The demography of society is constantly changing.  Michael Gove, the British Education Secretary, considers that it has changed so much since the current education system was put in place that it needs an overhaul.  The current system was designed for a 19th century agricultural economy with its short days and frequent holidays.  The holidays were originally so children could help with agricultural work, but he considers that they are now obsolete and, what’s more, inconvenient for working parents who now, more often than not, both work. 

He also considers that Britain’s Asian economic competitors give their countries a head start by expecting much higher levels of study, school hours, and results from their students.  Therefore, British children will be behind and this will translate into them being less economically successful as adults.  The Guardian reports Gove’s comments:

“We’ve noticed in Hong Kong and Singapore and other East Asian nations that expectations of mathematical knowledge or of scientific knowledge at every stage are more demanding than in this country,” Gove said.

“In order to reach those levels of achievement a higher level of effort is expected on behalf of students, parents and teachers. School days are longer, school holidays are shorter. The expectation is that to succeed, hard work is at the heart of everything.”

“If you look at the length of the school day in England, the length of the summer holiday … then we are fighting or actually running in this global race in a way that ensures that we start with a significant handicap.”

Gove’s observations are true – the education system was designed for an agricultural society which has largely disappeared from Britain’s cities (of course here in New Zealand most children still rush home to tend to their sheep so are safe for now).  However, if we take his proposals seriously, do we really want our children to be required by the State to spend so much of their time at school being taught by people appointed by the State, rather than spending time with their families – or even just being children, playing outside and doing things children like to do. 

I also don’t like the expectation that mothers would rather be out at work from 9 – 5, instead of from 9 – 3 or not at all.  I think most mums, if required to work, like having the time they have to spend with their children in the afternoons.  If we are all expected to work crazily all the time, when is any real quality time spent with our children teaching them ourselves – in the 29% of our lives that is the weekend if no overtime is required I guess.

Why must all our efforts be to run in a rat race towards economic gain for our country?  And what exactly are we trying to achieve with all this economic success if not more quality time with our children and families where parents can play the role of first educators of their own children.  While I see Gove’s logic, I think that it is perhaps the Asian countries which, for whatever reason, sometimes require their children to spend a little too much time studying and not enough time just running around outside being children, carefree and unaware of the future economic successes they may or may not be inhibiting.  We must first know the values we are trying to achieve via our economic success, before we very likely sacrifice those very things in its name.

Shannon Roberts

Shannon Roberts is co-editor of MercatorNet's blog on population issues, Demography is Destiny. While she has a background as a barrister, writing has been a life-long passion and she has contributed...