What price education? There are of course a range of responses to this question. Currently the approach to education in this country is driven by the demands of the economy – we need young people who have basic literacy and numeracy skills, and those who aspire to Higher Education must pay for the privilege.
It was therefore striking and refreshing to have this view robustly challenged – not in this country but in South Africa. Novelist and academic JM Coetzee’s foreword to University of Cape Town fellow Professor John Higgins’s new book, a series of essays on “Academic Freedom in a Democratic South Africa” , captures succinctly a view premised on the public good.
“You argue – cogently – that allowing the transient needs of the economy to define the goals of higher education is a misguided and short-sighted policy: indispensable to a democratic society – indeed, to a vigorous national economy – is a critically literate citizenry competent to explore and interrogate the assumptions behind the paradigms of national and economic life reigning at any given moment. Without the ability to reflect on ourselves… we run a perennial risk of relaxing into complacent stasis.”
Coetzee’s primary concern is the absolute importance of the humanities which should not require special pleading to maintain their status within the life of a university. Whilst absolutely agreeing with the principle at the heart of this approach, it is not applicable to Higher Education alone. I believe this broader concept of what learning is for should underpin our approach to education in schools.
With a government which appears ever more obsessed with systems and measurement, our national debate on education becomes ever more reductionist. The lives of children are segmented into qualifications with a National Curriculum, itself a subject of some controversy, not mandatory for schools which are Academies or Free Schools. And as yet another government policy proposal is tweeted about ever before any proper consultation has taken place, educators are looking anxiously over their shoulders. For me, the triumph of process over vision in education is actually quite shocking.
The importance of educating a “critically literate citizenry” should be the Lode Star for a government of any political persuasion because our world is changing exponentially. We live in a time where the world is being transformed by the digital revolution, a revolution which has effectively sidestepped the conventional gatekeepers to information. The “anytime, anywhere” character of our lives made possible by digital technology is hugely exciting creating extraordinary opportunities.
But it also has a darker side. Those of us working in schools are very familiar with this. Whilst the press has focused on the perceived dangers of social media, there is also the realisation that the World Wide Web is the Wild West where everyone and anyone has a platform for better or ill. The instinct of adults is to try and protect young people from such unfiltered information. Any responsible school will operate some kind of screening to provide a learning Eco system which is balanced and responsible. However, the web exists outside of school where even the most careful of parents will struggle to police this particular Augean Stables.
As an independent school, we have the space to determine our own education philosophy. For us, in a time of rapid change, we believe absolutely in the concept of educating a “critically literate citizenry”. The vital importance of critical thinking – rarely mentioned in our national debate – is a prerequisite for anyone being educated in the digital age. With the emphasis on league tables and concomitant focus required from schools on this metric, it is quite possible that a young person can leave school with a clutch of good grades but frankly an inability to think independently. Indeed, we have received feedback from HE Admissions’ tutors who despair of candidates from very successful schools with a starry “A” profile yet cannot respond to questioning which takes them out of their specification comfort zone.
This is not an either/or issue. We believe strongly that students can achieve the necessary results to support their life chances but this need not be at the expense of their broader education. In the end, this is about what we value. And our school values a holistic approach to learning which is about the development of the individual. In the sound and fury surrounding education debate in this country, it is timely to remember the importance of educating the individual who must be critically literate in our brave new technological world.