoning and discovery are separated by the finest of lines, if at all. They are the ones that this Government’s approach to education is designed to strangle in the playground. And they are the ones we need if we’re really going to cope with a future that we cannot even imagine five years hence, let alone when today’s primary school children enter the adult world. My own education may just have been fit for purpose in the 1960s. It certainly wouldn’t be today.