A Life of Tests Is No Preparation for the Tests of Life

17/09/2012 22:59 BST | Updated 17/11/2012 10:12 GMT

I worry when those who have huge power over education seem unable to master the simplest lessons of history. Where have we gone so wrong when Michael Gove acknowledges only two kinds of education - traditional (good) and progressive (bad) - and insists on turning the clock back to a form of testing that while having some benefits (rigour, an ability to discriminate amongst the 'brightest' ) self-evidently entails severe costs? Not least among these costs is the long-tail of demoralised underachievers - or NEETS ('not in education, not in employment') who learn, at school, no less, that learning is not for them, and over whom we have wrung our hands for more than a century.

Education policy has swung back and forth, with a roughly 25-year cycle, like a giant pendulum. Some governments, usually left-leaning, worry about those not suited by birth to the rational, articulate culture of school, and then devise tests and curricula that respect their difference and encourage them to find alternative ways of succeeding. Others, typically right-leaning, bemoan the corollary failure of such systems to 'stretch and differentiate the brightest' (seen, without question, as 'the best'), and reassert the supremacy of 'hard', abstract subjects, like maths and latin, and the necessity of highly stressful terminal (sic) testing. We've had Ding for too long; now we need to go back to some rigorous Dong. Too much bleeding-heart Judy; now for some hard-nosed Punch.

Has the present administration learned nothing from radical shifts over the past 30 years in our understanding of the mind and of learning? The Secretary of State is evidently too busy dictating 'hard truths' and 'grasping long-overdue nettles' (a nice example of a metonymy, for those grammarians who think we all need to care about such things) to keep up to date with crucial research that happens not to fit his picture of the world.

It is simply not true, Michael, that nearly half of all young people are born with pots of intelligence (or 'ability') too small for them to be able to benefit from the eternal verities and challenges of latin subjunctives and differential calculus; not true that those who have O-levels in maths or latin think any better, in the wine bar or the boardroom, than the rest of us. And not true that education has to have lots of 'losers' at the examination game, if there are to be discernible winners.

Even Lord Baker, architect of the National Curriculum, and no socialist himself, is now pleading with Gove to understand that learning and working with your hands is not a second-rate way to be, fit only for the 'less able', but an honourable and intricate form of intelligence that deserves to be assessed in its own terms.

There has to be a kernel, or better still a heart, to education that allows everyone, vocational as well as academic, to feel that those long years inside its institutions represents time well spent. There has to be a way for a 16-year-old, leaving school with two Ds at GCSE, to be able to put her hand on her heart and say 'They gave me a damn good education'. That does not mean, pace Melanie Phillips, that 'all must have prizes'. It means there are more ways of living a worthwhile life than the scholarly one, and more ways of being intelligent than being able to win arguments, like lawyers and politicians. Schools need to honour the delicate, hard-won skills of craftsmen and athletes, chefs and mechanics, alongside those of mathematicians and writers. They need to be able to show what they can do, and not just pontificate about it.

But there are no ears so deaf as those of the ideologues, for they themselves are failures of the education system, no matter what their job title. And so the squeaky, wrought-iron pendulum must keep on swinging - certificating some young people, and demoralising others, as it goes...

Guy Claxton's essay 'The Virtues of Uncertainy' is published now (17/9/12) by Aeon Magazine: