In New Zealand we are having an on-going debate over the relative value and importance of reading, writing and arithmetic. There are plenty of professional educational "experts" who argue that while these subject areas are acceptable, there are plenty of other subjects. Pupils are wired differently. They ought not to be forced into a one-size-fits-all pedagogical box.
On the other side are plenty of people operating in the "real world" who know that if you cannot read, cannot write, and cannot do arithmetic you cannot function effectively. These subjects are the foundational sub-stratum of all other learning.
A similar debate is taking place in the UK. Graham Archer, writing in The Telegraph tells us his own story of school.
When did the education system decide that literacy and numeracy don’t matter?
Education Secretary Michael Gove should not be vilified for trying to turn round 'bog-standard' state schools7:55PM BST 26 Oct 2012If I were to join the current fashion, begun this week by Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, of writing a letter to my teachers, it occurred to me that it would be neither an apology for bad behaviour (I was horribly well-behaved) nor a catalogue of the school’s defects (in the style of the TV presenter Fiona Phillips, who turned up to her old school’s relaunch and lambasted both her own behaviour as well as the quality of the education on offer there.Any message I wrote to the three teachers who stand out in my mind would be embarrassingly close to a love letter. Best avoid an epistolary form, then.Miss Campbell taught me maths nearly continuously through secondary school. The light that comes on in my head at the link between algebraic formulae to be “solved”, and the geometrical interpretation of which those formulae are capable: all that is her doing. Everything in my professional life – the non-Telegraph bit of it – is down to the groundwork she taught me.Mrs Houston taught me English for only one year, but her influence may well have affected my life even more deeply than the discovery of that facility with numbers. Through gentle but relentless critique of our compositions, she showed us that writing is an exercise at which it is possible to improve, a discipline with its own rules (but unlike mathematical ones, those rules should sometimes be broken).
. . . the reason so many newcomers to Britain secure jobs in service industries, ahead of indigenous applicants, is that they can speak English properly and add up in their heads
The fact that when I’m not being a statistician, I’m writing for The Daily Telegraph (and my columns often worry, imprecisely, about Iris Murdoch and her novels): that started with Mrs Houston’s golden year.
But neither of them could have taught me anything, had Miss McKnight not come first. The teaching of the final year of a primary school is a special responsibility: it is the last chance to perfect anything missing, to prepare the children (I was 10) for secondary education. Miss McKnight used methods of which I doubt the NUT would approve: our ranking in the classroom was determined on a weekly basis, according to our performance in the tests of grammar and mental arithmetic which she insisted her class (huge, by today’s standards) perform.
Easy to dismiss such exercises as pointless: who needs to do mental arithmetic, when the iPhone’s got a calculator? What’s the point of being able to identify the subordinate clause in a sentence, in the age of txt spk?
Easy to dismiss them, until you reflect on the changes in teaching and society that have occurred since Miss McKnight had to put up with me. The Department for Education has declared that the standards of the literacy and numeracy tests which new teachers are required to sit will be raised. Why? Because a fifth of trainees fail at least one test in their first sitting. (Sample literacy question: choose the correct spelling of “anxiety” from a list including “anxsiety”, “angxiety” and “anxciety”. The numeracy tests involve simple multiplications, which can be carried out with a calculator.)
Miss McKnight wouldn’t tolerate 10- year-olds failing such tests (and would never have permitted a calculator). Yet some time between the early 1980s and now, we decided as a society that these skills didn’t matter. Education for the non-wealthy didn’t have to be rigorous: what could one expect from those schools famously described by Alastair Campbell as “bog standard”?
Meanwhile the privileged elite continued to pay so that their children could at the very least speak and write correctly, and reason numerically. It is this apartheid which Michael Gove is trying to overturn. Like Miss McKnight, he’s focusing on the basics.
Elaboration of cause and effect is a difficult exercise, but here’s one that I’d bet is true. One reason that so many newcomers to Britain secure jobs in service industries, ahead of indigenous applicants, is that they can speak English properly and add up in their heads.
I used to wonder why the written skills of the young people I met were so poor compared with those of my generation: even bright graduates sometimes struggle with proper sentences. Learning about the declining standards in teacher training, I’m less surprised. I believe there’s a link between failures at these basics, and what David Laws correctly describes as the failure of ambition for life after school.
I still have the letter Miss McKnight sent me on my graduation, nine years after leaving her school: “You are a credit to Argyle Primary,” she wrote. For once, she was wrong: I’m a credit to Miss McKnight, to Miss Campbell, and to Mrs Houston, to the vocation to which they dedicated their lives, to the education whose rigour and depth it would never have occurred to any of them to weaken, or make less aspirational because it took place in the confines of a “bog standard” state school. Ability is randomly determined: the impact of a good teacher on everything else that follows is not.