Students rioting to preserve middle class puberty rites, not world class education

I am torn between guilt and reason by the debate over student fees. I was the first generation of my family to go away to University but not the first to go to University. My father and grandfather took years of evenings and week-ends to acquire their degrees at Universities which no longer offer this option. Meanwhile my mother’s family could not afford to let her or her elder brother take up the scholarships they won. I am married into a Scots family which is fanatical about education and self-improvement as a duty, and the first call on the family finances, not just a privilege to be paid for by others. But thirty years ago, in a paper on “Training for Multi-Career Lives” I argued that the our educational priorities had to change.

“We can no longer afford to spend one or two decades of detailed preparation for a single life-long career progression. Instead we should aim, like our ancestors, to impart those basic skills almost certain to be in continuous demand and to build a system capable of responding rapidly to change, and disseminating new skills to any age group when necessary.”

The late Donald Michie had asked me to write a paper on the implications for education of a world in which we would have not only global on-line communications but also ubiquitous “intelligent systems”, for a conference he was organising for the UK technical press.

My basic argument was that “The possession of book-learning or logical reasoning ability will lose status just as literacy did when everyone could read and write. The human touches of sympathy and creativity will be the hallmark of the high status job … It removes the main justification for the examination treadmill to which we chain our adolescent youth in a set of puberty rites crueler than those of primitive Africa. At least in Africa they do not label any of the participants as failures!”

My “fee” was five days of mind blowing discussion for my wife and myself, hosted by Sperry, at St Paul-de-Vence, with speakers like Ed Feigenbaum, Walter Bodmer and Sir Ieuan Maddock, a great selection of sci-fi films and arguments round the pool and late into the night with a couple of dozen well informed and interested journalists.

At the end I was given a cartoon of myself as the candyman giving a stick of rock (alias smoking dynamite) to a child. In answer to a question I had said that my objective in proposing the Micros in Schools programme had been to destabilise the system, by giving kids access to technology in a way that would make change inevitable.

The success was temporary. Computing in Schools was subsequently turned into “IT” and made as boring as other subjects where the teachers lack understanding or enthusiasm and are going through the motions.

In my paper I described the skills and possible jobs of the future but the key point was that we would change career several terms. That would mean we needed to shift resources away from the 14 – 21 examination treadmill and shipping students round the country for three years, to investing in on-line life-long learning networks (albeit with residential modules).

We can now see that happening around the world. But the UK is lagging because the final sentence of my paper was all too prescient.

“… throwing money at the system will probably serve to delay those changes, while financial crisis and constructive publicity for the alternatives may well help to promote them.”

Now the money has run out and change will come with a sudden painful jolt, beaten forward with stick rather than phased over time, led with carrots.

The original paper was contained in “Intelligent Systems: the unprecedented opportunity”, edited by Jean Hayes and Donald Michie, published by Ellis Horwood, 1983, ISBN 0-85312-646-1 . A revised version, with political recommendations was published by the Bow Group as “Learning for Change”. The latter sold out after a truly vitriolic review by a well-known academic who greatly resented the suggestion that teaching be regarded as a natural second or third career for those who had experience of the world of work and/or brought up children of their own. Neither version is currently available on-line but if anyone would like to put it on a website – even if only to take pot shots – I will scan my only copy and send it to them.

[P.S. December 20th Thank you to Ian Brown who has now put it on-line for me]