Education: We Are the People We’ve Been Waiting For

Last Friday I attended Channel 4’s launch of a new film looking at how education has failed the young people of today and how the legacy of pre-Victorian education systems is inappropriate for the future of the UK.  The film certainly had its shortcomings.  Its tracking of a number of students from Swindon in south east London did tend to veer into caricatures and its identification of problems in the UK education system didn’t focus clearly enough on class and the variations of learning opportunities in the UK.  It also tended to do something that always annoys me about discussions on education, in that it assumed that decisions made during school years shape one’s career forever (more on this later in this post).  And finally, it failed utterly in providing any sense of how we should go about reforming education.

But what the film did well was question the historical framework upon which education is built.  From 1870 in the UK (under the auspices of the English Elementary Education Act), there was a clear policy for educating all children, regardless of financial means.  Parents still had to pay for education for children aged 5-12 years even under this Act, but the comprehensive education system was designed to ensure that children would reach a minimum education level before entering trade.  As time went on, leaving age and the cost of schooling varied under various conservative and labour governments, but several aspects of the education system remained.  Specifically, there were curriculum systems developed based on age, rather than ability, and class formats focused predominantly on the chalk-and-talk, ‘empty-vessel‘ teaching strategy.

There is a substantial body of evidence about teaching and learning that indicates that engaged/situated learning, critical analysis and group work is a much more effective means of facilitating learning, and there’s also evidence that both gifted and struggling students are failed by a system which educates on the basis of age rather than ability.  But curriculum regulations operating in the UK as well as elsewhere in the Western world are forcing educators to sustain this outdated method of mass education, regardless of the benefits of ability-oriented, and facilitated learning techniques.

We tend to assume that the education system that taught us is sufficient for the purposes of the next generation, but there is absolutely no reason to make such an assumption.  As the cultural variance among school aged children broadens, and as the variance in learning styles of people are more readily understood, it is incumbent upon policy makers and society to consider different strategies in education.  But this means that there needs to be tolerance of different teaching styles and a reduction of rote learning in curriculum, in favour of critical understanding.  As a result, we need to rethink the value of all curriculum content, all teaching styles and all standardised assessment methods.  We may need to simply scrap current curriculum and standard testing systems altogether, in order to properly reform the system.

Finally, as I noted above, there needs to be a complete re-education of teachers, parents and the community about the importance of secondary education results.  There is still even among  otherwise bright people, the perception that if you don’t get certain results at high school, you will never get into certain careers.  This is a complete myth. In every course and every discipline I have ever come across, there are multiple opportunities to access courses and careers, regardless of your secondary school results.  Indeed, there are clear advantages in some professions of people pursuing alternative courses and careers prior to accessing their areas of interest.  Furthermore, young people of the current generation are unlikely to have a single career during the course of their working life. It is highly likely that most new graduates will have at least four different careers in their working lives, and a portfolio education background and working history will only work to benefit these graduates.  Specialisation will always exist in various disciplines, but without developing skills across a range of areas, it’s potentially a career-limiting move, rather than a career-development technique as has traditionally been the case.

The value of the C4 film then, is to set a framework for a more detailed analysis of what can and should be done about education in the UK.  I’d encourage C4 to support development of four or five other documentaries that look specifically at what can be done in education reform, and to finally debunk the relevance and perceived importance of GCSEs and A Levels for the careers of the next generation of school leavers.

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