“O tempore o mores” as Jacob Rees-Mogg might say. Or “OMG what on earth is going on?” as other less rarified individuals would say. As someone who has lived through interesting times – I do remember being a teenager during the politically turbulent seventies – I am acutely aware of how uncertainty can impact on young people. And we are undoubtedly living in a time of uncertainty.
What should this mean for those of us tasked with educating our young people? For me, more than ever, schools should be prioritising students’ emotional well being and mental health – and I don’t just mean ensuring schools have the resources to employ appropriate mental health experts. I mean offering a curriculum which is about promoting a love of learning rather than one where the primary focus appears to me to quantify pupil progress through the generation of data. Of course we require data to make informed decisions about teaching and learning, however, because of government metrics around this, my very strong sense is that the well being agenda inevitably slips.
Nothing illustrates this better than the new Goveian qualifications which hang like a dark cloud over Key Stages 4 and 5. Content is king so if you can’t hack memorising a whole load of stuff, well, it’s just bad luck! You will fail. And there will be many young learners who struggle with this very old fashioned approach to assessment. It inevitably suits a certain sort of learner but what about those who shine when assessed orally? Or those who may not achieve high grades but, my goodness, are demonstrating social responsibility through volunteering?
Interestingly the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme offered across the world, whilst being academically rigorous, is assessed in a range of different ways. There is linear assessment at the end of the two year course but there is also group work, presentations, an extended essay, coursework and value given to participating in creative, action and service activities. As a qualification it assesses students in the round whereas Gove’s reformed qualifications suit a very specific type of learner.
It angers me that our national qualification framework is so far removed from promoting the learning essential for our students to thrive in our fast paced world. Teachers of course will do their level best to ensure students are prepared for the quintessentially twentieth century testing. But why are we doing this? Gove’s legacy desire to drive up standards is instead creating unnecessary stress and pressure on young people who really need a more enlightened approach to assessment.
If the government really wants to support schools’ efforts to offer a healthy environment for students it needs to examine the purpose of education. At a time of existential crisis in our country we owe our children more than the prospect of examinations which are more about our past than their future. We need leaders who understand this and who have the imagination to engage with education as it needs to be. We need to focus on engendering a love of learning rather than a fear of testing. We need to make education our goal.
As John Dewey (1859-1952) an American philosopher and educational reformer, said:
“Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.”
Knowledge is power. Or is it? It is fair to say that there has been something of an onslaught on the integrity and indeed authority of knowledge in recent times.
As a student of history I am aware of course that there is no such thing as absolute truth and that knowledge exists within a context. My first real experience of interrogating different versions of the past came when I was studying the French Revolution at ‘A’ Level. Miss Cross, my brilliant history teacher, helped us understand the historiography of this mile stone in world history. The raw marxist analysis of a bourgeois revolution contrasted sharply with the revisionist viewpoints which challenged the origins and shape of the revolution itself. I found this fascinating and learnt from a young age the vital importance of interrogating evidence presented as fact which of course underpins knowledge.
This approach has stood me in good stead over the years. Critical thinking, discussion and robust debate, the seeking of a greater truth are all a staple of our civilised society. Hence the dismay of many at the rise of a phenomenon known as “fake news”. Whether it is a number posted on the side of a bus, the size of the crowd at a Presidential inauguration or straightforward climate change denying, it has become much more difficult to understand the world around us. A pervasive disregard for the search for some kind of truth and disrespect for experts is leading us all down an uncertain path.
This concern about how best to educate our children for a more dystopian world is exacerbated of course by the ease of access to the omnipresent World Wide Web. Part truths and down right lies can travel so quickly these days across social media echo chambers embedded in the internet. A recent House of Lords report asserts that learning to survive in a world dominated by the internet should be as important for children as reading and writing. It strongly recommends that every school in the UK should ensure every child is digitally literate and in addition to mandatory lessons about online responsibilities, risks and acceptable behaviour, the Lords Communications Committee highlights the dangers of fake news.
Fake news is also drawing the attention of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Its Director of Education and Skills, Andreas Schleicher, has urged that children should be taught in schools how to spot fake news. Schleicher, speaking before the Global Education and Skills Forum in Dubai, argues that the ability to distinguish fact from fiction was essential in the modern age and teachers, in his view, were well placed to provide guidance.
“Distinguishing what is true from what is not true is a critical skill today,” argues Schleicher. “Exposing fake news, even being aware that there is something like fake news, that there is something that is written that is not necessarily true, that you have to question, think critically. That is very important. This is something that we believe schools can do something about.”
Such is the concern of the OECD, they plan to add another strand to the current testing regime of the Programme for International Assessment (PISA), testing young people’s attitudes to global issues and different cultures, their analytical and critical skills, and abilities to interact with others. Schleicher says the assessment will be about “the capacity of young people to see the world through different perspectives, appreciate different ideas, be open to different cultures”.
Encouragingly educators in this country are taking up the cudgels in the face of the viral firestorm of fake news. A recent conference at Cranleigh debated whether a way of combatting this intellectual blight was to introduce philosophy as a GCSE in schools. Professor Angie Hobbs, a professor of the public understanding of philosophy at the University of Sheffield, argues that a study of philosophy offers skills to students in critical thinking, currently lacking in the curriculum. Link to Twitter
I am not convinced that Professor Hobbs is correct in assuming that a broad, balanced and rigorous curriculum in itself is not sufficient to educate independently minded critical thinkers – after all our reliance on such an approach has served us in good stead in the past. Yet undoubtedly there is a tension here. The content heavy curriculum of the new revised qualifications’ framework at GCSE and ‘A’ Level is in danger of becoming an intellectual straight jacket with assessment as its master. Inevitably pressures of time stifle opportunities for a broader learning experience which takes the students beyond the test.
As a Foundation we are committed to offering an education which is underpinned by critical thinking in its broadest sense. Our teachers work tirelessly to encourage an approach to learning which prizes curiosity, independent thought and creativity. In addition to the six areas of knowledge and understanding, we offer Philosophy4Children and thinking skills embedded in an integrated curriculum for our younger learners; a discrete non examined learning curriculum in the senior school designed by teachers for the sole intention of promoting learning for learning’s sake; and the requirement for all our sixth form students, whether IB or ‘A’ Level, to study Theory of Knowledge, a compulsory component of the IB Diploma Programme, which is the perfect antidote to fake news.
What is absolutely clear is that education is the key – as it always has been. And every student has an entitlement to an education which is based on breadth, depth and rigour. The ability solely to pass a test does not prepare anyone to call out half truths and lies when they see them.
As we all know too well, we live in a hard nosed age where the school curriculum has to deliver value for money. Within the curriculum, creative subjects can offer low hanging fruit to hard pressed Head Teachers looking to make budgets add up and to deliver on the government’s educational agenda. So the question has to be asked (in the immortal spirit of Life of Brian): What has creativity ever done for us?
Well, quite a lot really. Let’s start with the measurable – the economy. Only a year ago the government was proud to announce the buoyancy of the sector – not only did the UK’s creative industries grow by 8.9 per cent in 2014, almost double the UK economy as a whole, the UK’s creative industries were worth a record £84.1 billion in 2016. The then Minister for Culture, Ed Vaizey, declared:
“The creative industries are one of the UK’s greatest success stories, with British musicians, artists, fashion brands and films immediately recognisable in nations across the globe. Growing at almost twice the rate of the wider economy and worth a staggering £84 billion a year, our creative industries are well and truly thriving and we are determined to ensure its continued growth and success.”
So creativity ticks the box for economic productivity.
The creative mind, although often inspired by the creative arts, is not defined by them. True creativity allows for a different way of thinking, a way which challenges established conventions and can overcome seeming barriers to achieve desired outcomes. As the poet Emily Dickinson mused:
“The Possible’s slow fuse
is lit by the Imagination.”
In our city we have the privilege of living and working alongside entrepreneurial individuals in Silicon Fen whose knowledge combined with creativity results in the most extraordinary advances in science, engineering and technology, advances which have an impact globally. There is I believe a strong case to be made that creativity is integral to an entrepreneurial mindset and given the uncertainties that face us in the future arguably such a mindset will be critical. Another tick in the box for utility.
Yet what about art for arts sake? What about the enriched relationship individuals can enjoy with the creative arts? In my own school the creative arts are an essential and integral part of the curriculum for every student from Pre-Prep until the end of Key Stage 3 and are popular options as part of the GCSE provision and in the Sixth Form. There are a myriad of opportunities for our creative students within and beyond the curriculum whether they be artists, actors, photographers, musicians, film makers, poets, composers or costume designers (an illustrative rather than exhaustive list!). With the express intention of seeking to inspire our students, we value this hugely important dimension of school life. Whilst immeasurable, creative arts in school tick an important box in the personal development of individuals.
An example of the transformative power of the creative arts within the city is being spearheaded by artist Catarina Clifford. Her project demonstrates admirably how fundamental creative arts can be to emotional well being. Catarina, a volunteer artist in residence with Cambridgeshire and Peterborough NHS Foundation Trust’s Arts Therapies Service, has been instrumental in organising an exhibition at Addenbrooke’s which hopes to reduce the stigma around mental health. Catarina observes of her exhibition: “I hope as many people as possible will take a moment to study the portraits. They are all of people who have … experience of mental health issues, and I wanted to portray them the way they wanted to be seen.” Catarina, who herself has experienced mental health issues, says of the project: “It has been really inspiring to help and encourage [people] to be creative. It has also helped me regain my own creative identity, and make my own art again. ”
In my view a creative hinterland is critical both for our human endeavour and for personal fulfilment. And the beauty of creativity is that it has no end. As Maya Angelou commented :
“You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have.”
I have been employed in education as a teacher and latterly a leader for over thirty years. Given my subject is History, I have always been cautious about engaging in politics. Far be it for me to expound my views to young people on how they should live their lives. However, for the first time in my career, the moderate agenda which has acted as the lodestone for political discourse in my lifetime, is under threat. So what does this mean for schools?
I am proud to say that the Stephen Perse Foundation, the schools which I have the privilege to lead, are united by our common ethos. We believe that education is about more than qualifications. We are committed to encouraging critical thinking. “Fake news” will be interrogated and challenged. The disturbing peddling of lies by people of influence will be challenged through intelligent enquiry and debate.
We have a powerful tradition of compassion. As the Perse School for Girls, our former incarnation as an institution, we welcomed refugees into our school community. During the Thirties and World War Two, refugee children from Nazi Germany sought asylum in our city. Miss Mary Cattley, the then headmistress, would actively seek out girls amongst refugees to offer them a place in the school. Erika and Doris Rath, German Jewish girls who came to Cambridge as part of the Kindertransport, joined our school at Miss Cattley’s instigation. Indeed Doris performed so well academically that she was advised by Miss Cattley to take the school certificate.
We also believe in fostering tolerance and understanding. Never before has it been so important to appreciate the cultural differences between people. As we struggle over issues of identity, I cannot but be drawn to the views of Jo Cox, the tragically deceased MP, who observed in her maiden speech to the House of Commons:
“Batley and Spen is a gathering of typically independent, no-nonsense and proud Yorkshire towns and villages. Our communities have been deeply enhanced by immigration, be it of Irish Catholics across the constituency or of Muslims from Gujarat in India or from Pakistan, principally from Kashmir. While we celebrate our diversity, what surprises me time and time again as I travel around the constituency is that we are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us.”
Educators must not lose sight of the real life imperative to ensure our pupils are equipped educationally to engage with a world where previous givens are now uncertainties. The ability to influence and lead the debate around our national values in an inclusive and positive way has never been so important. No longer can leaders of schools assume that the British Values, which schools are tasked with including in their curriculum by the Department of Education, are shared values nationally or globally.
As such, Jo Cox’s vision of society is a model and inspiration to which we should aspire. As a leader of a school, I shall carry her torch of tolerance, understanding and compassion. We may be in uncertain times but, I believe with an education based upon these principles, we can ensure that we find a way through for our young people.