The Race Between Education And Catastrophe

“Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.” This quotation from H. G. Wells has popped into my mind twice recently, as two potential catastrophes unfold before our eyes.

The first catastrophe may occur if India and Pakistan are unable to resolve their dispute over Kashmir peacefully. To hear the Prime Minister of India say that his country is ready to settle the dispute with Pakistan by force is chilling – particularly when we know that both countries have nuclear weapons.

Meanwhile, we learn that 20 million people are at risk of death by starvation in Malawi. Another catastrophe in the making. And the obvious question that comes to mind is: Why can’t we divert some of the money which is paying for the multi-million pound border war in Asia to alleviate the suffering of millions of Africans?

No doubt there are pessimists who simply shrug their shoulders and say that conflict is part of human nature and cannot be eradicated. I’m an optimist; and I say, why can’t we try to eliminate suffering from the world – whether it’s from war or starvation?

25 million people have been killed in wars around the world since 1945, most of them women and children. Every one of those wars has begun in the minds of human beings (usually men), and every one could have been avoided. So why didn’t we avoid them? Why do we have a preference to resort to physical force as a first resort instead of a last? Well, in general terms, because we managed to persuade ourselves that there was no alternative.

One of the reasons we have a blind spot when it comes to alternatives is that we spend so much on the military option; currently we spend (world wide) more than £500 billion a year on military research, weapons and planning. When a problem appears on the horizon, the obvious thing to do is to see if we can’t recoup some of our investment by launching a few missiles, parachuting a few hundred men into battle, or, as is the case in the India/Pakistan dispute, mobilising millions of conscripts.

When warfare is the only tool we have, it is the obvious tool to use. So isn’t it time we started to devise (or rediscover) some less lethal tools? Isn’t it time we started investing in education for global citizenship? We teach our children how to resolve playground disputes – why can’t we learn to apply the same lessons to the wider world?

Which brings me, in a rather roundabout route, to education, the other runner in H. G. Wells’ race. The big stories here at the moment are a sudden rise in exclusions and the jailing of Patricia Amos for failing to send her children to school.

Quite why the increase in exclusions is a big story I can’t fathom. If the Secretary of State encourages schools to exclude children, then of course more children will be suspended. What we really need is a radical re-think of the whole education system; the rigid central control initiated by the Tories and continued by Estelle Morris and her department is due for a complete overhaul.

The national curriculum straitjacket and the train-test-retrain regime imposed on schools is failing many of our children. Teachers need to be allowed the flexibility to bring more creativity into the classroom. Young people must be challenged in new and more relevant ways, which express the interests of the pupils and not those of the Secretary of State.

Not only do the latest figures demonstrate a failure of Government policy, they reveal the lack of alternative provision for challenging young people. The permanently excluded are more likely to drink, take drugs, damage property, handle stolen goods, commit assaults and carry a weapon. Three quarters of homeless teenagers are either permanent exclusions or long-term truants. Throwing children out of school solves one problem but immediately creates many more for the young people themselves as well as society.

Some children are excluded from school; some exclude themselves, by truanting. The jailing of single mother Patricia Amos is not the answer to the truancy problems that see a million school days lost every year. The Government must wake up to the fact that for half of Britain’s teenagers, the school curriculum is increasingly irrelevant. Rather than take responsibility for the failure of its own policies, the Government is willing to blame everyone else and see a single mother taken from her children and imprisoned.

If we don’t devote some of our energy to education, we may well find catastrophe overtaking us, at home and abroad.