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We live in a changing world – no shit, Sherlock!

September 17, 2011

Last year I had a meeting with the leader of the nursery school my youngest boy was attending. The school is a small cheerful place and the attendants are lovely, and meetings  like these were a chance to hear how your wee one is progressing; all pretty informal, so not something to dread. That was until my last visit when I was assured that at 3 – 4 years old, all children at the nursery school were developing the skills they would need for careers in the future.

Let me just reiterate that incase you missed it. Some policy-wonk thinks it a good idea to encourage skills for working life among nursery school children.

I knew that the previous Labour administration had floated the idea that primary school children as young as 6 should be encouraged to think about future employment prospects. And I had, of coursed, advised my first-born (who was at that time five years old) that should anybody ask him what career he had in mind for the future, he should say without hesitation that he wanted to be a Jedi Knight.

In my own line of work as a university lecturer I am encouraged to embed ‘employability’ into my teaching, but Jesus, I never imagined for one moment that there were such sick, twisted, fucks out there who’d force such nonsense upon infants.

I stood in that once lovely nursery, looking forlornly at the building blocks and sand-pit, now stripped of their childish innocence, signifying only the ugly machinations of an adult world that can conceive of kids as nothing more than little economic units to be pressed into production. Fuck, I was depressed.

Then I looked at the children gathered around the dressing up box, putting on little costumes – miniature police and nurses’ uniforms, Bob the Builder and Fireman Sam costumes – and I noticed my own child dressed as a bear. Bollocks!

Happily he has survived nursery school and last month started the local primary. New uniform, all spick ‘n’ span. Lovely. Until we received a booklet all about the curriculum. It’s the sort of literature that government departments produce that are meant to reassure you that they have everything under control and everyone’s best interests at heart. In this instance it struck fear in me. On the opening page I learned that: “We live in a changing world. Our children will have more career choices than we did. To succeed, our children need to be able to respond to change and apply their knowledge and skills in a range of situations.”

Behind the bland gov-speak lies a message: our children are the equivalent of cannon fodder for the economy.

It’s when governments and institutions feel the need to state the blindingly obvious that I worry – ‘We live in a changing world.’ You’d be worried if we didn’t. You’d think there was something up if history stopped and everything stayed just as it was. I’m sure our parents and their parents (our grandparents, in case you’re struggling with that) knew that the world changed, moved on, kept rolling round the sun. So when some government pamphlet feels the need to mention it I know that I’m being softened up for something. And so I am. The message is that my child (and your child) need to malleable little pawns or face social oblivion.

When I first encountered this sort of horse-shit at university in the guise of ‘employability’ I was, quite frankly, confused. Employability? Had universities been producing unemployable people for decades and we’d only found out now? Were there masses of graduates without an inkling of how to get work. Of course not. Employability isn’t really about helping people get jobs it’s about instructing them in the ways of a new economic order where they need to internalise notions of flexibility and precariousness. It’s about producing a subjectivity that doesn’t expect security and welfare – a person who can embrace their own alienation.




So as the youngest paddled off into his classroom for the first time, I had rather mixed feelings. The first day of school is always a landmark occasion: a right of passage, if you like. But I also felt like I was feeding him into a machine that doesn’t appreciate or care for his humanity just his utility.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. Charlieman permalink
    September 17, 2011 6:13 pm

    More importantly, how many of the 69 targets for nursery school education did your son attain? Did he prepare himself for admission to formal schooling?

    You might appreciate this blog piece:

  2. Rab permalink*
    September 18, 2011 8:21 am

    Hi Charlieman,
    Read the piece at Liberal England. I hadn’t been aware of the 69 targets but it explains why before my youngest left nursery school I had a meeting with his teacher when we went through a huge list of ‘attainments’ that had, or had not been achieved.

    My own ambitions for the wee boy were more modest and my expectations of the nursery school less demanding. Keep him safe for a few hours each day and introduce him to other children.

    I have to confess, I’m really pissed off with schools, the education industries and industrialisation of education. I’m going to slag off homework in a post sometime soon…

  3. September 19, 2011 12:20 pm

    Homework? Re:up – it’s all in the Game, as Omar Little would say if he was somehow transported to a UK school in this day and age.

    On the one hand, you have the following homework recommendation from the Government:
    ” Years 1 and 2: one hour per week
    Years 3 and 4: 1.5 hours per week
    Years 5 and 6: 30 minutes per day…
    Years 7 and 8: 45 to 90 minutes per day
    Year 9: one to two hours per day
    Years 10 and 11: 1.5 to 2.5 hours per day”

    On the other, there is a thriving teenage industry in Getting Some Other Bugger to do it for you. hence this, and hundreds of other Facebook groups of similar ilk. (& unlike universities, schools can’t afford plagiarism software.).

    Also, almost all parents of secondary school kids will , in extremis, actually do their kids homework for them, at least in the first couple of years in secondary school becasue the volume of it is such a shock to the little darlings.

    Some parents will do it without there being any question of extremis – this is especially true of the socially aspirational who seem, unfortunately, to have raised children who give no sign of being as aspirational bright as them.

    So, ywar, Homework – it’s all in the Game…..

  4. Dr. Disco permalink
    September 20, 2011 12:00 pm

    Perhaps a little off point here but how come, with all that work, the buggers are still totally illiterate when they get to uni?

  5. backwatersman permalink
    September 20, 2011 9:53 pm

    I think you have got this one absolutely right. My feeling (to exaggerate slightly) is that it’s impossible simultaneously to educate a child (in any way that’s meaningful to me) and make them “employable”. The best way to prepare a child for success in the world of work would probably be to make them too stupid to see through the inanities they’ll be required to spout, or too unscrupulous to care.

  6. Rab permalink*
    September 21, 2011 10:43 am

    Charlie, Dr. D and Backwaters,

    Charlie, those figures are shocking. I couldn’t believe it, so I checked it myself and those are government recommendations for homework. Shocking.

    Dr. D, indeed, why, oh why (shakes head solemnly, Daily Mail-reader style

    Backwaters, I’ve put this sentence up in my office:

    ‘The best way to prepare a child for success in the world of work would probably be to make them too stupid to see through the inanities they’ll be required to spout, or too unscrupulous to care.’

    Thanks for that.

  7. September 23, 2011 9:51 am

    There is one other logical outcome of this madness, one which very few people in education like to talk about. At a certain point if the kids are actually doing (or at least are actually procuring) all this homework it is supposed to be marked. As the children age, and do (or at least give in) more of this tsunami of homework, so the marking burden on teachers rises accordingly. So teachers might be said to have a structural incentive to find forms of homework which can be quickly and easily assessed.

    Secondary maths teachers have achieved nirvana on this front as it is now common practice to assign more or less all homework via My Maths, a web based homework system which does the marking for them and gives them diagnostic results of errors. Brilliant – trebles all round! (Well, trebles for everyone except the parents sitting beside the computer wondering if they can remember how to do quadratic equations, much less explain it to the kid who is supposed to be solving them…).

    Their colleagues in other subjects aren’t so lucky in general. So the lazier/more harassed/ cuter staff, or those with more challenging classes (delete to taste), may set homework which is more often ‘closed’, rather than open, or which doesn’t particularly stretch the kids and can be easily assessed. Or just ‘forget’ to set every other week’s homework. Or fail to mark it and thus not give feedback, leading to kids seeing the whole exercise as utterly pointless. Cue parental complaints (there is a large sub population of parents who believe all children should be doing homework all the time).

    It’s a kind of madness. It ain’t education anyway.

  8. wartimehousewife permalink
    September 30, 2011 12:43 am

    Boy the Younger, who is 8, was slightly worried that he hadn’t decided on a career yet. My advice was to approach everything he did with an open mind and a generous spirit as that would give him far more opportunities to find out what he really likes.

    Boy the Elder (14) has just moved from the state to the private sector and in less than three weeks his expectations have changed and he’s started to realise that he has more choices than he thought he had. Of, course I want him to get a decent job, but I’m more concerned that he is a decent person who is kind to his partner and makes a positive contribution to the world around him. I’ve also told him, in no uncetain terms, that whatever he choses as a job, he has to be able to make a living doing it or it’s just a hobby. I’ve seen too many people pursuing activities which do not and will not allow them to pay their bills and therein misery lies, both for them and for the poor buggers who end up fending off the bailiffs.

    And, for the record, I’m a big fan of properly targetted homework because it allows children, parents and teachers to ascertain whether a child has grasped a concept once they are outside the classroom. Also, as a parent, I like to keep abreast of what my sons are doing and to be able to show an interest in their schoolwork and it often prompts interesting discussions at home. I think it’s good practice in self discipline and planning which are necessary in all aspects of life.

    And I certainly would never do my children’s homework for them. Are there really parents who do that? BTE was given a detention this week for not doing his homework which is a bit of shock to him, because at his last school, in the event of homework being set at all, it was invariably marked by the child sitting next to you.

  9. Rab permalink*
    October 1, 2011 8:56 am

    I hate homework. I loath and detest it. Middle-Sized-Rab (8 years old) is a bright wee thing but I can see that sometimes he really resents doing homework after being in school from 9 – 3pm. Sometimes he is tired and distracted. He wants out to play with his mates. He has after-school activities that I’d rather he pursue. Sometimes he’s really good about it and does his homework as soon as he gets in from school. Then when Mrs Rab and I get in from work we check it. But this is when things can get fraught because if it needs correcting (which it often does) he doesn’t want to return to it. Cue tears, huffing & sulking.

    I sometimes think we should send the work in uncorrected. It’d be more representative of his work. But Mrs Rab or I are expected to sign it, which means that I end up feeling that I’m the one being assessed.

    I worry that we’ve somehow contrived to project all our adult fears and anxieties about the world into the schooling of children.

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