A new school year

By Joseph Shaw

Two recent news articles greeted the start of the academic year. The Irish Times informs us that official statistics confirm that since teacher assessments have in whole or in part replaced anonymised formal examinations, the relative performance of boys against girls has fallen. In the Daily Telegraph, Melanie McDonagh complains that her 14-year-old daughter’s Catholic school has brainwashed her into being a woke activist.

These are both troubling claims, and they may seem extreme, but the people making them are far from marginal. The problem of systemic bias against boys has been acknowledged by the Irish government, which is hardly a bastion of cultural conservatism. It was in fact established on the basis of world-wide statistics some years ago, in a study sponsored by the OECD. The creation of a generation of school-child activists all saying the same things about race and gender has been denounced by Professor Louise Richardson, Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University. Lest anyone imagine she is some conservative culture warrior, she recently made headlines apologising for Oxford’s education of the prominent Conservative Party politician Michael Gove. 

Nevertheless, there will be no political follow-up to these problems. Every now and then they emerge into the mainstream media to be acknowledged, but that is all. Those government ministers and educationalists who would like to do something about them feel helpless. Anything which would improve the educational prospects of boys is ipso facto unfashionable, indeed almost unthinkable. Anything which challenged the woke agenda would be attacked as racist.

These are not the only problems with the educational system in the developed world: they merely offer a glimpse of the shambles into which many schools have descended. The headmistress of a free school focused on providing a disciplined, safe environment and rigorous instruction for children in a deprived part of London, Katharine Birbalsingh, has become a hate figure for many in the teaching profession. Aspects of the syllabus options in English literature and modern history seem designed to prevent pupils gaining a love or understanding of their subjects. The attempt to raise standards by fire-hosing money at schools has in some places resulted in children being given iPads which they use to swap pornographic images during lessons. The combination of sex education and family breakdown is causing an epidemic of sexual assault in schools, chronicled by the Everyone’s Invited website.

Whether it is possible to home-educate your children or not, it is incumbent on parents to be aware of the problems, now endemic in our culture, and to arm their children against them. It may be possible to make a difference by making targeted and well-informed complaints. Where once we would have encouraged our children to trust the learning and pedagogical intentions of teachers, today we must be more cautious. Catholic parents also have an obligation to give their children spiritual, catechetical, and liturgical formation. Parishes do not have the time to do this alone, even if they have the will.

Sitting down with your children with the Penny Catechism, saying family prayers, or talking to them about the readings in Mass, may not be what you feel like doing after a long day’s work, but you won’t regret it.