Education in our schools is about tidiness. Clear linear progression provides the guide rails leading inexorably to the national qualification framework. Here the object of this experience, aka “the student”, is neatly packaged and labelled before moving on to the next designated weigh station. For the avoidance of doubt, this entire process is premised on certainty about context. Whether that’s educating young people for the traditional workplace or for Higher Education, that’s the system and the system will prevail. The rolling out of the Goveian reforms to the national qualification framework are simply the retro icing on this traditional cake.
I write this with my tongue firmly in my cheek. Not because I do not believe our education system is in an unfortunate straight jacket, but because I find it extraordinary that, whilst the world around us all is changing exponentially, the learning environment for our young people is stuck. It is as if young learners today are living and learning in a binary world. Their avatars in the world they are growing up in are participants in the technological revolution flitting from one digital device to another, navigating social media platforms, taking “Blade Runner” like innovation in their stride. Inevitably there is also a darker side to the revolution posed by the challenges and stresses of living in a state of constant connectivity. Indeed the unprecedented mental and emotional pressure on our digitally connected youth is now a cause of national angst. Even Jeremy Hunt, the Health Secretary, has weighed in to the debate about the young and use of social media platforms.
Yet once youngsters cross the threshold of a school they become a cog in the national education wheel which rolls on remorselessly without any meaningful reference to either the digital present or what the future holds. The government juggernaut is mercifully mitigated by the staff in schools who spend their professional life supporting their charges both academically and pastorally. Even a cursory viewing of the various Channel 4 programmes with their fly on the wall insights into teacher – student relationships is a powerful testimony to this. Nevertheless, at the end of the day Head teachers are held accountable for examination results not how well a young person is prepared for the world they will inhabit.
Viewed through the prism of a fundamentally different future, until we take an holistic approach to learning, valuing the whole not just what can be measured in the examination hall (in itself questionable), we are light years away from the “untidy” education our young desperately need. Their lives will require more than the narrow academic grounding offered by the assessment framework currently. Yes, critical thinking remains vitally important. However, this is but one of the numerous tools youngsters need in life’s Toolkit where character and values are as important as knowledge and skills.
The purpose of education should not be about doing more of the same just because that is how we have always done it. Surely learning in schools should be about ensuring our young people are learners for the lives they will lead. Who knows what exciting opportunities will present themselves? Life is their future adventure – to truly support them we must be prepared to think differently about education today.
Back in the summer of 2014 I was invited to attend an international event hosted at the Googleplex in California. Unsurprisingly, given the location, the point of bringing together a range of people with different subject disciplines from across the world was to imagine a different future. I was really inspired by the people I met and the discussions I had. Yet I returned to my silo in Cambridge marking up my experience as one for the “scrapbook of memorable things that happen in life” and moved on.
By moving on, of course I mean returning to the expectations of school life. In education our lives are divided by terms punctuated by the beginning of another academic year. As such the pattern of a school life is metronomic in nature. Children duly progress through key stages from Early Years to Key Stage 5 and because of the unforgiving straight jacket of qualifications, the focus for young people as they move through school is on learning how to pass examinations. It is my very strong belief that education is trapped in this cycle. It is as if we are all doomed to repeat what we have done before for no other reason than we have done it before! Add to this the Goveian reform of our qualification framework, which in itself appears a retrograde step, and the relevance of what we call education to the future lives of our young people appears increasingly questionable.
Why do I say that? Because the world I glimpsed from the Googleplex is upon us. It is already bringing about extraordinary changes in our lives. Artificial Intelligence (AI), for example, is part of our every day lives with developments happening at such a pace we even have the Chancellor discussing the impact of driverless cars on our economy in the near future. Nearly every day national papers carry stories about a future incredibly different from today where whole swathes of jobs are automated or taken over by robots. We are indisputably living in revolutionary times.
Let us contrast this exciting extraordinary future with the thinking in education today. Only recently at an event hosted by the Policy Exchange think-tank, Nick Gibb, Minister for Education, hailed the reemergence of the textbook as the solution to delivering the National Curriculum in our schools. Where to begin unpacking this assertion? That may well be so at one level. I understand the importance of curation and offering a framework for teachers in their delivery of the curriculum. But this is not a preparation for life. I would argue that Mr Gibb and the DfE are not focussing on what the future will be but rather have defaulted to schooling of the past. Certainly when I was growing up in the sixties and seventies content was prized above all else and the examinations set by the university boards were about preparation for university. This approach to education today is little short of Luddite.
Surely as we educate our young people for their future we should be using digital tools to support their learning? Rather than talking about textbooks Mr Gibbs should be focussing on tech books. There are many digital platforms which would support an enriched interactive learning environment – by its very nature it can easily offer differentiation as well as adaptive testing. All the content that needs to be covered can be but in this learning eco system there are endless opportunities for creativity, collaboration and critical thinking. Given technology will be integral to the lives of young people, why not harness it in schools to model ways of using powerful devices for learning?
So how do I know? Because we, along with other schools in this country and across the world, are doing just this. Digital devices offer our learners and teachers another tool in their Toolkit which transform the learning environment within and beyond the classroom. Learning is mobile, learning is different and learning is relevant to our young people’s future. Educators must raise their focus from qualifications and data and see the future and understand what the future means for today.
Interestingly Amanda Spielman, Chief Inspector of Ofsted, is raising red flags around the narrowing of the curriculum in schools. According to Spielman, testing has become “inadvertently to mean the curriculum in its entirety” for some schools. What madness is this?
A random chat with a colleague who has worked previously in the maintained sector added depth and shade to this assertion. Surprise, surprise – you create a metric all around defined data and the behaviour of a school moves away from education to achieving the goals set out by the Department for Education (ironically). She observed at first hand students being removed from sport, creative lessons and the humanities to undergo “interventions” in English and Mathematics to boost their performance in GCSEs. It is therefore encouraging that the new Chief Inspector appears to have a fuller appreciation of the purpose of education.
The key question is what is education for? Please, please can we move beyond our national focus on qualifications. Yes, qualifications provide a kite mark of how well a student performs in examination conditions against others. However, what about the learning which cannot be assessed in a terminal examination? What about the softer skills which enable young people to communicate effectively, work well in a team and have the capacity to understand an alternative viewpoint? Why oh why do we not value these skills within the educational setting? I find it instructive that universities are keen to identify employability skills related to the degrees they offer – the range of skills are myriad and range far beyond the ability to complete a terminal written examination.
Education surely should be focusing on preparing our young people for a life of unknowns. The century we live in has already witnessed exponential change in a host of ways. The digital revolution has transformed our lives for better and for worse with intended and unintended consequences. The rapid development of Artificial Intelligence (AI) offers new exciting opportunities whilst also posing important questions about our own role in society. It is estimated that 30% of jobs which are currently undertaken by people today in the UK will be automated by 2030s and 38% in the USA. Undoubtedly new roles will be created but who knows what these roles will be?
The best equipped students for this future will be those who can think critically, are creative, are intellectually nimble adapting quickly and well to different circumstances. I would argue that this has been ever thus but the difference today is the growing divergence between what is happening in schools and the wider world beyond. Certainly in the schools I lead the focus is on the learner as an individual offering a broad, balanced and stimulating curriculum underpinned by clear values within a digital eco system and inspiring learning spaces. Our mantra of breadth and depth is evident across the 3-18 age range culminating in our sixth form with a choice of qualification. Alongside the national A Level qualification we also offer the IB diploma programme requiring every student in our sixth form college to participate in key aspects of the IB.
Of course, teachers are critical in inspiring and guiding our students. They are the most important resource in any school. But is enough being done to support and inspire teachers? It is well known that whilst teachers are leaving the profession in droves, fewer are joining. Soulless examination factories do not offer an attractive career route for many potentially excellent teachers. Just imagine if schools encouraged creativity, innovation and scholarship in their teachers? What an attractive opportunity that would be to those genuinely interested in pedagogy and learning.
So I applaud Amanda Spielman’s observations on the direction of travel of education in this country. If she makes her thinking a reality not only will she be ensuring our young people are ready for their future, she will also go a long way to making teaching an attractive option for those who wish to make a positive difference to young lives.
“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.”