David Blackburn

For all his faults, Gradgrind was right

For all his faults, Gradgrind was right
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The next time your four year old nephew smears chocolate over your trousers you are to congratulate him. According to government guidance, soon to be issued to nurseries by Dawn Primarolo, the glibly smirking illiterate would have been writing.  Yesterday’s Independent reported that in response to evidence that the gender gap between children under the age of five has widened in writing, problem-solving and personal development, the government believe that boys should work harder.  This seemingly impossible task will be eased by ‘making learning fun’: boys will be allowed to graffiti any given surface with chocolate and coloured sand.


What a way to begin the new decade: by creating a mass of juvenile Banksies. Concern should be voiced about the widening gulf in educational attainment, over which successive governments have presided. But no answer resides in coercion through chocolate? My four year old nephew expresses himself with chocolate, usually to indicate his distaste for upholstery, but he has no interest in expressing himself on paper with ink, chocolate or anything else. He is not alone. Child-development academics note that boys do not develop the co-ordinated motor skills required for writing until they are six or seven. Testing their writing skills until then is unnecessary and it requires the curriculum to be geared to a test that does not suit boys’ educational needs or abilities; yet the government continues to impose writing targets on five year olds. The new guidance simply perpetuates these mistakes.

Two conceits underpin Primarolo’s guidance. One, that government tests can alter the course of nature and print a league table to enshrine that evolution. And two, a one size fits all softly-softly approach to education can benefit boys as much as it does more naturally inquisitive five year girls. Both abstractions fly in the face of facts. Emerging science suggests that reluctant and unresponsive boys are stimulated by rote-learning, improving their memories. The odious spectre of Gradgrind has returned, but this time with exclusively positive intent. Why not abandon assessments for boys in favour of the steady accumulation of knowledge, interest and understanding?   Education’s later stages will be a Conservative government’s chief concern, but the education a child receives before formally entering primary education must not be neglected.