Education: Back to Basics Again – Part II


In the first part of this post, I took the stance that education systems are all too often unfit for purpose because they do not meet the needs of their customers – the students. I also suggested that simple changes to the way that core subjects are taught or examined could be all that is needed to make a huge difference to a generation. Grand visions of scrapping one kind of exam and introducing another are pretty myopic, unless the basic failings of the previous system are addressed first. New school ‘models’ produce interesting results, usually in isolated examples, but are logistically and economically challenging to roll-out across a nation.

It is always the little things in life that really matter – get enough of those right and great things happen. So here are three little changes that could help to make great things happen in teaching three core skills:

Foreign language teaching

For the majority of students, the spoken word is pretty much all that they will ever need to know when it comes down to foreign languages. Whether used on holiday or in business, our primary method of communication is the spoken word. It helps to be able to read basic words and statements but you can get by with just oral communication in most scenarios. For the majority of students, this is what their foreign language education should deliver – a decent level of fluency and understanding of the spoken word in a second language.

We learn our own language by simply hearing and repeating. Our vocabulary expands as we identify objects and repeat the sound that goes with them. It is a little while before we start to look at the printed word that belongs to each object or sound and even longer before we start to understand the construction of the written word. In fact, you don’t even need to know the alphabet to be able to communicate orally effectively.

Learning a foreign language at school should be compulsory, if only to the extent that students are all able to speak a second language reasonably fluently. From the ages of 5 to 11 schools should focus on oral communication in a foreign language. From age 11-up a greater focus can be given to the written word but the primary aim should be that by age 14 a decent standard of fluency is achieved across the majority of students. It is debateable but if the spoken word comes to you more naturally, the written word becomes less intimidating.

The mysterious science of mathematics

The argument here is similar to that for foreign languages. Remember the curve of forgetting mentioned in Part I? Perhaps in no other subject does this curve help to perpetuate the mystery of mathematics. And perhaps further, in no other subject does this curve help to destroy the futures of young students leaving school.

When did you last use quadratic equations? Has understanding binary code ever helped you in your career? Has your boss ever asked you to use the formula E=MC2 to drum up new business? And when was the last time you failed your sales targets because you couldn’t remember that Pi = 3.142?

That might sound a little flippant but there is a point here. Few of us will ever need to know, for our entire adult lives, most of what is taught in the maths classroom. Shop-workers, call-centre managers, office administrators and (dare I say it) most language and classics professors do not need this level of mathematical comprehension. Failure to grasp mathematics at this level will, however, lead you to fail that all important end of school maths examination and result in employers considering you inept at numeracy – sorry, no office junior job for you because you failed to get a GCSE A-C in mathematics.

You don’t need a Master’s Degree in mathematics to work out that most jobs need only a pretty rudimentary understanding of the subject. So why not split the examination into two distinct exams (like we do with English language and literature)? The first examination should be every-day mathematics and indicate competence in the elements that most employers are looking for in their employees. The second examination should be for higher mathematics, which will be of more use to those looking for further academic study or work in more technical environments. Is it really that simple? Of course it is – that’s why politicians use expressions like ‘back to basics’ and ‘prioritising the three Rs’.

And finally….

English – our mother tongue. A few straightforward points need to be made here: (1) no set books – it really does turn students off. Encourage reading books but let students choose and review what they want to read; (2) no enforced learning of poetry by rote – this also turns students off. A little time spent comparing the work of classic and contemporary poets (if it is done well) will do more for the medium than rote learning and anyway, school is not about promoting poetry; (3) as with mathematics, what standard of English do most employers need of their staff? They probably don’t need them to be able to recite Gray’s ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’ (as beautiful as it is) – but they probably do want them to know where to put the apostrophe, how to spell ‘churchyard’ and how to use ‘Title Case Format’ when preparing a press notice.

We should not go back to ‘O’ levels, they are not right for the 21st century. We need curricular that deliver what students need and exams that clearly equate to the needs of employers. Learning is changing but if we get it wrong, again, more generations will be needlessly held back by meaningless examination grades.


About mikewpaice

Freelance writer and researcher.
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