3: How to abolish secondary schools

So far I’ve looked at misguided aims and an increasingly misconceived curriculum. I’ll pick up those threads now to look at how secondary education resources could be better organised to support more flexible and useful learning.

Resources and personalisation

Usually within a local authority there might be half a dozen secondary schools (more or less), each with its own version of a library, science labs, sports facilities and so on. Not only does this look like an inefficient replication of resources but it also ensures that the quality of those resources will be diluted.

Worse still, given the limits of available funding, it means that the study options available to students will be limited by the particular decisions of the governing board. Tony Blair encouraged schools to make a virtue of this limitation by giving them financial incentives to become specialised, but the resulting divergence was superficial and the mechanisms of parental choice were never going to function properly. Schools themselves have tried to alleviate the situation, particularly at sixth form, by linking up with other schools to broaden their curriculum offer, but this too is a half-baked solution.

In most authorities, the assumption is that children will go to their local school, but in practice the allocation of places is messier and not least has given us the phenomenon of selection by postcode (where parents jostle to buy their homes in the catchment areas of higher performing schools, pushing up house prices and so perpetuating the deep class bias in English education).

This is all the more frustrating because technology has transformed the significance of geography in many areas of our lives (we can do so much over the internet, from research to video conferencing) and yet has hardly touched education. School is still a building you go to, an institution which as an institution will quickly acquire its own priorities, rules and culture. It’s become imperative to clear away these barriers.

I want to put the idea of personalised learning in its rightful place, in the light of what technology can do now. There is no point whatsoever in pushing children (or young adults) into classes where they have no interest in the subject and do not understand the value of being there. It’s hardly surprising that they then fail to learn anything. I believe that learners from the age of 12 should have the ability to construct their own curriculum, choosing the subjects they see as relevant to them at each given stage in their development. And unlike the current system I want to build in the flexibility which recognises the obvious truth that we mature at different speeds, so that something which seemed irrelevant at 12 but which suddenly seems compelling at 15 is not blocked by a decision we made three years earlier.

In each local authority area we should stop replicating resources. Instead of schools we should have a group of defined faculties (much like a university). So each area should maintain a science and maths centre, a humanities centre, a performing arts centre, a sports centre, a a language centre, a design and engineering centre, and so on. These centres should be as close to each other as possible, and as close to the centre of town as possible, and could be integrated with local resources like libraries and museums. They should be available to adult learners as well as teenagers, probably taking the place of FE colleges. Within the various faculties then there would be need to be provision for the kind of vocational options usually covered by FE colleges though now being picked up by some schools.

Indeed one of the prime benefits of doing things this way is that it would remove the stupid anti-technical/vocational bias that we have built into our educational system. It means recognising that you don’t need an academic degree in nursing to be a good nurse, and that instead of pushing people into expensive and misguided higher education courses we should be supporting more flexible combinations of academic and technical paths that do not denigrate the value of either.

Clearly few learners at 12 will have the maturity to pick their way through these different open choices on their own. This concept would be founded on a system of personal tutors, whose task was to understand individual learners’ needs and interests, and guide them through their options, to monitor their progress and encourage them to follow whatever options looked most promising for them.

Part of these tutors’ responsibilities would be to ensure that there was some breadth in each student’s work programme. For academic students this might not look so different from current arrangements, apart from the fundamental shift towards a personal development plan (managed through the personal learning space on the “learning platform” intranets that are already supposed to exist in every secondary school).

For more vocationally inclined students their vocational study (for instance in car mechanics, childcare or hairdressing) could be set as a goal for their learning, with specific skills teaching introduced at fifteen or sixteen. Before that age the ground could be prepared by imaginative teaching of more advanced (but perceptibly relevant) functional skills as well as tailored approaches to mainstream subjects: you can teach quite a lot about history or geography by the looking at the development of fashion, or transport; you need to have some understanding of chemistry, biology, and the arithmetic of ratios to use hair dyes well. Those teaching the vocational subjects could work closely with colleagues in the academic faculties to design and develop these modules.

This “non-curriculum” would indeed be far more modular than current practice, giving students the option to move in straight lines or to cut sideways and diagonally, exposing them to new areas of knowledge and letting them pursue things in greater depth when they want to. Practically there would need to be some structure. Modules might be project based and designed to last for a manageable period (six weeks perhaps). Students’ progress in each assignment would need to be visible to subject and personal tutors, who would help those students plot the most fruitful path forward. Within those options there should be some presumption that every student should be encouraged to investigate at least one creative activity (perhaps painting, dance, or drama) and probably some kind of physical exercise. These creative activities should be positioned as core subjects, not optional extras.

Or perhaps for the first two years of this phase students would be encouraged to explore as wide a range of possibilities as feasible, rather like a foundation year at art college, and then for the next two years start narrowing their choices according to the interest or abilities they are discovering in themselves. They might spend their final two years with a sixth-form like specialisation, though I’d like to think that there would still be the flexibility to shift between areas of study if necessary and pursue other learning topics simply as matters of interest.

In this steady narrowing of focus these ideas may seem to come closer to current practice, but there’s a very different ambition underpinning what’s being proposed here. There’s no great value in seeking to inculcate any particular set of “facts” even through the secondary education phase. It’s a given that the system needs to nurture basic functional skills, but beyond this the underlying objective is to give learners a foundational sense of how the world is, what knowledge is “out there” and how they can take that information and deploy it through the evolving needs of their lives. It’s about nurturing the natural enthusiasm for learning carried by every infant, inspiring and exciting the continuing thirst for knowledge. It’s about laying firmer foundations for lifetime learning, which is what we need as individuals as well as in the changing world of work. It’s about placing this idealism at the heart of education, because without it we have the reactionary factories that are busily destroying our capacity to develop knowledge.

I don’t underestimate the practical challenges, not least around timetabling, although those challenges could be significantly eased by an effective use of technology. Much of the required tuition could be delivered online, with students having some flexibility about when and where they worked. Apart from anything else this would be a necessary introduction to the reality of assessment by output rather than presence, a lesson that needs to be learned for the coming world of work. I recognise too the importance of sustaining social interaction. This could be achieved partly through the pastoral organisation surrounding the personal tutors, partly through an emphasis in many projects on collaborative work: this would have an obvious pertinence in creative activities like performing arts, but could be successfully applied to field trips and lab work.

Another element here is the importance of working with the grain of the way young people already live and function, because if we don’t do this we can hardly be surprised if they see what’s on offer in school as irrelevant and out of touch with the real world. Only if we work with this grain can we hope to help young people discern when best to work through a screen, and when best to turn to the living world.

Part four

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2 thoughts on “Changing education (part three)

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