Editorial: Education

Friday, July 1st, 2011

It is time for a major rethink about the way we educate our children and young people. We argued in a recent editorial that time needs to be spent debating the major social policy issues we face, so that a consensus can be built up among the major stake-holders – in the case of education, there are the politicians, the professionals, the parents and the children themselves. If major change is to take place it needs more than a few months’ consultation.There are certainly plenty of aspects of the education system which merit discussion – the respective roles of comprehensive schools, academies, free schools and public schools, for example. The range of types of school, the number of new initiatives and the diminishing role of local education authorities suggests that we are in for an unplanned free-for-all. Then there is the curriculum and the examination system. Or the question whether teaching is a profession or not, which the Secretary of State appears to doubt. And of course we are heading for a strike about the pensions system, a rarity in the education system.

These are some of the current issues, and some may be resolved before long. We are arguing for a much more fundamental questioning. What are schools for? What is education about? What do we hope to achieve for the huge sums of money we are spending? Will the demands and opportunities of the twenty-first century suggest that changes are needed?

The debate on these points might result in no change at all. The country could conclude that we have good schools, committed professional teachers and a sound curriculum. In which case, we carry on as before. Or it could be decided that we need a radical shake-up, despite the good qualities of the current system, if we are to cope with the international competition of the world economy.

To take stock briefly, we have inherited a system of schools, influenced by historical requirements. We have the system of ecclesiastical terms adopted by lawyers, universities and then schools. Is this pattern helpful? Why have the long summer holiday, when children get bored and parents get frazzled? Why have exams in the heat of the early summer? Why not in early December at the end of the calendar year? There may be good answers, but it will do no harm to think through these things again.

We have a system in which schools usually have hundreds of pupils, over a thousand in many cases. When people used to work in their thousands in mills, coal mines and ship yards, the social pressure to prepare people in large numbers for such employment may have made large schools a good idea. People generally work in smaller units now; are the large schools the best place to prepare children and young people for adult life?

Children are taught subjects according to timetables. Is this the best way to learn? How would a month abroad compare as a way of absorbing a language, by comparison with the fluency achieved in the same time in 40-minute lessons over several years? Are the subjects the most important? Is thinking in subjects stultifying, or do we need to develop ways of thinking creatively across a wide range of material?

Most important of all, what is education for? It seems that a number of influential people, including the Secretary of State for Education, think that education is primarily about schooling – gaining knowledge and developing skills which can be tested through exams. But what of the development of the whole child? Learning in school in the traditional manner can be a significant part of it, but there is a lot more besides.

In school children should be learning how to think and analyse, how to study, how to work accurately, how to be creative and imaginative, how to structure their work, how to cope with risk. They need to be motivated to enjoy work, to be stretched and to be challenged. In the twenty-first century we need people who are self-starters, not members of the huge workforces in nineteenth century industry. Is the current system effective in achieving such goals?

Then there is the social learning on the part of children and young people. At present they spend their formative years in stratified peer groups, often in large numbers. Is this the best way of preparing them for an intergenerational society? Would smaller local community schools, using IT to provide the specialist input, create more stable communities and better understanding between the generations, who could all learn together? Could families become learning centres, rather than the places where children seek solitude in front of their screens after school? Do we need schools at all?

We are raising lots of questions and we are not suggesting any particular answers at this point, but we do think that the debate needs to be fundamental. The present system has many strengths, but it also has weaknesses, and it is failing a proportion of children and young people – those who truant, who are bullied, who are not motivated or interested, or who leave with poor attainments. The education system is important for the future of the country, and it merits a really good debate with a view to a consensus for action.

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