Education and Learning

Currently there’s is a lot of tension concerning the future of education in this country…
First there's the debacle concerning the local post-primary transfer tests, which condemns kids to up to 5 tests over the next 4 Saturdays in alien surroundings... and asking their parents to pay for the privilege.
Then there's the likely threefold increase in third level education tuition fees, resulting in the protests, peaceful and otherwise, in London today.
In both, people from poorer backgrounds will undoubtedly be affected more than others… Yes there is provision for those who recieve "free school meals" to have transfer tests waived, and there will, we are told, be no up-front costs for people going to university and graduates will only have to pay back their "loan" when their earnings rise above a certain level, but this ignores some key facts about those from some disadvantaged areas.
First, not everyone takes up the option of free school meals because of the percieved stigma involved, having their children come home or take low-cost packed lunches instead. Second, many of those who are second or third generation unemployed have never experienced or known anyone within their circle of friends who have experienced the full benefits of education... particularly as the schooling system in our selective system has become more and more divided in socio-economic terms, hence they are less likely to pay the money for the transfer tests and are likely to be wary of getting deep into debt for something as intangible as a university education…
And to those people who see education at worst as a chore or at best a bit of a luxury some of the courses on offer at university don't help… The strangest I’ve seen recently was one entitled "Lady Gaga and the Sociology of Fame". Admittedly this isn’t on offer in a British University, but at the University of South Carolina (although I'm sure I could find equally bizarre options this side of the Atlantic with little difficulty).
Education was a key factor in helping me to become the person I now am (for good or ill). My love of learning and particularly through the written word was triggered by my brothers buying me the "Junior Encyclopaedia" when I was 8 years old... It arrived one volume at a time on a Thursday night every two weeks, and I devoured every page, right through to Volume 18 the atlas and glossary! I then went on to pass what was supposed to be the last ever 11 Plus in Northern Ireland back in 1977, one of very few from my primary school to do so... Most of my male classmates were destined for the local secondary school. It is now a superb school, but then it was simply an exercise in marking time for the kids to go on into the shipyard, the aircraft factory, or increasingly the dole, and/or paramilitarism...
But education freed me from that... opening the way for me to go to university. I was the first person from my immediate family ever to go to university, and I valued that privilege enormously, especially given that I was able to attend a university outside Northern Ireland… giving me a perspective on this province that I would almost want to make compulsory for anyone growing up in this wonderful, yet chronically introverted part of the world. At university, for both my degrees (education is like a drug, I just couldn't get enough) most of my courses were slightly less bizarre than The Lady Gaga one… although many of the facts I learned I have never used subsequently (how useful is it for a Methodist minister to know how a female drosophila melanogaster selects its mate?). What I did learn, however, was how to learn… and that has stood me in good stead for the rest of my life…
Over on Crookedshore, Glenn Jordan has flagged up the following wonderful lecture from the RSA on the nature of teaching and learning... take some time out and have a look for yourself...

Sadly, I don't think that ideas of this kind are shaping the education policy either here in Northern Ireland or at Westminster... I fear it is more to do with party politics ("If they're for it, I'm against it!"), pounds, shillings and pence, and keeping teenagers off street-corners and unemployment statistics.
But going back to my experience, as well as the educational, economic and social doors that passing the 11plus opened for me, it also took me to a school with a strong Christian ethos (without being an explicitly denominational or "faith" school) and within that school I came under the influence of wonderful Christian teachers, and within the orbit of Christian peers, who helped to challenge and shape me, and introduce me to the Jesus who says:
"Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Takemy yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and youwill find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light."
(Matthew 11:28-30)
No admission tests, written assignments, course fees, or student debts… Just an invitation to all to learn from the Master…

(An adaptation of my Just a Moment for Downtown Radio this morning.)


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