Richard Pierce

Richard Pierce – author, poet, painter

Education, Life, Politics

Raging against the machine of useless education

I know people think I’m an intellectual snob.

I know they think I use words that are too big for my mouth or even for the pages I write on.

And I know I am a school governor, though I write this note in my private capacity as a man who believes that education in this country has lost its way, totally and utterly, and thanks, in the main, to being politicised and not managed for the benefit of pupils, students or the future of this country (or the world, come to think of it).

Pupils are being asked to divest themselves of their critical faculties, to resign their right to learn, so that they can be coached to pass exams rather than to acquire knowledge. This is especially true in the humanities subjects, and, to a lesser degree in science. Not only that; the increasing modularisation of subjects (and exams) means that they lose the appetite to acquire knowledge, lose the hunger to read and absorb what they read.

It used to be that it was boys who didn’t read because of peer pressure. Now girls have caught that bug, too, because they’re not incentivised or empowered to read in order to form their own opinions. In exams, if the right buzzwords aren’t in the right place for examiners to be able to tick their user-friendly tick boxes, it’s a fail. What’s the point of reading round a subject if you can’t use the fruits of your own efforts, if you can’t use knowledge you’ve built up as a part of your extracurricular reading? Would you read an additional book if you weren’t allowed to bring those self-taught experiences and words into play in an exam?

Children are numbed to learning. The repetitiveness of the modules, the constant pressure of constant examinations, turns them into apathetic, bored and listless people. What they are asked to produce is devoid of aspiration. No longer is the achievement of intellectual excellence on the to-do list for schools. It’s about ticking boxes, not about setting an example, not about trying to be the best in mind and spirit. Ridiculous.

And before anyone thinks I’m attacking schools – I’m not. I’m criticising the system run by power-hungry, greedy politicians out of touch with reality (and politicians of any colour). Take education away from politicians. Have it run by people with no vested interests, with no elections to contest, who are measured only by the heights of intellectual achievement reached, who are judged by the results of proper exams, exams that can be failed, and that can’t be retaken.

In my usual style, I have, in the past, advocated that Maths and Science cease to be compulsory for any children over fourteen, but for a foreign language to be compulsory at least up to GCSE, if not to A Level. I still advocate that. I have been criticised for this approach. Why? If, in the eyes of those who disagree with me, it’s wrong to compel children to study a language up to GCSE, what’s right about forcing them to study at least two sciences and Maths up to GCSE? There’s a disconnect there.

Sciences and Maths are important, but only for those who want to do them, those who want to be doctors and scientists, accountants or economists. On the other hand, communication in more than one language, and the understanding of other cultures, is something that we all should possess. Just because we live on an island, just because we used to have an empire, doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t speak another language. Speaking more than one language is the path to world peace.

I know that people think I’m naive.

I know that people disagree when I say intellectuals are more important than scientists.

I know people disagree when I say the world needs more philosophers not more scientists.

The point is – I’m right, and they’re wrong.

Get notifications of new posts by email.

We don’t spam! Read our privacy policy for more info.


  1. James Hargrave

    11th May 2012 at 06:00

    This is an excellent piece Richard. I agree with you on the logic that insisting on a Language is no different to insisting on Maths and Science but I think you weaken your own argument by saying Maths and Science should be optional!

    I don't think children should be able to drop Science and Maths at 14 completely. Some Maths literacy is important in any walk of life as is a general understanding of Science.

    On the exams and how this approach affects children you are I think spot on. Exams (and a consequence school) has become a boring exercise in memorising tick-box quotes rather than getting into a subject, reading around it and really understanding it.

    I think this comes from what can only be described as an obsession to measure things. Even things that can't be measured.

    And I agree it is politicians of ALL parties to blame. I often say if I rules the world they wouldn't be allowed within a mile of any school.

    Reading the account of the two Michaels (Gove and WIlshaw) yesterday pandering to the worst of the right wing press and trying to interfere in schools to the extent of dictating policy on mobile phones just confirms this to me.

  2. Gill

    11th May 2012 at 06:49

    I agree. I teach French in a Special School. Most children will never learn more than a few words, but they can understand that there are Others in the worls – quite a challenge for those with little Theory of Mind. The JOY on their faces when they 'get' something (even if they forget it before the next lesson) is reward enough for me.

  3. richard pierce

    11th May 2012 at 18:06

    Thank you, James and Gill, for commenting. Re the 14-year-old watershed – don't you think children have should have enough of a literacy in Science and Maths by then? I don't think it necessarily weakens the argument, though I see what you mean. R

  4. tfcps

    13th May 2012 at 06:07

    Just to add a little about your comment on maths or science. As you know Richard, I am not a humanities person but appreciate the value of them. I tend towards the sciences but can't do maths for life or money. I do agree with you that foreign languages are a must until GCSE but not further but I do think, as James does, that maths and sciences need to be taught until GCSE too. Giving them up at 14 is too soon. Why? Even though my three hate maths I think a certain level is necessary for life and at 14 their brains are not developed enough to think in the abstract way that is necessary for maths. But by the time they are 16 it has developed a lot further and they can grasp some abstract ideas that they couldn't before thus maybe giving them the tools they need for life even if it only means that they know how to deal with mortgages, their own bank account and everyday things like that.
    my main point though is this:
    They all have no motivation. The teachers no longer seem able/ or don't want to motivate children.I have watched my own three go through school to A-level standard, I have coached many others in English up to various levels and what angers me and frustrates me most is not that they have to pass unnecessary, futile exams but their lack of motivation and joy. Watch a young baby or child and they are just screaming out to learn, they are so eager. We send them to school and beat this eagerness out of them. How come? I don't think you can blame it all on the system of exams, I think, and here I apologize to all the good teachers out there, it comes down to the teachers who are in the wrong job. I know some exceptional teachers but unfortunately they are in the minority. Most of them seem to be not interested at all in young people and use notes they used a thousand years ago or don't know how to deal with young people or are only interested in the benefits of the job of teaching. I have to add that I can only speak for the schools over here in Germany.
    So coming back to my original point: no Richard we need maths and sciences up to GCSE and it wouldn't be a problem if you motivated the kids to maintain maths and sciences up to that level with the right teachers and system. Yes Richard we need humanities and especially foreign languages up to GCSE to widen our children's horizon to realize there are others out there. But at the end of the day it is up to teachers and parents, with the help of the system, to motivate our children.

  5. Gill Barrett

    13th May 2012 at 15:51

    As a languages teacher I agree totally re children learning languages and the social and intellectual benefits this brings. The problem is indeed the exam system where pupils have been forced into a situation where they have to tick the boxes to get the grade rather than enjoy a subject just because you can. Some boxes are easier to tick than languages which causes a lack of motivation in pupils as they know it's going to be harder to get a good grade.

    To quote Garfield 'a language isn't foreign once you learn it'

  6. Anonymous

    4th June 2012 at 11:53

    A rare dissenting voice (but only partially! I agree with your basic sentiment that today's children are not encouraged to learn, I just disagree that it's solely the fault of the education system.)

    I've worked as an examination marker for GCSE English, and I can tell you that whilst there was guidance content for marking the answers (certain facts or insights we could safely mark as "correct", so that marking wasn't utterly subjective and erratic!) we had the discretion to award extra marks should the student came up with well-supported insights/interpretations that weren't on our lists of "user-friendly tick-boxes". So rest assured that exam markers are not robots, and prodigiously clever children are not being cast by the wayside because their earth-shatteringly original insights do not correlate to the "user-friendly tick boxes".

    You certainly are allowed to bring your own self-taught experiences into an examination (at least, this applies in an English exam). This year the major question was along the lines of "Describe someone you believe to be a hero, and explain which qualities you would define as heroic". (I'm paraphrasing; that was the gist.) Any student who's bothered to think about it can answer that pretty well. Even a student who's never given any thought to the subject, but who has some idea of what constitutes high standards, can do themselves justice. It's the ones who have no intellectual curiosity who leave that answer blank – and what can a teacher do to instill that intellectual curiosity, if there's no such impetus for learning in the student's own home?

    The child is moulded by its family, not by its teachers. A teacher, in a couple of hours of contact per week, cannot possibly reverse the effects of years of living in a home where education is held in contempt. (And of course the greatest tragedy is the growing number of children "in care": those poor children deprived of their family cannot be expected to care about intellectual pursuits when their basic needs for love and stability are not being met!) Add to this the fact that students no longer have any default respect for the teacher, and the way the mass media trumpets the message that anyone can be a millionaire footballer/millionaire pop star/millionaire's wife, whilst simultaneously the news tells us that clever graduates are struggling to get jobs, and even have to work for FREE(!) in order to "gain experience" whilst a privileged rich boy can become leader of this country despite never having held a real job in his life… With all this going on, is it any wonder that growing numbers of students don't see the point of the abstract pleasures of "learning"?

    I do agree with you that there's a problem: I just think the rot goes deeper than the exam system. Abolish exams altogether, and the crucial problems of underachievement and lack of focus in the younger generation would not go away.

Leave a Reply