Creative living, and longer lives

Creative living, and longer lives

I want to write about the return of music performance to my life, and think a little about what it might mean for education and the world of work.

For the last couple of years I’ve been playing violin in a band with a Mozambican singer, Maiuko. The rest of the band, drums, double bass, and piano, are seasoned jazz professionals. We play a kind of hybrid Afro-blues, with Celtic overtones (that’s where I come in). We played a successful gig on Friday at St George’s The Martyr in Borough, London, the beginning of a busy summer of planned recording and along the way a mini-tour to celebrate 40 years of Mozambican independence.

I played last night in another quite different band, again with a group of skilled musicians (guitars, drums, bass and trombone). The Kismet Collective performs only original material, mixing diverse pop, rock and folk influences. We’re focused on recording demo tracks at the moment, though we’re also honing the material live with a monthly residency at a great music pub in Dover.

I started playing violin in my mid-teens, teaching myself when I found I could (I’d learned piano for a couple of years and had some music lessons at school, so I had some helpful background in notation, scales and other basic bits of theory), jamming along with folk, jazz and rock records, playing in some bands with schoolfriends.

All this persisted into college but not much further. Music had always been important but it was a side interest. Friends went their separate ways. There were no longer any obvious opportunities to perform. Back then live music was much more restricted. There were no open mics, no obvious opportunities to meet new players and jam along informally. In any case I had other pressures. I had studied English literature at college and I was working in business as a writer. I was married and soon I also had children, so I was busy with the demands of parenthood, and making enough money to sustain a family. I’d pick up my fiddle from time to time, just to re-assure myself I could still get a noise out of it, but for the most part it sat in its venerable wooden case, gathering dust.

The children got older, and my marriage ended. I’d argue that mid-life crises, although they sometimes manifest themselves in pathetic ways (chasing younger women or men, fast cars or whatever) are in themselves a reasonable response to the realisation that you’re beginning to run out of time, and need to address the things you always wanted to do. Music had remained an important part of my life, as a listener and spectator, but I found myself wondering increasingly what it would be to practise again, and take a place among others in the blossoming local live music scene. My girlfriend at the time encouraged me. There was a great Sunday night session in the Man of Kent in Rochester, always welcoming to players whatever their ability. I got over my nerves and started putting bow to strings in public again.

I was lucky. I met some lovely and talented performers early on, so picked up a lot of pub gig experience quickly. At that stage all I really wanted to do was have fun in pubs and bars, but I found myself in demand, I think because being self-taught but with some grasp of basic theory I could improvise fluidly and fit in with whatever the other performers were trying to do. There are plenty of classically trained violinists in the area with better formal technique than me, who can do things I can’t, but few of them can move comfortably away from a score, and that’s a problem when you’re not playing within the disciplines of classical music (which I still love and respect).

My own technique has improved a lot (that’s what happens when you practise) and some bigger dreams have taken at least a cautious hold of me. The music I’m making now has become necessarily more ambitious and demanding, and I think it deserves a bigger audience.

With luck this might happen, since experience has taught me that financial reward for creative work depends as much on luck as talent. But all this is just the background to a bigger, more important point.

The return of music making to my life has transformed that life. I’m fortunate that I’ve found I have some ability in doing something that’s so close to my heart, but then I believe most people have that capacity to a greater or lesser extent.

My first real job as a commercial writer involved (among other things) interviewing people on the verge of retirement. This was a generation that had lived through extraordinary times, many of whom had fought in the Second World War, or survived the dangers and privations of that war at home. Perhaps they had been glad for the subsequent stability of routine work but for me it seemed vaguely depressing that so many of them regarded their looming retirement rather like an extended Sunday afternoon, a chance to catch up on some sleep and gardening. Perhaps in reality it proved different, perhaps they found some new passion to animate their days rather than a pastime that dulled their senses, but I doubt it.

In any case the worlds of work and the arc of a normal life have changed so much even in my (incomplete) lifetime. Now most of us can reasonably anticipate living longer, healthier lives. In economic terms alone we can no longer expect to slip into a kind of sleepy inactivity at 65. Biology still dictates the ages between which we are likely to have children and raise them, but beyond this the shape of working lives is already changing, necessarily becoming more fractured and diverse, demanding as we grow older that we find new ways of deploying what we’ve learned rather than prematurely winding ourselves down, and to develop creatively.

I’m not suggesting that everyone needs to pick up a guitar or a violin. Indeed when I speak of “creativity” I’m not just talking about art forms: I mean whatever it is in us that can take us beyond the ordinary, the mundane demands of feeding ourselves and keeping warm; to explore and exploit whatever potential we have to think around whatever we’re given, to make more of our lives whether in our work or outside it. Of course there will still be jobs that require little beyond repetition, even if their numbers are shrinking under the weight of automation, but those stuck in such work will have all the more need of something satisfying beyond it, and they’ll need to be able to adapt to new conditions, new work as the world continues to change.

So it becomes all the more important that we re-imagine and restructure how education can work in our lives. Partly this means thinking past the traditional limits of higher education, to reconfigure how schools and colleges function in their communities (at the same time accommodating the supportive role online resources could play).

But it also means reversing the movement to de-emphasise the importance of creativity in education, in schools and outside them. Whatever else successive governments have claimed they want to do, this is the reality of what they are doing, both directly in the pressure on subject timetabling, and indirectly by restricting the scope for autonomy and creativity in teaching itself.

All this sits in a bitterly ironic relationship to their apparent belief that what they are doing will better prepare students for the “world of work”. I’m not suggesting for a second that we don’t need good mathematicians, physicists or engineers, but we might stand a better chance of getting them if we started with the recognition that the “world of work” cannot be insulated from our other worlds, from the changing arcs of our lives.

I’m not suggesting that we should ignore basic skills in literacy and numeracy. I’m saying that we need better ways of engaging children in their acquisition. In the process we might also find that we’ve given our children better abilities and resources to meet the diverse demands not only of their work, but their changing lives. If we fail to do this we’re not only wasting valuable human capacity; we’re nurturing unnecessary and dangerous frustration.

Right and wrong

Right and wrong

A few years ago the US TV producer and self-confessed “right-wing nut job” Joel Surnow tried to create a satirical show to counter the influence of the liberal-minded likes of Jon Stewart. It was a miserable flop, raising the interesting question of why the political right seems to be incapable of sharp or incisive comedy.

You could say that the best political comedy has no alignment, and attacks political stupidity in whatever guise. That seems worth asserting as a principle, though in practice satire seems to proceed from a broadly liberal attitude to others and our institutions (this might be because the mainstream of our culture is itself broadly liberal). It’s also true that there are funny and successful satirists who sit openly on the left: Mark Steel comes to mind. I can’t think of any right wing equivalent.

Part of the reason may be that being right wing entails embracing and defending a number of sacred cows, which we could loosely call The Establishment. We need to be loose because any definition of The Establishment is mutable: Thatcher and her friends were arguably quite anti-Establishment, except that they only served a different version of the Establishment, emphasising power whether that was rooted in new money or the old order, rather than having any particular respect for tradition.

“Being right wing” could mean many things: it could mean being economically libertarian, with a near-religious faith in the power of markets to order our affairs; it could mean a conviction that government needs to be as small as possible, and that most societal functions are best managed by private enterprise. Actually being right wing usually entails at least these two beliefs, but it needn’t require any allegiance to the national flag, to military adventurism, to a suspicion of the foreign, to support for a punitive and frequently lethal criminal justice system, to the belief that scientists who argue for the seriousness of climate change are participating in a liberal conspiracy, and so on.

It doesn’t require these allegiances, but it usually has them, and it’s hard not to conclude that this says something about the cast of a right wing mind, a cast of mind which precludes successful satire.

When I was at Cambridge University in the late 70s and early 80s there was a movement to give a better intellectual framework to conservatism. In a way it was a framework that wanted to resist “isms” – or at least it rejected idealism and argued for the pragmatism of the proven. Its leading figure was the philosopher Michael Oakeshott. Its spear carriers were Shirley Letwin (mother of Oliver) and Roger Scruton. In a world still dominated by the Cold War some of this seemed worth saying, and indeed you could argue that this outlook should transcend the old battle lines of left and right. The problem was that in the hands of Scruton in particular it quickly descended into an apology for the same old vested interests that have usually characterised a right wing outlook.

Scruton married into wealth and turned his mind to the justification of his new lifestyle. Now he’s just written a piece for the BBC news magazine suggesting that education can’t be left to education professionals. I’m not going to attempt to deal with his primary argument (it’s not worth that much effort) but I did want to pick up on a few points he made along the way, which raise the question of whether to be a conservative you have to be wilfully blinkered about what’s in front of you, and suggest why conservatives (with a small or large “c”) seem to be especially incapable of thinking intelligently about education.

This narrowness is visible in small parts of the Scruton argument. At one point he suggests that attacking private schools by removing their charitable status, far from advancing an egalitarian agenda, will only force the wealthy to create a new educational apartheid through home schooling. But it’s strange that an economic libertarian should want to protect the preservation of a market-distorting privilege. It seems simply sensible to end the abuse of the favourable tax treatment that goes with charitable status for organisations that have no charitable function. It seems the defence of privilege is more important to Scruton than the removal of known abuses.

In talking of an egalitarian ideal, he also mistakes his enemy. He says that people like him from poor backgrounds could never have progressed to the elite heights of a Cambridge education without the ladder upwards offered by grammar schools, and accuses educational reformists of wanting to kick away that ladder.

I know what he means, because my parents had little money, and I too went from grammar school to Cambridge, in the days when doing so incurred no lifetime debt, and I’m very grateful for that opportunity, but Scruton’s argument is tosh. It rests on the demonstrably false assumption that no comprehensive school has been able to achieve any kind of excellence for its academic children (many have not, but many have). It rests on the assumption that grammar schools generally support social mobility, a point rubbished recently by the head of school standards in England and Wales, Sir Michael Wilshaw (hardly a left wing figure). By and large, where they still exist grammar schools simply represent a cheaper alternative to private schools for the middle classes, who have been happily paying for private coaching to ensure their offspring jump successfully through the hoops of the selective system to secure their places.

In any case, the real anti-grammar school argument is neither egalitarian nor particularly idealistic. Egalitarianism implies a monolithic model of what a good education should look like (which everyone should then get an equal shot at), but the problem is exactly with the narrow single model of excellence. An academic education is great for those whose minds work that way, and I’d want to ensure that it was always available for those minds, at whatever point in their personal development it made sense to them. But socially, economically, practically, we need multiple models of success, designed to nurture different types of capability.

These needs are put succinctly in a recent RSA blog, setting the international context for educational best practice. On the eve of launching a new report on the future of spiritual, moral, social and cultural education Amelia Peterson highlights the myopia and selective evidence that underpin Michael Gove’s ideas about the future of the classroom. Click here for the blog.

None of this should be a party political point: Labour’s track record with education is only marginally less depressing than Gove’s. Scruton wants to say that education professionals have not delivered the education system we need and deserve, but it seems truer to observe the baleful influence of ignorant politicians (and indeed parents) is responsible for pushing education in precisely the wrong direction. 

This isn’t idealistic, because the system at the moment is stupid, wasteful, and not fit for purpose. Gove and Scruton would probably agree, but their idea of what might be better is so impoverished, so trapped in a non-existent past, that it’s hard to know where to begin when debunking it.

I’d like to believe in the possibility of an intelligent conservatism, would like to be able to find that respect for people whose views differed so much from my own, but recycling old misconceptions as if they were neglected truths won’t cut it. Where they exist conservatism’s intellectual frameworks seem more like smokescreens for a kind of moral failure, and a pragmatic one too. Finding yourself not-conservative need not imply any belief about the ownership of the means of production, or any other of the left’s alternative sacred cows: it means looking at the world we have with good will, not being satisfied with institutionalised ill-will, and intervening where we can to make things better.

We live in an age of unprecedented rapid change, driven by new technologies with the power to transform almost every aspect of our lives. While it’s understandable that some might seek refuge from the storm by clinging to what once seemed tenable, conservatism is not up to the challenges of dealing with that change. This is all too clear from the current mess of our education system, and the grim determination of our political leaders to make it worse.


And now the bad news …

And now the bad news …

Alain de Botton’s newest book about the impact of news on our society has been generally panned by reviewers, who themselves have mostly been journalists. I don’t suppose de Botton expected anything else: asking a journalist to review a critique of journalism is much like asking a Jesuit to review a book by Richard Dawkins. The Jesuit might have some interesting things to say, but you know in advance where the weight of judgement’s going to lie.

The comparison is unfair because de Botton is consistently more interesting than Dawkins. Much of what he is saying is debatable, but that debate is a big part of what he’s trying to achieve. The questions he raises are good questions, not least, what is journalism for? de Botton takes a lofty view, arguing that journalism should (like art) be there to widen our understanding and imaginative sympathies, to make us better people, and in the process make our societies better places to live.

In this light journalism falls woefully short. de Botton suggests that part of the problem lies in the possibility journalists themselves don’t really know what they are doing or why they are doing it (very rarely is their work about holding the powerful to account, which in truth is quite a small part of what journalism can or should do).

In saying this, de Botton is alert to the phenomenon of news, the way it’s come to dominate so much of our lives. It’s like an omnivorous beast which needs to be fed. And while it claims so much of our attention, taking its place in the general torrent of information, it seems it has diminished our attention spans. This has proved pretty disastrous in politics, where politicians have colluded with journalists (usually advised by ex-journalists) in the shaping of the soundbite, at a stroke reducing political discussion to cliché and platitude, eliminating the possibility of nuance, or any admission of complexity in the case for a given action or judgement. Our politics have undoubtedly suffered, in what looks like an archetypical race to the bottom. It carries the usual irony of any race to the bottom, that nobody wants it, and yet it’s done in the name of giving people what they want.

Another way of framing de Botton’s fundamental question is to ask what we as a society need from journalism, not least because it seems likely that journalism as we know it will disappear in the next ten years. Or at least, printed newspapers will disappear. Predictions like this are always dangerous of course, because you can never tell how the flow of cause and effect will play out: the disappearance of printed newspapers might create an opportunity for new kinds of printed news media. All the same the writing is on the wall, otherwise known as smartphones and tablets, and it’s hard to see how printed papers will survive the vicious circle of falling circulations and collapsing advertising revenue.

News operations will move online, because increasingly online is where people expect to find and consume their news. It’s why all news operations are experimenting with their online presence, trying to ensure their survival, struggling with the reality of the Internet’s “everything should be free” culture as well as the difficulties of replicating old advertising models in a medium that’s unlike print or TV. It seems like this could be a good time to ask what we need from news, although for most of these organisations the answers are likely to reflect short and medium term commercial imperatives rather than de Botton’s bigger questions about whatever might make for a better society: the race to the bottom will continue.

Digital media bring different possibilities, not least the power to curate our own news feeds. The obvious concern here is that we will cocoon ourselves in a world we already know and which flatters our existing outlook. In truth this happens anyway: people reading the Daily Mail or Guardian are rarely looking to challenge their established assumptions. In theory the ability to follow links on the Internet could expose us to different viewpoints, though in practice this doesn’t happen often.

There may be a survival opportunity here. It’s been said often enough that we need trusted guides to the richness (and banality) of content out there on the interwebs. If we’re caught in a conflicted spiral of overwhelming content and limited time it might be that traditional papers can transform themselves into brokers of commissioned writing and other relevant pieces (the Guardian is probably the most advanced along this line). How all this will pan out in the future remains an open question.

In case we get too optimistic, let’s remember that de Botton is right to insist on the mostly negative and cheapening influence of the press on British society. It would be foolish to expect a transformation in the behaviour of the fourth estate as it tries to adjust to a changed landscape. If it’s too much to expect news media to lead demand, we need to see the difficulties of news as part of a bigger challenge about how we manage the fullness of information all around us. Above all this is an educational issue.

As I wrote in the third part of my extended blog about a new vision for education

“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.”

Unfortunately current government ambitions to “improve” education are taking us in precisely the opposite direction. I’m generally sceptical of conspiracy theories, not least because they give too much credit to the intelligence of politicians, but if the Establishment itself has become so defensive that it wants to crush curiosity and capability in the general population, the emerging reactionary model for education will serve its desires very well.

In this light, subjects like media studies are not soft options at all. On the contrary Education Secretary Michael Gove’s vision of a patriotic history is about as soft an option as you can get. What we need in schools is a looser curriculum framework designed to widen experience and nurture critical thinking. Faced with critical readers the news media might finally give us the news we really need.

(nb de Botton gave a talk on his book this week at the RSA in London. I’ll post a link to the video as soon as it’s made available).

Changing education (part four)

Changing education (part four)

4: It all adds up

So far I’ve looked at the systemic failure of our current system, explored some of the external and internal pressures demanding radical change, and suggested what that change might begin to look like. In this final part I’ll consider the influence of formal exams and the need for a different approach.

What you measure is what you get

There’s an old truth that what you measure is what you get, which is to say that examination systems can themselves introduce counter-productive bias. If you put a premium on narrow academic performance then you will skew the rest of the system around it.

This is not about dumbing down; quite the reverse. It’s about asking much more rigorously whether how we test is fit for purpose, which in turn means asking more seriously what the purpose is.

Consider this: if I was managing a call centre I could decide to raise productivity by setting tighter targets for call duration (so agents were under pressure to end each call within say two minutes). You’d probably see a rise in the number of calls handled every hour and might feel you could congratulate yourself, but in doing this it’s likely that you have damaged customer satisfaction. A narrow goal arising from the functioning of the call centre has blinded you to the real purpose of that centre. Similarly in education, if you’re going to emphasise narrow academic achievement you need to ask yourself about the value of everything else that you’re ignoring.

Clearly there are subject areas where you would want to know that a student had the necessary knowledge to move on to the next level, but even here there are many different ways of assessing that knowledge. Traditional formal exams generally test the ability to deploy recent intensively-learned information under pressure. That skill in itself isn’t particularly useful, though I’d accept it has proved itself to have some value when assessing a student’s ability to follow a traditional degree qualification. But there are other ways to get to the assessment, ways that might be more accurate (after all traditional exams are susceptible to intensive coaching, which again reinforces the class bias of the system).

External exams start from a worthwhile ambition to achieve some kind of objectivity in assessment, but again the kind of judgements that get made may be misleading. Two students falling close to either side of a grade boundary will appear to have achieved different grades when in fact their performances were broadly similar. In some ways this is inevitable, but equally it’s probably unnecessary. If the purpose of education is to enable students to develop their skills, then certification needs to focus on demonstrable competence rather than hoop jumping abilities. Internal assessment is likely to be more accurate here than external. It can be made as reliable as any other professional assessment by removing the distorting pressure that comes from correlating teaching competence with pupil performance (abolishing our practically meaningless school league tables would be a good start).

In other words if the purpose of the assessment is look at the strengths and weaknesses of the student, with a view to helping that student rather than pinning a grade on him or her then it’s likely to be more helpful and real. This assessment and certification should be there to help the student move through the modular options of this much wider and more flexible curriculum. The clear purpose of the system should be to prepare its students for the next stage of their lives, whether that means a degree course, further technical training, or direct employment. Students at that stage should be able to present a portfolio of their completed modules and from it build a statement about who they are and what they can do. This could be more meaningful (and useful across a wider range of contexts) than the current system of personal statements required for university entrance, which itself has proved necessary to supplement the commodification of exam performance.

If tutors themselves are not judged against a crude exam performance (let alone having the college’s funding linked to it, as happens at the moment in further education) then those tutors will have no reason to distort their assessments. They can stay focused on the student and his or her real needs. It’s true this means trusting the professionalism of the tutors, but that’s what we usually do with professionals. It’s hard to think of any other area of working life where government ministers and their civil servants feel so entitled to wade into areas where they have neither the professional competence nor the imagination to judge what’s in front of them.

I’d go further and say it’s a sign of how far the current examination system is broken that a first degree has become itself commodified. I don’t believe that this is because those exams have become “dumbed down”, but because what they measure is no longer helpful to potential employers or higher educators. We need a more robust (and broader) understanding of what we mean by competence in the real conditions of our society, and we need to remove an assessment system which is not serving it.

We might then begin to reconstruct an education system designed to give that competence in all its varied forms to all of our children.

I started by saying that this piece is a provocation, not a blueprint. But for once the devil is not in the detail. The devil is in a wholesale failure of vision, a stupefying failure to consider that a changing world might need changing ideas. I’m not suggesting that I have all the answers. What I have in reality are some pretty angry questions, and they need answers. If you have your own ideas it would be great to hear them. If you think these ideas are worth discussion, then please share and spread the word.

Changing education (part three)

Changing education (part three)

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

Changing education (part two)

Changing education (part two)

2: Matters of fact

In the first part of this essay I focused primarily on the misguided aims of our current system. I want to look now at the way curriculum design reflects those misguided aims and ignores the skills that students will increasingly need for their futures.

Enriching experience

The curriculum is vastly overspecified and overcrowded. I don’t know of any teacher who doesn’t struggle with the daily pressure of trying to cram things in. This pressure isn’t conducive to imaginative and inspiring teaching and it’s also easing out so-called soft subjects like music and art, which in the circumstances is little short of catastrophic.

Why do children need to be forced a diet of “facts” about how the world is or has been? Unless some disaster overtakes the internet, in the future those facts will always be at our fingertips.

To take just one example, what is the point of teaching children laborious techniques for long division or multiplication, when for the rest of their lives they will have a calculator at hand? I’m not a mathematician, but as far as I can tell learning these old techniques doesn’t teach us anything fundamental about numbers. Certainly when they were inculcated in me they were just steps you had to go through mechanically in order to get to an answer. I can see now they involved some underlying principles around working in base 10, but these were not explained, presumably because it was thought (rightly) that they would just confuse us. So in terms of what we learnt it was just a process, a process which can be done far more efficiently and reliably with your mobile phone.

There are many basic mathematical and arithmetical concepts that still need to be taught, and there are still some unpalatable things like the rote learning of multiplication tables which might be valuable for a few reasons. But let’s distinguish these concepts from things which really have no value, and in doing so free some time to look at things that matter.

IT has changed the rules about what information we need to retain, and in doing so has highlighted a useful difference between information and knowledge. Knowledge you might say is what you get when you combine information with experience, and in a world where information is always going to be easily available, the focus of education needs to shift to enriching experience.

Specifically this means equipping students with the intellectual and experiential frameworks not only to find the information they need, when they need it, but also to make useful sense of it. This has always been true, but the task must look very different now from the way it did fifty years ago (even if Michael Gove and his cronies seem to have their heads firmly lodged in a fifty year old model).

Most work now in one way or another is “knowledge work”, which is why employers have started putting a premium on the abstractions of creativity or “thinking out of the box”. If employees are to bring these qualities to work then the enriched experience delivered by education needs to one which stimulates curiosity, imagination and a continuing hunger for learning. We have moved beyond a condition where the information acquired at school or college can sustain us through a working lifetime. Nurturing flexibility, adaptability, and an embrace of lifelong learning has become far more important than remembering exactly what Metternich was up to at the Congress of Vienna (these things aren’t mutually exclusive, but actually the latter is a means to an end, while the former is the proper object of a modern education).

These qualities of flexibility and self-directed learning have to some extent been more visible in a good higher education, which has tended to give students more choice in what they studied, and how they studied it (combining lectures, reading, small group tuition and larger group seminars). It would seem sensible to extend the best of these methods (though not the narrow academic goals) to secondary education (and transform higher education in the process, but that’s for another piece).

You might say that few students in secondary education have the maturity to shape their own learning like this. I’m not suggesting they do it without support and structure, and I would only observe that our current practice of forcing students to sit in classes while throwing information at them has proved itself totally ineffective for nearly half of our young people. It is literally a waste of time and money.

Instilling enthusiasm

We need to do things differently, though ironically through something educationalists have been pushing for for years, namely personalised learning. And really what I want to say here is that the current structure of secondary education has itself become an unnecessary barrier to personalised learning, and that’s why we need to get rid of it.

So here are a few suggestions.

Don’t force children into primary school at four or five, or more specifically, don’t start the curriculum at that age (in any case I am going to be arguing shortly for a much looser or broader notion of a curriculum). Ideally there should be universal nursery provision from three to seven. Children could still be introduced to concepts of number and reading in this phase, as well as other ideas that might excite their natural curiosity, but that’s the point. Nursery provision should be about socialisation and stimulation, stimulating imagination and the free play of ideas.

From seven to 12, primary schools should continue with this stimulation and openness, but with a clear agenda to impart good functional skills in reading, writing and arithmetic. I don’t apologise for this traditional emphasis. Too many children are still emerging from school (primary and secondary) without those functional skills, and without those skills they are cut off from their proper heritage.

There is no short cut here: improving performance depends fundamentally on individual attention to the learner, so class sizes will need to be halved (at least). Some of the cost could be offset by the fact that the primary stage is starting later (the nursery stage, while important, will not require the same number of fully trained teachers, freeing those teaching skills for the primary stage). We also need to see the bigger picture when it comes to cost. A substantial proportion of the prison population is functionally illiterate. The causal chain is no doubt complex, but equally there can be little doubt that a substantial investment in primary education could radically reduce other (high) social and economic costs.

The literacy and numeracy goals should be clearly defined, but in every other respect we need to trust our teachers to work out the most stimulating ways to help children develop these skills. It’s unlikely to be through rote teaching of dry techniques and facts, but through project work which might happen to include (for instance) arithmetical elements. There could be a general requirement through these projects to introduce basic ideas about history, science, and other languages, but I can see no value at all in insisting that all children should be taught a uniform group of government-defined “facts”. Teachers need to be free to teach via their own passions and enthusiasms, because that enthusiasm is usually the most infectious element, and the most important thing a child can retain (the facts are always out there to search and find quickly).

All of this will lay the foundations for the radical change at the age of 12, the subject of part three.

Part three


Changing education (part one)

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