Simon Jenkins done a thought burp

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Simon Jenkins is a Guardian columnist and a former teacher. You may therefore expect him to have insightful comments to make about England’s education system.

Not so.

Instead, he has written a polemic seemingly based upon what a primary school child and a few teacher friends told him, and laced it with half-remembered facts.

Jenkins has ‘never seen the point of exams’. As a Guardian journalist, he should probably be more aware of the social justice argument that supports the use of exams. Yes, they are an imperfect measure, but the alternatives are worse. Without exams, entrance to university and careers would be based even more on privilege and connections, and on the ability to hire the right person to help you put your portfolio together.

Jenkins has a particular dislike of maths, taking a purely functional view of its value and suggesting that the only reason that the education system focuses on maths attainment is because it is easy to measure.


Writing is probably the hardest academic outcome to measure and yet we also focus a lot on that, so this claim simply makes no sense.

When Jenkins writes of, ‘All the maths a normal grown-up needs,’ I want to ask him: What is all the history a normal grown-up needs? What is all the literature a normal grown-up needs? What is all the music a normal grown-up needs?

Maths suffers from the misconception that it is just a tool for calculating change at the supermarket, a misconception that is perhaps promoted by well-meaning primary school teachers trying to motivate their students, but maths is of value in its own right. Its mundane uses are hardly the point. Jenkins may as well ask why we get children to write stories when adults don’t need to do that.

Unless, perhaps, you become a Guardian journalist and need to tell the story of the poor primary school child who ‘can handle counting and proportion, but he cannot access the world of complex numbers and algebra.’


The new English curriculum sounds amazing. I admire the primary school child in question because proportion is probably one of the most difficult concepts to learn. And in Australia, some primary school children might just touch on a little algebra, but complex numbers is a topic reserved only for Year 11 and 12 students studying the highest, most specialised level of mathematics. Are English primary schools teaching calculus, too? Where are they getting the teachers from?

Finally, Jenkins ends with a slur on South Korea:

“Britain is on its way to the purgatory of South Korea, where secondary-school children are made to cram for 14 hours a day to get into university, with suicidal consequences.”

Given the many factors that affect a country’s suicide rate, responsible journalism should avoid assigning it to a single cause such as the education system. There is something deeply unpleasant about reaching for such an argument.

When I last looked into it, the most recent data I could find was from the OECD. The youth suicide rate in South Korea is high, but it is higher in Finland and higher still in New Zealand. Is this also caused by their education systems, because these countries are not known for their focus on exams?

Jenkins hints that schools should focus more on creativity, life-skills and self esteem, but they don’t because these are hard to measure. Well, quite. They are hard to measure for the same reason that they are hard to teach: they are vague, nebulous concepts.

I do not believe that the goal of social progress will be served by educating an illiterate and innumerate generation that is high in self-esteem and creativity. If anything, that sounds like a recipe for entrenching the privilege of those who can afford to opt for a proper academic education, either by going private or employing tutors.

Jenkins should have a little think about that.


7 thoughts on “Simon Jenkins done a thought burp

  1. South Korean schools don’t enforce 14 hour days. That would be the parents. Their official school day isn’t that different from the West’s.

    I suspect our journalist is so mathematically challenged that he thinks complex numbers are difficult ones, like repeating decimals.

    The next time he crosses a bridge he should ask himself — would I rather this be built with Maths or creativity?

  2. Hmm. I think you’ll find that those ‘proper’ educations still make plenty of time for nebulous concepts like art, music, drama and more…

  3. I would not call art, music and drama nebulous subjects. They are all subjects with a strong knowledge base which can be taught. The only people who think they are nebulous are those who think art is getting messy with paint, music is about using instruments without knowledge of notation or genre, but just fun to do (which it is), and that classical music is irrelevant to all ordinary children; also that drama is only about improvisation. Unfortunately, some of the people who think this teach art, music and drama (not all, obviously)..
    I was taught art and music at school, a long time ago. In art I was taught how to prepare a canvas for oil painting, how to paint in oils and mix colours. I learnt some anatomy, and a lot about perspective, also how to water colour, how to make pencil drawings, draw with pastel,and use line and wash (with still life, landscape and figure for all these). I had a grounding in European and world art, and was expected to draw from life. In music I learnt notation, to play a basic instrument (recorder) sing classical and folk songs (school also had a choir – I was not good enough to join), with a study of classical music. Drama was taught in English, where we read plays, peformed from them, and did dramatic readings, as well as discussing them, writing them occasionally, and seeing both amateur (Questors, Ealing) and professional (Stratford, London) producations. All of this in a secondary modern school btw (I learned French, too). None of this was at all nebulous, and I suspect that places that do ‘proper’ education teach art, music and drama in much the same way.

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