Schools – back to basics
Sometimes a series of unconnected events conspire to turn a vague conviction into a firm opinion. Try these three:
I asked one of my sons, a bright boy in year nine of a fast improving school, why he thought the mangetout I was serving for his supper were so-called. As he failed to identify either the word for eat or for all, I realised that in nearly two hundred hours of French lessons he has learnt less than he could have in a single afternoon if the teaching was effective and he were motivated to learn. I am pretty sure this is true for many of the other subjects he has ‘studied’ in Key Stage Three, and that the lack of learning is common among his schoolmates.
Yesterday a group of Cabinet Office policy advisers came to the RSA to speak to me and a member of our education team about future policies. As I spoke to them I found myself arguing that school education, particularly secondary school education, is simply failing; a huge amount of the time that older children spend in school is completely wasted. What is needed is not just a loosening of the curriculum or making marginal improvements in teaching quality (welcome though these changes are) but much more radical thinking, questioning some of the fundamental assumption about the purposes of education and the way schools are organized.
This morning there was an excellent leader in The Times (not naturally one of our most radical publications) taking its prompt from the postponement of GCSEs due to the weather to argue that England’s pupils are over-examined and under-educated
The RSA Opening Minds curriculum was developed precisely because so much of what went on in Key Stage Three (11-14) was clearly pointless, and the schools that have used OM best have transformed learning for this age group. But what has come home to me is the system wide nature of failure. The problem is not primarily that schools aren’t doing what is expected of them but that what they bare being asked to do is deeply misguided.
I know from previous comments on these pages that many of this blog’s readers will agree (indeed will think it is blindingly obvious). But there will be much disagreement about what to do. My starting point is this; schools need the space to become intelligent institutions. By this I mean three things:
Places which have aligned what they do with the core real-world mission (not maximising exam passes, but helping young people enjoy life and achieve their full potential)
Places which are reflexive, by which I mean everyone in the institution (and its key external stakeholders and partners) feel they have been involved in developing the mission, sign up to it and have a stake in making it real.
Places with a high degree of accountability (particularly lateral accountability); so that people have the confidence and trust to be open about their own and each other’s contribution to the mission and how that could be enhanced. The problem with the Government’s focus on teacher quality is that it sees quality primarily as a function of teacher selection and training and (negative) performance management when what matters most is the way teachers are deployed, the way they collaborate and their motivation as members of the school community.
A combination of over centralisation, narrow parental objectives and producerism (even though Government, parents and trade unions genuinely think they want what’s best for children) ensures that only exceptional schools with exceptional leaders meet these criteria, and then only by skating on thin ice. The ultimate measure of reforms should be whether they make it more or less likely that more schools can become truly intelligent institutions.
Often in public policy the changes that can come from reform aren’t as great as policy makers and politicians, seeking a raison d’etre, imagine. But in relation to secondary schooling the transformation that could be wrought by a complete rethinking of how we do schooling are, I am convinced, huge.