Helping the elite to shine

17:00, Jul 11 2012

I was never dux of any school, but I wouldn't have minded. And right there is something that baffles me about our struggling education system.

Primary schools I've known have praised children lavishly for being "good helpers" or "making good progress"  but never handed out accolades for academic achievement. The child who excelled at maths passed unnoticed by their peers; the child who produced outstanding art at home would be delegated to a group project where no individual could shine, and lost interest.

A teacher once told me that all children are talented, and right there is where we have a problem with the teaching philosophy in state schools. "We are all equal" is a lie. We are all different, and some of us are cleverer than others. Anyone who works with kids year in, year out and sees them as an amorphous blob of sameness should be doing something more amusing with their life and get out of teaching. They're stifling real talent, the kind we need and that few people have, which is why there are groups of parents with gifted children demanding that they be noticed in the school system.

We are not all bright, good-looking, talented, or able to do handstands. However, there will always be an elite  spare us the wicked thought  that can do all of these things, and if this attitude in teaching prevails those students will continue to come from the homes of parents who are also high achievers and who will be the only real motivators of their children.

In other words, what set out to be a policy with the aim of organising some sort of nebulous equality will do the opposite: it will foster and fast-track an elite social class with all the money, and the best jobs. That's why people send their children to private schools, if they can afford it, and why state school teachers are furious that they do.

And it's this attitude, surely, that has led to secondary school students dropping hard subjects like science and maths, as they tell us now, and opting for easy options like fishing, life skills and hospitality. Why would you do the hard stuff and get average marks if you could do the lazy ones and do well? Bright kids work that one out pretty fast  and limit their future options.

We know that the consequence of this easy way out will be a future of young people skilled at hobby subjects but hopeless at problem solving. Yet we persist. I can't do maths, physics or chemistry, either, which is no great reflection on me or the school system of my time, and so the Higgs boson story, a matter of huge significance apparently, passes me by. The brightest kids up the front of the class enjoyed those subjects while the rest of us passed notes, or fell asleep.

Years later I realised that physics explained how things worked in the world, and finally got why people bothered with it.

I am grateful for the old school system, which wasn't perfect either, but at least streamed us into classes with others of similar ability. We had people to truly compete with, and classes could be challenging. I didn't come from an elite background, but being placed in the same stream as people who did gave me nearly enough confidence to take full advantage of it.

Much was expected of top streams, which was not a bad thing in itself. It should apply to all streams and all classes, actually, and where there are cultural differences to take into account there should be appropriate ways of teaching so every kid gets a chance to do well. But they don't, as education statistics for Maori and Pacific children tell us, decade after decade, year after year.

What with the many under-educated Maori and Pasifika kids, who soon enough feel like failures because they understand reality all too well, and a rapid decline in the number of kids studying maths, calculus, physics and chemistry, our doctors and scientists of the future will all have to be foreigners.

Our grandchildren will be washing their knickers and carrying out their rubbish for a living.

And presumably that'll be OK with many educators because, hey  they'll all be equal.


The Dominion Post