Today’s Daily Telegraph has an article under the headline “More pupils pushed on to 'Mickey Mouse' qualifications ”. Anxiety about league tables is leading schools to enter pupils for GCSE exams in less rigorous ‘Micky Mouse’ subjects rather than the more vigorous traditional disciplines. Schools have been found to be offering courses in cake decorating, warehouse work and stonewalling (I presume they mean making walls out of stone rather than obstructing their future work colleagues). One of the commenters on the article has noted that the actual percentages taking these courses are actually very small, but the raw numbers look quite large.
Firstly, I’ve never been comfortable with term “Mickey Mouse” course. The title of a qualification and the topic say nothing of the academic, intellectual or practical rigour involved in being successful in the course. There is no intrinsic reason why a course on dry stonewalling is less useful, valuable or intellectually challenging than a course in Ancient Greek.
Secondly, it is useful to remember that traditional disciplines were once, in modern parlance ‘Mickey Mouse’ subjects. In 1888 Professor Sealey, a historian at the University of Cambridge, suggested that the study of contemporary French literature could be as intellectually demanding as – shock horror— the study of Latin. It was 1907 before Oxford University offered a degree in modern languages. Perhaps in 100-years’ time the Telegraph journalists will see Media Studies as a traditional discipline.
Thirdly, and this is nub of argument, articles such as the one in today’s Telegraph, are based on the underlying assumption that all children need to be taught exactly the same curriculum and that any deviation from this ideal curriculum fails our children. Successive education secretaries of all political persuasions have sought to make sure that all pupils can meet some target or another; we only have to think about the recent debates about the amount of time pupils should spend doing Physical Education, and what sort of PE that should be. I don’t know how many hours per day or week pupils should be doing of different subjects but I am starting to suspect it exceeds the amount of time that they actually spend in school. I’ve never quite got the bottom to why, if all these targets are so important why academies and free schools are exempt from them. Both Michael Gove and his Labour predecessors acknowledge that different pupils need a different sort of education, albeit in a very perverse way.
Just as we mustn’t judge a book by its cover we shouldn’t judge a course by its title. For me, a course in putting up shelves or painting a room wouldn’t have gone amiss.