Is reading being crowded out in our digital age?

I am proud that my school is at the forefront of deploying digital technology in the classroom.  Technology has become embedded in our learning environment and really is just another tool in the teachers’ and learners’ toolkit.  In a valedictory letter sent to me recently by parents, who were initially sceptical about the 1:1 deployment of iPads, I was delighted to read that they were now convinced that this had had a hugely positive impact on their daughter’s education observing that for her using digital technology is completely natural.

And yet, with the many upsides of our approach, we cannot ignore a broader trend being fuelled by the omnipresence of technology.  The very real concern of our teachers, particularly teachers of English, is the growing sense that reading as an activity is being crowded out by all the distractions offered by the digital age.  There is just so much instant gratification out there.  This emerging view is coloured by the exponential changes in the world around us which we all experience day-to-day.  It is of course always difficult to calibrate change when you are in the middle of it – there are no longitudinal studies to help us.  But we do have the professional experience of staff.  Our Curriculum Leader in English is of the view that over the last 5-6 years she and her colleagues have observed a real difference in the attitude of our students in reading for pleasure.  Indeed, such is her concern, that she and her colleagues are seriously considering introducing reading lessons in our senior school next year.

But the unintended consequences of the digital revolution go beyond merely the activity of reading.  There is also a growing awareness that what is being read does not necessarily fall within the classical canon of literature famously advocated by the previous Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove.  For many of our teenagers the lure of Dickens and Austen is cast into sharp relief by authors who take advantage of the free platforms to publish on the Internet.  The positive here is that at least this is evidence of reading but the real concern is about the quality of the literature being read.

So was Gove right, in his previous role, to insist that the classics of English Literature should be included in the National Curriculum and the reformed GCSE?  Certainly inclusion in the curriculum marks the importance of the English canon of literature.  Yet my concern is that force-feeding reading of the classics is not necessarily going to energise our young learners to want to explore the classics beyond Dickens and Austen.  The danger is that the classical canon of literature will be seen as the stuff for qualifications and irrelevant for reading for enjoyment.  

Do I have the answer to this very digital conundrum? I don’t think I do.  But I do know that by acknowledging this reality around reading at least we have made the first step in addressing it.  What was previously backgrounded in learning is now foregrounded.  How the English canon is passed down to future generations is the challenge and this is beyond merely the process of reading – it is about our cultural identity.

Mrs Morgan – how sad that we have come to this.

When Michael Gove had the baton of the education portfolio wrenched from his reluctant hands last year, I had some optimism that his successor, Mrs Nicky Morgan, would be more than Gove-lite. The new Secretary of State for Education has certainly made emollient noises about teachers and has even invited the teaching profession to share their concerns about workload. So I was somewhat dismayed when our Secretary of State whipped off her benign mask and showed her true colours. In an interview with the Sunday Times Nicky Morgan proclaimed: “We will expect every pupil by the age of 11 to know their times tables off by heart, to perform long division and complex multiplication and to be able to read a novel.” And how will she ensure this is achieved?

“The new tests for 11-year-olds we are introducing next year will be strengthened to ensure that every young person is meeting the mark.” Not so much Gove-lite but pure unadulterated Gove with the threat of dismissal for Heads who fail to ensure their pupils come up to the mark.

Where does one begin to respond to a Secretary of State who announces policy cloaked in threats? Accountability has become so much part of education that there is some perverted logic to extending it to sacking a Head Teacher for failing to “meet the mark” set by the Secretary of State for Education. After all in the push for academies there has already been collateral damage with Head Teachers’ careers coming to an abrupt end – all in the name of standards.

How utterly dismal and depressing it is that hard-working professionals can be viewed as mere flotsam and jetsam in the undulating waters of education policy. We have come a long way if a Head Teacher’s raison d’être is purely results with no regard for the broader educational imperative facing our young learners who are growing up in a world of exponential change. Of course youngsters need to learn the basics but if testing of basics to ensure children “come up to the mark” becomes the school’s major focus (because otherwise the Head Teacher will be presented with a P45), how far can a school’s function be truly educational?

Only recently the Department of Education published league tables which presented an extraordinary examination scenario where my school (where 93% of GCSE grades were A*/A last year), was awarded ‘0’ in the table because we offered a mix of GCSEs and IGCSEs. And we were not alone. We had examination league tables which were demonstrably cast straight from “Alice Through the Looking Glass” with high performing schools propping up the bottom of the table. Fortunately for me my job is not on the line. As an independent school we have the educational luxury of choosing the best qualification for our learners – we are not regulated by the latest diktat about league tables. Yet I am acutely conscious that this brutalist approach to measuring our schools is the iron-hand weighing on the shoulders of our school leaders across the country. Of course there are schools that can do better – indeed all schools should believe this is the case. Yet the battle-lines (and I use this term advisedly) which have been carved between the government and educators, means that the education of our young people, which is the most rewarding of challenges, has become a war of attrition, as evidenced by Mrs Morgan’s most recent announcement.

Most tragic of all, to me, is the underlying assumption presented by the Secretary of State for Education that Head Teachers and teaching staff don’t really care enough about how the children in their schools’ progress and it takes the cracking of a whip by Mrs Morgan to ensure each child performs. How sad that we have come to this.

Come the General Election, come another educational bandwagon – character.

I am greatly encouraged that Mrs Nicky Morgan, the new kid on the Education block, has conceded that education is about far more than merely the acquisition of qualifications. Indeed, she goes further in putting government money where her mouth is : “The &3.5m grant scheme for character education projects is a milestone in preparing young people more than ever before for life in modern Britain”.

As the leader of a school which values a holistic approach to education, I certainly would applaud this intention to give value to the overall personal development of an individual. What I question is why are we caught in the self-perpetuating matrix of segmenting learning in this way? Is “character” to be something else to be put onto the educational shopping-list of what schools must deliver to be solemnly measured by some arcane Ofsted measurement? I find it somewhat questionable that character development can be promoted through a series of character building “projects”. Mrs Morgan may argue that she is advocating a balanced education but for me this box ticking approach misses the point of what a good education should offer a youngster.

The learning environment valued by a school should be supporting the positive personal development of every learner. Far from box ticking, learners should be encouraged to think outside the comfort of their box – taking risks, learning from mistakes, taking the time to understand the perspectives of others. This can happen within the classroom in the curriculum where young people are encouraged to take intellectual risks and challenge others and not constantly feel that they are a set of data to be weighed. And of course in co-curricular activities where there are a myriad of opportunities for individuals to learn about themselves.

And how does this debate about character sit with the digital revolution which is changing our world in intended and unintended ways? The World Innovation Summit for Education, a Qatar sponsored education charity, recently carried out a survey of educational experts across the world asking their opinion about what schools will be like in 2030. The results are fascinating – if the predictions are right, a student’s interpersonal skills will be their most valued asset, with 75% of respondents ranking it number one compared to 42% for academic knowledge. In this world where online content will be king, it is argued that “old fashioned knowledge” becomes secondary. Collaboration, creativity and communication will be vital skills underpinned by critical thinking.

My view is that the debate is more evenly balanced because knowledge is integral to who we are. It strikes me that an approach to learning which values intellectual as well as personal development – not treating them as a false binary – will offer the best possible educational experience for youngsters in this future of unknowns. After all, studying the works of Shakespeare will give you a deep insight into resilience and grit in an abstract sense whilst an outward bound activity, for example the Duke of Edinburgh Award, places the learner in a personally challenging situation.

Actually Mrs Morgan, on reflection, I think we already have the tools for this task – let educational professionals get on and use them.

Schools must be the instrument of change

I have decided that I live my educational life in silos. The reform of examination qualifications is flexing its muscles in one silo; the debate about promoting character in schools is periodically erupting in another silo; and the relentless progress of digital learning marches on in apparent isolation from qualifications and character in its uniquely twenty first century silo. At what point will we join the dots?

I am a long serving school leader and am acutely conscious that education is part of the flotsam and jetsam of politics. As the head of an independent school, I know that the debate about education is layered. The independent sector has been on the receiving end of the backwash from Tristram Hunt’s announcement about holding independent schools accountable for the tax breaks we receive with his “no more something for nothing” meme. And schools in the maintained and independent sectors are definitely all in it together as we are confronted with the confusing changes to qualifications which are integral to the Goveian revolution of education. Yet surely we are capable of creating a better narrative for our education system which is responsive rather than reactive, which is based on principles underpinning learning rather than blatant ideology and which endeavours to take an holistic approach to teaching and learning with the learner at the heart of what we do?

I had the privilege of attending a National Baccalaureate Summit at Highbury School in London last month where I experienced for the first time an effort to look at educational differently. Tom Sherrington, Head of Highbury School, chaired a day where a range of people from schools, the examination bodies, and the Department for Education explored the possibility of creating a framework for a national baccalaureate. The sense of the meeting was that schools, far from being merely the instruments of government policy, actually can be the instruments of change. There was real belief that change will happen – that we can craft an overarching qualification which captures more about the learner than the narrow attainment evidenced by examinations. For the record, I am completely committed to this endeavour as I absolutely believe in the concept of a Baccalaureate and valuing more than just an examination grade.

But what about digital learning? I am very aware that the importance of digital learning is being led by individual schools and not by the Department for Education. I recently spoke at an Apple event about my school’s digital journey – about educating young people in an age of connectivity and ensuring our students are prepared for life in a world transformed by a digital revolution. The conference was well attended and I spoke to teachers who are absolutely committed to offering young people a learning eco-system which properly prepares them for their future.

Is it therefore the case that in order to ensure education is relevant for our youngsters’ future that schools have to take the lead? Is the Department for Education so politicised that principled decisions about education must be taken at a grass roots level? In my view, we can no longer wait for a lead from the government. Education is too important for this. Let those of us entrusted with the education of young people take a lead – we can be the difference.