by Joanna Moorhead BRITAIN'S education system is failing the young people it was designed to serve and a major overhaul is vital for the future well-being of society, Cardinal Basil Hume said this week in a hardhitting speech which criticised several areas of government policy.
Addressing the North of England Education Conference in Newcastle upon Tyne, Cardinal Hume said he believed education had become too specialised and too concerned with market forces. He made a plea for a broader education system which would allow more opportunities for the less academically-gifted and incorporate more emphasis on spiritual, cultural and moral development of youngsters.
The 16-18 year age group was, the cardinal said, the one of most concern at the present time. It was "extraordinary", he said, that so many young people in this age group in Britain were able to leave school. "We simply cannot afford to let 60 to 70 per cent of the nation's I6-year-olds leave school with no further education."
The main reason for the low stay-on rate, the cardinal continued, was the type and extent of provision available for 16 to 18 year olds. "At present the less academic are not encouraged to stay on at school; rather they are expected to get a job or join the Government's youth training scheme.
"Yet there is a shortaee of training under the scheme, and few YTS trainees in practice gain vocational training above the most basic level. Moreover, the vocational training available is on the whole very narrow, and the emphasis tends to be on achieving competence in highly specific skills," said Cardinal Hume.
The needs both of industry and of society would be better met by a curriculum offering a combination of vocational and skills training at school, together with academic study in key subjects such as Maths and English. This would provide Britain's young people with greater flexibility for tomorrow's needs.
Even for the most academic youngsters, said Cardinal Hume, courses available were too narrow and the system encouraged premature specialisation. "There can be no doubt that the choices individuals are forced to make in picking A-level subjects are unduly restrictive," said Cardinal Hume.
Economically disadvantaged students should be given every encouragement to stay on at school, said Cardinal Hume. It would be "most regrettable", he said, if the introduction of student loans were to deter young people from staying on at college.
In a specific criticism of some of the practices introduced under the 1988 Education Act, Cardinal Hume spoke of the pressure caused by the new national curriculum and the regular testing of pupils. These encouraged the tendency to place increasing emphasis on certain kinds of learning and specific skills: "It can deaden creativity, neglect human and affective growth and lead to a somewhat lopsided educational effort."
This kind of distortion did not show up in examination results, the cardinal warned: its effects would be felt later, in emotional and spiritual deprivation and even anti-social behaviour.
The cardinal also drew attention to the plight of head teachers worn down by the pressures of bureaucracy, and teachers who were demoralised and overburdened. In this state, he said, they could not be motivated to transform dreary schools into lively communities.
Extra-curricular activities had an important part to play in this, the cardinal went on. And "recent difficulties experienced in maintaining these activities could have far-reaching and negative consequences," he warned.
But the main problem teachers faced was the disregard for their role and status, he said. Pay levels were too low, administrative burdens too great and the pace of change too hectic and unsettling. "The way we treat the teaching profession is the truest test of the real importance we attach to the future of our young people and the continuing well-being of our country," said Cardinal Hume.
"At the root of this current disregard for the status and remuneration of teachers is a quite distorted view of what is of ultimate significance for our society," he went on.
He warned against fostering competition between schools and the introduction of commercial concepts. These were "undesirable and dangerous" developments.