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We don’t need no secondary education

Credit: Victor Drees/Evening Standard/Getty Images

Credit: Victor Drees/Evening Standard/Getty Images

April 25, 2019   4 mins

According to legend, St George, a Roman knight, freed a Libyan town from the cruel attentions of a sea-dragon by killing it. Any public figure who has since dared face-down fierce vested interests or kill off harmful prevailing orthodoxies has similarly been branded a ‘dragon slayer’.  In honour of England’s patron saint, we’ve asked various contributors to nominate the contemporary tyranny they would put to the sword. Here, Geoff Norcott, the comedian and former teacher, has a radical idea… 


Secondary schools have become – to use the language of the Left – problematic. Children are bullied, teachers are stressed, parents are frustrated. Their little darlings either aren’t being taught enough about LGBTQ, or far too much. Society has become so complex it’s become almost impossible for conventional education to deal with modern teenagers, so I’m proposing something radical: let’s abolish physical secondary schools.

Let’s teach them online from home instead. It would be a vast improvement on the creaking and failing system we have in place. At the moment, the school day imposes frenetic strictures on students – online learning would liberate them.

Stop and think about a five- or six-period day that takes place between 9am and 3pm. How did this ridiculous educational “wham bam, thank you, ma’am” ever come into being? There’s a reason kids’ behaviour is worse at the beginning of a lesson: it’s because you’re expecting them to perform an intellectual hand-brake turn from talking about the horrors of the Somme to learning Spanish pronouns. No adult could perform these cognitive acrobatics; we have to consume a litre of coffee before we’re in the right headspace to set up an iPhone.

Online learning could be tailored in real time and adapted to a student’s development. I’ve been a teacher myself, I know that one of the biggest myths is that we ‘differentiate’ our lessons, carefully modifying learning objectives based on each pupil’s needs. Bollocks. In my experience ‘differentiation’ meant either speaking slower or leaving out the long words. One of the biggest frustrations of teaching large classes was seeing that the brightest kid in the class had finished everything in seven minutes, but knowing they’d sit staring at the wall because you’d have to deal with a miscreant repeatedly calling you “Mr Nocock”.

One inevitable consequence of teaching large groups of children is streaming by ability. Teachers try to pretend it’s not happening, but students always know. If you’re learning science with kids whose principal use for the Bunsen burner is to light a spliff it’s safe to say you might not be with the gifted and talented.

I went to Rutlish School in southwest London, where the children were streamed according to the letters of the school’s name, with ‘R’ for the brightest. Only it turned out that ‘H’ didn’t quite cover it, so they had to add a ‘W’ stream (after the first name of the founder of the school). If you found yourself in ‘W’, school wasn’t so much a learning exercise, as a holding pattern prior to organised crime. In classes like those – particularly among boys – ignorance was a badge of honour. Take that away and who knows how much you could raise attainment.

The abolition of secondary schools would also end bullying at a stroke. Huge buildings in which 1,500 teenagers bash into each other like hormonal pinball aren’t ideal. How much better would a world be where no one had a school bully? How many timid geniuses could that unleash?

Perhaps most important of all though, is the fact the process of getting the best places at secondary school has become ruthlessly manipulated by middle-class parents, shamelessly renting flats and gaming the system. They took league tables, which were meant to raise attainment, and used them as the starting pistol on a Hunger Games for tiger mothers. It’s unfixable, and schools have descended into a stark two-tier system. Many liberal parents oppose grammar schools, but have been complicit in creating an academic landscape where good schools are now the first things mentioned by estate agents.

The areas around those schools become ever more affluent and so the cycle perpetuates itself and deepens. We need a reset. Take the money we spend on secondary schools – their buildings, the heating, the repairs – and redeploy it to achieve fairer outcomes. The manipulation of entrance to faith schools is an even deeper moral cesspit. There’s a certain type of person who will preach atheism at dinner parties but happily take communion to get their kids in somewhere with a cross on the door. Teaching the children at home would relieve those parents of that burden on their conscience.

It’s also become increasingly difficult to keep parents happy. It wasn’t so long ago that they came to parent’s evening just as scared as you were, happily siding with the teacher. It’s literally the opposite now: if their child isn’t learning as fast as the others, they want that acknowledged as a learning difficulty. If the kid falls over on a school trip, they’re onto Claims Direct. Modern parents are like pushy agents fawning over their biggest client. So let’s give them take complete control of the education side of things, see what that does to happiness levels.

There would be one final added bonus if we sent the kids home. Look at schools, with their buildings and fields taking up all that lovely real estate. We could knock them down and build affordable homes in their place. Yes, young people might not grow up with that shared memory of prom night or that one teacher who “got them”; but it would certainly give them a chance of moving out before they hit 50.

Secondary schools aren’t just imperfect – they’re making children, parents and teachers unhappy. So let’s do something radical. I’m not entirely sure how happy it will make parents. And I know many will point to the inception of schools and their role in raising knowledge among the working classes. But time and technology change things. If Dickensian teenagers had had iPads, I suspect they’d never have left the house.

Geoff Norcott tours his show ‘Taking Liberties’ this autumn

Geoff Norcott is a comedian. He has appeared on Live at the Apollo, The Mash Report, Mock the Week and Question Time


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