Teaching misery in a world of marvels

IAN COLLINS Of all the whoppers in Tony Blair's farewell speech to the Labour conference, the biggest was the one about children being "better educated than ever".


Of all the whoppers in Tony Blair's farewell speech to the Labour conference, the biggest was the one about children being "better educated than ever". With minds narrowed by a system of constant testing - by GCSE exams with passes as low as 19pc and A-grades below 50pc, and a curriculum shallowed to make it more "relevant" and "accessible", youngsters are now clearly at a loss.

Battered by a blizzard of A* grades, they are being failed by a schooling regime designed to demonstrate its - rather than their - success. We are fast approaching the meaningless

101pc pass rate by which the Blairites will claim a world of perfect wisdom.

We know about the paucity of facts and contexts, and the prevalence - even among the growing legions of university students - of illiteracy, innumeracy and an inability to speak in sentences.

All of the above is so debilitating, but what's absolutely deadly is the ensuing lack of curiosity.

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True education - which actually can be gained by those with very little formal schooling - is liberating and subversive. It teaches you to look and think for yourself and not as others (Tessa, Tony, Tesco) might wish.

That's where it becomes truly democratic - not in the dumbing-down (that just leaves us all dumb).

On stage and radio, and now on the big screen, Alan Bennett's The History Boys has taken the world by storm.

Richard Griffiths - who may yet win the Oscar, alongside The Queen's Helen Mirren - represents a teacher of the old school which, in truth, was rather rare even in its heyday. He instils in his classes a love of knowledge - often irrelevant and inaccessible, it opens young minds to the wild and poetic wonders of the world.

Of course, Sir is a dangerous pervert.

He is ranged against a trendy cynic (and cheat) who teaches pupils how to pass exams regardless of knowledge ungained and truth jettisoned. This is a marketing campaign in which the novelty of the new is king, and packaging is prized over content.

Mr Griffiths - a crusty and testy old devil who has been known to stop a stage performance when a mobile phone goes off in the audience, to order the expulsion of the culprit from the stalls - says that in real-life he could not bear to teach.

He couldn't abide the "arrogant ignorance" of teenagers today.

Amid an all-consuming consumerism so many of us no longer look out of windows, let alone feel the breeze and smell the flowers.

People-watching on public transport (a potentially perilous pursuit), I'm constantly amazed by the insularity of travellers 20 or 30 years younger than me.

Cut off by the self-selected diversions of mobile phones and iPods, they are oblivious to a reality anything more than virtual. They appear to hear and see nothing around them. They look so blank and yet so jaded - no wonder, given the widespread obliteration from drink and drugs.

And what marvels and miracles we are missing. Take

the drama in the sky. I myself can scarcely conceive such cosmic glory.

On the old railway bridge at Southwold one recent midnight I traced a glittering traffic across the heavens, and assumed a rush of flights to and from Stansted. No. Lo, shooting stars!

Walking in Suffolk's Stour Valley a couple of Sundays ago I spied trout darting in a millrace. From a south London bridge that same evening I saw a kingfisher. On nocturnal walks through the Barbican I watch acrobatic bats.

Too early for supper in Kensington the other evening, I sat on a bench in Hyde Park with a sudoku puzzle (my own dreadful distraction). Aware of a rustle in the hedge behind me, I spotted a mouse from the corner of my eye - like the one that ran over my foot in the House of Commons, but not those glimpsed on the tracks at Underground stations which have now evolved into a separate sub-species.

And then, hurtling at supersonic speed from a nearby tree, a brownish missile brushed my ear, to crash land where the mouse had been. It was gone again in an instant.

Whether or not that kestrel had claimed its supper, as I left for mine, I was unsure.

But what I do know - what all my experience and education tell me - is that it's a wonderful (awesome, exhilarating) world out there. Why, then, are we teaching misery?