Sunday, 7 July 2013

Education matters - so why can't we seem to get it right?

This much I know: I do not have the aptitude to teach children of any age and I admire those who can. I also know that education is a political football, kicked around to its detriment by politicians of all persuasions.  I also know that my knowledge of the educational world is limited. But that doesn't prevent me from having an opinion about developments under the present regime.

Every week seems to bring yet another Michael Gove-led shake up of education. Gove has a vision for what he believes education is for and about. I personally think he's wrong, fixated as he seems to be on an idealised 1950's view of grammar schools (and short trousers). But Gove is a canny politician. He knows who his audience is (parents and Tory activists who also have a stylised vision of a “golden age”) and he plays right to their prejudices. Is there any wonder that he is seen as a potential future Tory leader? One of the joys of having a Conservative, and conservative, outlook is that you can look to the past as a model to regress to and still call it progress. The trick is to make sure you play the game well and ensure that the winners are powerful enough, well connected enough and loud enough to drown out the voices of the disempowered losers.

It seems to me there are five groups of people that education policy can be aimed at: voters, parents, teachers, pupils and the adults they grow up to be. Everyone will tell you they have the best interests of the children in mind, but will also give you completely conflicting ideas as to what that best interest is. Let's be honest, policy is aimed at voters and children don’t vote. So instead of working out what it is that children really want and need from their education, we all allow ourselves to be informed through proxies – the politicians, the parents, the teachers and dogma. We have allowed the debate to become polarised between those who want to focus solely on a child’s intellectual development and those who believe that school is simply a training ground for employees of the future. The truth is somewhere between these extremes. How do we get there?

At the moment, I confess that I don't have a clear understanding of what we should be offering pupils. Not what we should offer to parents; not what we should offer to teachers; not what we should offer to support staff but what we should offer to the pupils and their futures. Instinctively I feel that Gove has the wrong solution but I don't have the knowledge to articulate properly where he's wrong, but exactly what I think right is and why. How do we balance the importance of teaching pupils to think for themselves and to develop intellectual curiosity with the knowledge they need to equip them for the modern world that they will go on to work in?

Children don’t vote, but they are the future. What they need and want must be more important than hustling votes through simplistic ranking systems and nostalgia. We need to work with young people to set the priorities that all children (not just those at the highest academic levels) need from their schooling experience. I'll admit that I don't know how they can be engaged in a meaningful way. But I do know that policy making should be done to make good policy – not just good politics. I also know that it isn’t until we let the needs of non-voting children lead our education policy that we will get it right. This much I know.

(Postscript: For the record I came up through the traditional grammar school system so much beloved by Gove et al. I was always clear that I wanted to be a scientist and this informed all my choices of subjects to study. Because of this, the system served me well but, if I had not had such a focus, I'm certain that the narrowness of the syllabus would have worked against me.) 

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