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Why School Differently?

Why School Differently? Because school as it is, is no longer fit for purpose. The tide is turning and there are enough people in the UK and elsewhere who are living proof of this.

But to back up a claim about the education system’s fitness for purpose, we need to agree what the purpose of education is. It is a conversation that is sorely lacking in the current discourse about standards, behaviour, achievement gaps and, since the lock-down, catch up.

That is why we have identified five statements that we suggest should be, if not definitive, at least a starting point for agreeing what we want education, and by extension, school, to do.

See what you think:

1. The purpose of an education system is to educate the child and prepare the adult

So much of education has become a preparation for becoming something or someone in the future. School readiness. Preparation for SATs. Preparation for transition. Preparation for GCSEs and beyond. Life skills. Employability. Choosing university courses that offer the best chance of employment afterwards. Of course, childhood is where we lay the foundations for adulthood, but it is also a magical time in and of itself. As a teacher once said to me:

‘I did nothing else but study when I was 16 and I missed out. I will never be 16 again.’

That’s sad and it didn’t have to be that way. And what happens when the employer says to the job candidate listing their academic qualifications, ‘What else have you got?’.

2. Educating the child goes wider than academic disciplines

The Three Rs are important but so are other things. And do we all need to be taught so much higher-level maths, with the risk of higher-level maths anxiety in the process, when most of us only need a better and more confident grasp of arithmetic? Science is important but is it more important than music? Do the current subjects schools offer reflect the wider world and the way it has changed or are they there because they have always been there and that’s what we have the teachers to teach? And if it’s true, as business guru Tom Peters once said, that ‘what gets measured gets done’, do we just need better systems for measuring the Three Cs -, confidence, compassion and contribution - as well?

3. Preparing the adult goes wider than the world of work

There are many school success stories languishing unhappily in highly paid jobs. There are many school successes whose contribution to wider society is negligible at best, detrimental at worst (mentioning no names). If education is entirely utilitarian, we miss out on the opportunity to teach children about striving for something bigger than they are. Human flourishing - Eudaimonia as the Ancient Greeks called it - is our highest form of true happiness and comes from acting for the common good, beyond our own short-lived pleasures. With it comes an emotional health that is much harder to be brought down by a competitive, acquisitive lifestyle. ‘Be mentally healthy, physically healthy, educated and happy. And in that order’ is what I suggest for my (now adult) children.

4. This purpose applies to ALL children and young people

The purpose of education as it stands and from a societal point of view is a great winnowing. It assumes that all children of the same age start from the same spot (they don’t) and that over a process of a decade and half, the ones left standing in a classroom are a success. They have succeeded and, for those of us in education, so have we. It’s an academic sorting process that lets everyone know where they stand (the social sorting is undertaken in different ways, including via the school the child goes to). Even exams with their norm-referenced make-up need losers to have winners. And then there’s league tables and other forms of competition. Losers make the current system work. What if we were to turn the system into one that recognised everyone’s talents, achievement, abilities and potential? In which there were no school failures? It’s what the UNICEF Convention on the Rights of the Child says we should be doing anyway:

Article 29

1. States Parties agree that the education of the child shall be directed to:

(a) The development of the child's personality, talents and mental and physical abilities to their fullest potential

5. The current education system requires a new framework to successfully achieve its purpose

The education systems of most developed countries were set up to achieve something different from what we feel is appropriate now, and at a time that was very different to a pre-Covid world, let alone a pre-industrial one. Exams go back hundreds if not thousands of years. The make-up of schools – from tables and chairs and boards (black, white or interactive) at the front, to dividing children by age and having specialist teachers teach older children, all have their roots in different times. The pandemic has shown the extent to which education - and educating - can be rearranged quickly to accommodate very different ways of working, where issues of access to technology are more apposite than access to the knowledge itself.

We have enough evidence of different ways of doing things from all around the world (and not just in developed countries), evidence that having an education is not a guarantee of everything turning out rosy in later life, and evidence that an increasing number of young people and their families are voting with their feet.

We know what we can do. We need to work out what we are going to do. Now is the time for school differently.


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