Successive governments, concerned about the underachievement of British children and the detrimental effect of this underachievement on the economy, have been determined to raise academic standards in education. This aim has underpinned changes to the state education system since the early 1980s, in particular the introduction of the National Curriculum in England, with its associated tests and the school league tables.
In the midst of the constant change that has characterised school life in the intervening period, two crucial questions seem to have been ignored by policymakers. First, are the kinds of changes that have been introduced in the best interests of children? And second, what is education for anyway?
In answer to the first question, many educationalists believe that a narrow and prescriptive National Curriculum has not suited all children, with the result that many young people have been marginalised. Teachers, constrained by an overloaded curriculum and with little spare class time, have often found it difficult to respond to children’s interests. In the past they could make time for a child who brought a fascinating object into the classroom, or a teenager who brought an interesting if tangential question into a discussion, by diverting the lesson to follow up these threads of interest. These threads often brought moments of real illumination. Teachers in England today have little time for such diversions.
There is a comprehensible rationale to teaching children in inner city Newcastle the same material at the same time as children in rural Devon. It allows children to transfer more easily from one school to another if their parents move, and it enables the authorities to measure children’s learning and compare schools. However, if this rigidity prevents teachers from rooting the learning experience in children’s lives it is counterproductive. Educational research indicates that the curriculum has to have relevance for children if they are to be able to engage with it, and it is the connection with their own lives that imbues it with meaning. A curriculum that is devoid of such meaning will inevitably affect children’s motivation to learn. And an unmotivated child is a difficult, if not impossible, child to teach.
Primary aged children have seen activities such as sport, music, drama, environmental projects and school trips considerably reduced over the years to make more room for literacy and numeracy. Children as young as five or six spend a large part of their day sitting at a table whilst many early years experts argue that what they need most is activity; hands-on experiences, participation, collaboration and play. Older children at primary school and secondary school pupils spend much of their time passively receiving ‘knowledge’ in preparation for an endless succession of tests.
Recent studies have found that English children are among the most tested – and least happy – in the world. The tests show what most good teachers know anyway and only measure a narrow set of skills. They do not show whether a child is caring and compassionate, innovative and creative or good at working collaboratively with others. They do not indicate whether a child is confident with a secure sense of self. They do not register if a child is a coding genius, a brilliant musician or a green-fingered gardener. Yet these attributes are as important if not more so in determining the extent to which the child will live a fulfilling and productive life. Teachers forced to concentrate on teaching narrow academic skills for tests are compelled to underplay the significance of other fundamental aspects of a child’s education.
It is clear to many that the tests are not carried out for the benefit of children but rather to enable the government to measure the performance of schools. Children are being subjected to the stresses of repeated testing in order that the politicians can demonstrate to the electorate the extent to which it is meeting its targets. Their other purpose is to give parents a blunt instrument by which to judge the effectiveness of local schools. Many adults have accepted this mechanistic view of education without question and have been persuaded that the tests are beneficial to children.
The results of the tests, collated annually into national league tables, have served to set school against school, regardless of their differing situations and widely varying intakes. The academisation of the English school system has exacerbated these problems. Schools which were already perceived as good have become oversubscribed and some have been encouraged to increase in size. Indeed we now have “titan” schools for over 2000 children. By contrast, schools in challenging circumstances have often seen their rolls, and consequently their budgets, fall. The introduction of “free” schools has not for the most part reduced the pressures on the system as these are generally not sited in locations where there is a need for extra school places or where the challenges are greatest. Removing schools from local authority control and democratic accountability has played havoc with local planning. An inequitable system, where there is a large gap between high and low achievers, has become even more inequitable creating considerable dissatisfaction amongst parents, many of whom have been unable to get children into the school of their choice.
It can be argued that none of these developments – the National Curriculum, the tests, the league tables, the academisation – were conceived with the interests of children in mind, but rather for political ends. Their effect on children and on the attitudes of young people towards education has been largely negative. Asked what they think of school, too many children say that it is boring. What an unbelievable waste of childhood. What an inexcusable waste of resources. If one aim of education is to encourage a love of learning, on this count alone, the system is utterly failing many of our young.
As a society we cannot afford to turn young people off education. They are the future. The government is right in saying that our future depends heavily on the quality of our education system. But this begs the second question – what is education for? What kind of future is envisaged? This question is at root about what it means to be human and the role that education must play in realising our common humanity.
At the time of writing, Europe is struggling to cope with the effects of globalisation and conflict, both of which raise serious questions about community cohesion and integration. Furthermore the challenges we face globally as a consequence of climate change are urgent. Such issues demand that we ask searching questions about the purposes of education. Is it about enabling those living in rich countries to increase their wealth regardless of the impact on others in less developed parts of the world? Is it about providing a labour force to fuel the relentless pursuit of economic growth? If so, we are likely to see growing discontent in those countries which are exploited by the West for their natural resources or their cheap labour as they vent their anger and desperation at our profligacy. Instead, education, should instil in young people the values, attitudes and skills to create a fairer and more sustainable world. This is surely a reasonable goal for our education system.
It is no longer good enough to feed young people information and knowledge which bolster the global divide. Science, history, geography, literature, economics and food technology taught without reference to ethics are barren. Instead of imparting knowledge in a vacuum we must find ways of showing children the power of that knowledge by drawing out the connections between subjects and how they relate to real world issues. If, through their lessons, young people explore the responsibilities of farmers, drug companies, the oil industry, supermarkets and clothing manufacturers they are more likely to leave school understanding that they too have responsibilities as members of a global community; realising that each one of their actions – buying clothes, eating a hamburger, driving a car, switching on the tumble dryer – has an effect on others in different parts of the world and involves a moral choice on their part. If children learn to connect with these issues at school by analysing, questioning, debating and using their minds to delve beneath the surface then there is a chance of shaping a better world. There is a chance that young people will see that through our work and the way in which we live our lives each one of us can make a positive contribution.
How can this shift in what and how children learn be implemented? How can schools incorporate this moral dimension so that children are challenged personally to think critically and to make ethical choices?
It is difficult for children to engage with global issues until they have some understanding of local issues. Their own experiences must therefore be the starting point. Two key questions are ‘how do members of the school community treat each other?’ and ‘how does the school community as a whole take care of the world?’ In answering these questions schools must find ways to become equitable, inclusive and ethical. In short each one must become a microcosm of how we want the world to be. If these questions are addressed by schools then there is a better chance that they will be addressed by society as a whole.
To become an equitable community entails giving every child, teacher and parent a voice and ensuring that each voice is heard and every voice counts. Children need to be involved in decisions about their learning and assessment as well as in decisions about how their school is run. Parents need to be given the opportunity to participate in discussions and decisions about issues which are of concern to them. Teachers and schools need the autonomy to develop methods and approaches which are appropriate to their students and their own local situation.
Schools will only become inclusive by caring for every one of their members – adults as well as children. By focusing on the importance of relationships, by making sure that each child and their family is known, by giving all teachers a pastoral responsibility that is integrated with their academic role, schools can ensure that every child feels secure and supported. This is no small task, but it is only by taking relationships seriously and by valuing all members of the school community regardless of race, colour, creed, appearance, disability or sexual orientation that they will be able to say that they are truly inclusive.
To be an ethical community, schools must ensure that their ethos, curriculum, policies and practices are integrated and have a moral purpose. What this means in practice is that what children are taught and how the school operates on a day to day basis do not contradict each other. For example, if children learn about fair trade, then the school’s purchasing policy should prioritise fair-trade goods where possible. If children are learning about the futility of war, the school bank account should not be with a bank that invests in the arms trade. If children are learning about climate change this must go hand in hand with a school transport policy that puts bikes before cars and an energy policy that includes insulating the school and buying energy from renewable resources. In this way, children learn that change is possible and they are part of it.
The emphasis needs to be on the word community – on creating schools where all people have a sense of belonging and can actively contribute so that education is a dynamic, meaningful and relevant process. This is the challenge for schools in the twenty-first century, a challenge which the English state system does not currently seem to be rising to.
By contrast, Scotland and Wales which both have devolved education systems are paying heed to some of these issues. Scotland introduced a Curriculum for Excellence in 2010 and this was designed with the aim of transforming education across Scotland by providing a coherent, more flexible and enriched curriculum for children aged from 3 to 18. The curriculum makes connections across subject areas and sets out to develop the skills needed for learning, for life and for work in our fast-changing and uncertain world. As well as fostering successful learners the aim is to nurture confident individuals, responsible citizens and effective contributors.
In Wales, following an extensive review of the curriculum and assessment published in 2015, a new National Curriculum is to be launched in 2022. The aim will be to develop more rounded human beings who are ethical and informed citizens who are better able to understand the world we live in. Assessment is to be completely overhauled with no formal tests before GCSEs. Greater emphasis will be placed on continuity by seeing education as a continuous process rather than a series of steps, ensuring that there is better collaboration when children move from one stage of education to another. And there will be a greater focus on cross-curricular learning. It is early days as far as these changes are concerned but, as with Scotland, it is a promising direction of travel.
As for Northern Ireland, the situation is similar to England in that the Northern Ireland Curriculum which is based on the English National Curriculum is taught in schools. The arrangements for testing are however somewhat different: primary school children do not take the standard assessment tests (SATs) and instead are given computer-based assessments in numeracy and literacy. Secondary aged-children take General Certificate of Secondary Education exams (GCSEs) during year 12 and can continue on to take A-levels or the more vocational Advanced Level exams. A significant factor in Northern Ireland is the way in which the vast majority of schools continue to be segregated. Most state schools are predominantly Protestant whilst children from Catholic families attend schools which are maintained by the Catholic Church. A movement to promote integrated schools was established by parents in the 1970s and a small number of integrated schools exist but these are the exception. Since over 90% of children continue to attend segregated schools this is seen by many outsiders as a major factor in preventing community cohesion.
It is worth noting that Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have not followed the English path of academisation, which many see as unhelpful in the drive to improve social equity and raise outcomes for all young people.
In conclusion, it is an interest in the perennial questions about education that has led many people, in the UK and further afield, to explore different approaches. The schools and projects included in Alternative Approaches to Education: a guide for teachers and parents take many different forms but one feature appears to be constant: the belief that human beings do best in situations in which they are known, cared for, supported and valued; in short where they are part of a community.
This is an edited excerpt from Alternative Approaches to Education: a guide for teachers and parents by Fiona Carnie (Routledge, 2017)