Changing education (part one)

1: Systemic failure

I think it’s time to abolish secondary schools.

This is a longish piece, so I’ve broken it into four parts, but they should be taken together.

What follows is a vision, a challenge to prevailing assumptions, rather than a blueprint for a changed system: much would have to be worked out, and maybe the real solution would look quite different. All the same we need some truly radical, scary ideas, when the poverty of thinking about education from successive governments is causing untold damage.

I should also stress that I’m thinking about conditions here in England. These ideas may have value in other countries, other systems, (not least the rest of the UK) but I’m in no place to comment on those other countries.

Let’s start with the systemic failure of what we have. Nothing I’m going to say should be scarier than the fact that even by the government’s own measures, at least 40 per cent of young people are getting more or less nothing from secondary school. Where I live in Kent, and where we have selective education, the figures in many schools are significantly worse. Successive governments seem to think this is down to poor teaching. I’m sure there is some poor teaching, but failure on such a scale suggests a deeper problem. It suggests we should be asking ourselves more searching questions about what we’re trying to achieve, and how we’re going to do it.

And yet we routinely accept this failure rate as if it was somehow a feature of the system, as if it was acceptable that nearly half of our children flounder in institutions that mean nothing to them, and which can give them nothing as a result. We routinely see this floundering as a reflection of those children’s failures as human beings, when in truth it’s an increasingly dangerous failure of the political elite to grasp what’s going on in front of them.

Meanwhile information technology is transforming practically every aspect of our lives, and yet it has barely touched our thinking about education. Yes, most schools now have whiteboards rather than blackboards, but it’s not really about hardware or software: it’s about how this technology can and should change our ideas about what we’re doing in school. In the vast majority of schools, technology is being used as a tool to support existing practices, practices which are looking increasingly irrelevant to conditions outside education.

Post-industrial education

In a memorable TED talk Sir Ken Robinson skewered the hopelessness of pursuing an industrial model of education in our post-industrial world. Successive governments have resolutely ignored him, pursuing policies that far from improving the competitiveness of the English workforce (their stated ambition) will have the opposite effect. I’m going to follow Sir Ken in saying that we need a post-industrial model that nurtures imagination, flexibility, and (in broad terms) creativity. We need this partly for economic success, partly because a sustainable economy itself demands the general well-being that such a transformed educational system would promote.

Instead we are enforcing an increasingly narrow curriculum, and defining success in matching (ie inadequate and narrow) academic terms.

I am not against academic excellence. Indeed I’d want to ensure that the relatively small proportion of the population whose brains work that way (I’m in that group) still get the opportunities and support they need to develop their particular intellectual skills. I also want to ensure that we become much better at identifying who those people are, because right now we’re pretty useless at it, with parental circumstance being by far the biggest determinant of the opportunities a child is likely to have, regardless of that child’s real abilities. Not only does this seem unfair. It’s a dreadful waste of ability.

Comprehensive schools were a laudable attempt to address this class bias, but that idealism has been undermined by politicians (usually privately-educated themselves) losing faith as well as “selection by postcode”. If you want to avoid the latter bias you’ll need to make location irrelevant (and IT can really help here).

In any case nurturing this academic excellence is only a fraction of what secondary education could and should be doing. Nor does it reflect what the world of work actually needs from young people. Worse still, its single-minded pursuit creates a false and destructive self-perception of failure and worthlessness.

Ken Robinson has argued that our current system crushes the natural curiosity and imagination of children. But if you crush those qualities how can you be surprised when significant numbers of those children decide that learning is for other people?

There’s another implicit problem. While it’s broadly true that schools have been organised around an industrial metaphor, to serve an industrial world, those schools (and the industries they imagine) have also followed a military metaphor. Traditionalists argue that schools need discipline, and that a general failure of discipline has undermined teaching. I’m sure you can’t teach effectively if a class is in chaos, but the chaos is rooted not in lack of self-discipline, but in lack of interest.

Significantly too a superficial notion of discipline is misplaced because it is explicitly designed to suppress individuality and thoughtfulness (the unreflective insistence on the value of school uniform is a sure sign of this approach). This is where the military metaphor intrudes. It’s certainly appropriate in the military that a body of soldiers should have its collective will broken like this: you need those soldiers to behave in a machine-like way if they are going to kill people without having a breakdown. Business too in the past has aspired to a machine-like condition, and in many ways still struggles to relinquish its command-and-control cultures.

But current management theory generally demands that it does just that. You can’t have a command-and-control culture and at the same time demand creativity and flexibility from your staff, so businesses are slowly changing, becoming less hierarchical, aiming to manage by output rather than chaining people to their desks. The role of the manager is also changing (again this is a frustratingly slow and uneven process but it is happening because of the nature of the tasks we need to fulfil): managers used to be primarily gatekeepers of knowledge, but information technology has made that role irrelevant. Managers continue to set direction and tasks, but they also need to ensure that those performing the tasks (at every level) have the tools and resources they need to do them properly, and because conditions change so quickly this demands constant attention.

In this respect management is becoming a support function.

This shift seems to have gone largely unnoticed by those currently shaping education. If anything the clock is being turned back to try to live up to a myth of lost academic excellence, which even if it was achievable would fail the economic imperatives apparently driving it, to say nothing of a broader vision of what education can and should be.

Against this background we need to make some radical changes, the subject of subsequent entries.

Part two




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