General Assembly could not have arrived into the UK at a more fortuitous time, writes Jeremy Wilson.
On the morning of 2 May 1997, my dad made me my habitual cup of sugared, milky tea. He then broke some news that left me devastated: Labour had won the General Election by a landslide.
It wasn’t a premonition of the decrepit economy that my generation was now doomed to graduate into that almost brought me to tears – I was, after all, only nine. No, the reason for my distress was that Labour had vowed to scrap the “elitist” Assisted Places Scheme, which provided free or subsidised places at private schools for bright pupils who could not otherwise afford to go. Anthony C. L. Blair had thrown a spanner into my life plan, condemning me to another 11 years of state education.
Calling it “education” is perhaps too generous. My time at school was like attendance at a sick anatomical theatre demonstration, in which I was trapped, watching my generation as it was sacrificed on the altar of egalitarianism. I looked on, aghast, as teachers dimly drilled into us the doctrine of “child-centred learning” and dutifully doled out dumbed-down exam passing advice.
Giving all pupils an equal chance of passing a worthless test made us all equally qualified to be ripped to shreds in the unequal real world; a real world that, incidentally, the teachers themselves wouldn’t have a chance in, because… well, they’d ended up as teachers.
The New Labour machine wanted all pupils to attain the same standards and by its own measurements its tractor production figures were very good. Exam pass rates haven’t stopped increasing – the result of turning schools into bureaucratic exam factories and allowing exam boards to compete for business on the basis of their pass rates, driving down standards and the quality of learning.
Life has been all but choked out of teaching anything but the National Curriculum. Stretching pupils is seen as unnecessary and plays second fiddle to herding borderlines over the magic C-grade line. The curriculum doesn’t just dictate what to teach, but also how to teach it.
The few good teachers who actually chose their profession find themselves yoked to the same conveyor belt, as they are only judged by their production figures. It takes strong leadership for a school to avert its gaze from the Stakhanovite leaderboard and allow its staff to teach pupils as they see fit. Such leadership rarely exists.
The tragic reality is that anything resembling a rigorous liberal arts education has been eradicated from British state schools – and universities, too. Low expectations have become dogma, teachers have forgotten that some kids are capable of being academically stretched and actually want to learn. Schools have become non-competitive arenas, which pretend all pupils are the same.
Ineffective teaching has become institutionalised. It continues unchallenged. One of the worst offenders is modern languages: basic grammar, structure and vocabulary have been abased in favour of “communicative learning”, a naïve approach that has made us an international laughing stock.
If it weren’t for a legacy of colonising half the world we’d already be fucked in international business, so useless are the pupils we churn out when it comes to information economy skills. Children leaving school and even graduates leaving university can barely read, write or add up properly, let alone manipulate complex data sets or perform any of the other feats of intellectual gymnastics required of the workforce in the digital age.
As a result, tragically, my generation has become the NEETs: not in education, employment, or training. Government investment in apprenticeships and vocational qualifications have their place, but won’t make more than a dent in the million unemployed 16 to 24 year olds.
Fortunately, there is a proportion of bright young people in that statistic who, in spite of their education, want to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and become entrepreneurs, or work in one of the digital businesses of the future. Thus, a market is opening up to provide the skills they need. It is into this space that General Assembly has just launched its London campus.
What a blessed relief for those of my generation, desperate to learn but so bitterly let down by the state education system.
Technology education in particular under the National Curriculum has been hopeless. (Accusations that the widely promoted GNVQ in ICT is nothing more than a glorified secretarial course are exaggerated. As an alumni of the course, I can report that there is a hardware test. I had to diagnose a fault with a computer. It had been unplugged.)
General Assembly’s classes in business and technology are therefore extremely timely. It is too early to assess their success in meeting market needs, but anything that provides ammunition for doe-eyed youths to compete in a globalised digital economy cannot be welcomed warmly enough.
The campus’s ambition to provide a competitive advantage to those joining the workforce is refreshing. It demonstrates how the private sector can respond where the state has failed. I hope General Assembly choose to rapidly expand throughout the UK, and not just to other European cities. The need is great.