When we do get back to school, let’s learn some important lessons
Posted on April 16, 2020
Local radio has its favourite rent-a-gobs and when it comes to matters educational, I fulfil that function for a number of stations in my area. About five weeks ago (or was it five months – hard to know) I did a piece about what would happen if exams couldn’t take place this summer.
I won’t go into chapter and verse and, besides, it’s immaterial now that events have overtaken us. What I did say, however, was that it was up to us as the grown ups in the room to reassure young people and to show how to manage things in times of difficulty. But what, the presenter insisted, would happen to those young people who were destined to go to university this September? How would the system cope?
The question goes to the heart of so much speculation about what life will be like once we have some sort of control over Covid19. We want to get back to normal, but what if normal wasn’t very good? Maybe normal needs to be disrupted. This might just be the time to have a good, hard look at just why we’ve been sticking to normal in our schools.
Let’s take the September start as an example. Ever wondered why we do this? Large parts of the world run their academic years from January to December, which would seem to make sense. The September start is a legacy from the start of compulsory education a century and a half ago. With agricultural work drawing to a close by early autumn, the authorities felt there was a chance of better attendance by waiting for children to be free of their obligations elsewhere. There may have been a logic to that in 1880 – it didn’t work well, by the way – but the rhythms of the harvest have a limited impact on the lives of most modern schoolchildren.
In a time when things are so challenging that we’ve decided, quite rightly, to cast off concerns about public spending in a way that would previously have been unthinkable, how difficult can it be to shift the academic year along a bit? OK – quite difficult. But impossible?
When it comes to the exams themsleves, there could be some genuine advantages born from adversity. Brace yourselves: this could be the perfect time to ditch an exam system for 16-year-olds (as well as all those daft tests for younger children) that is outmoded, cumbersome and has no pedagogical or educational value. Parents, teachers and young people have been dragged onto a treadmill dedicated to generating results at all costs and which is dull, repetitive and limited. Despite the best efforts of many dedicated and imaginative teachers, any resemblance between this process and meaningful learning is entirely coincidental.
I can hear the yelping. How will we know if children are making progress? How will we know how they compare to their peers? How will we know if they’re being prepared for employment? How will we know if teachers aren’t just dossing around and teaching them the wrong things?The answer’s simple: you trust schools and teachers to do the right thing. You stop constructing stupid league tables and you eliminate destructive competition between schools by funding them all properly. You give control to local, democratically accountable authorities. Still want an inspection system, just in case? The highly respected Her Majesty’s Inspectorate can do the same collegiate but rigorous job it used to do before being displaced by the universally despised Ofsted. There. Fixed that for you.
And while we’re at it, we can have a look at something else. In the late 1980s, Margaret Thatcher’s government intervened in the school curriculum in a way that no government in a developed democracy had ever previously done. Fundamentally, the outcome was little different from the traditional offering familiar to so many of her contemporaries, but the National Curriculum looked backwards and has been given no room to live, breathe or develop in the thirty years since its inception. The world’s changed since then – as has our knowledge about what we’re doing to it. We need a school curriculum, both formal and informal, that reflects this.
We’ve learnt that disaster can strike – but this isn’t the worst it can be. We know that we’re burning up the Earth and its resources and if we don’t change our collective behaviours and attitude – something we’re demonstrating we’re capable of doing – then no part of the world is immune from the consequences. When we do get our children back into schools, we can tell them that, for the moment, we’ve dodged a bullet, but we must learn to live in a different way. All aspects of how we treat our planet has to central to what we teach and how children learn about it; there’s no option.
And one last thing. All those things we have been forced to side-line in schools – art, music, drama, physical activity, dance and simple old play – well, it turns out that society needs those things to be at the very heart of how it conducts itself. Let’s not be so careless as to put them on the back-burner again.
There’s no need for a huge leap of imagination here. In the past few weeks we’ve acted, sounded and thought in ways that have surprised us all. If the upshot of that is the ditching of some useless school tests in favour of teaching our children how to build for a different future, we shouldn’t miss that golden opportunity.