meThe ngland health service apparently needs a “radical overhaul” due to Covid. That may be so, but what about England’s educational service? If the NHS has a structural cough, secondary schools have the plague. However, nothing seems to divert them from a structure and content hardly altered in a hundred years. Even now, as Whitehall’s cult of exams only collapses for the second year in a row, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson shows no signs of changing it.
If education were to do with children’s health, their practices would be subject to ruthless investigation. There are none. The academic bias of the curriculum, the bias against vocational study, the priority given to favored subjects, the school schedule, and the predominance of tests are passed down from generation to generation as the Ten Commandments. I used to work at the London Institute of Education and I never remember any of this being challenged. English education is a citadel of blind reaction.
Despite Scotland and Wales canceling school exams this year last fall, Williamson did so only last month, leaving principals struggling with withdrawal symptoms from exams. Ministers seemed appalled at the idea that teachers could find better, perhaps even fairer, ways of assessing a young person’s future than their own charts, algorithms, and leaderboards. Officials seem lost without the GCSE exam results of 4.7 million and 300 million pounds of the school budget to play.
Not a week goes by without a politician or teacher pleading for the abolition of primary school SATs, GCSEs, and A-levels. Commons Education Committee Chairman Robert Halfon last month called for a commission to seek radical reform of education after age 16. The Rector of the University of Birmingham, Sir David Eastwood, wants college entrance exams to replace A-levels. Testing now apparently absorbs half of all school time and has become a teaching and assessment tool, not an education. I am not aware of any academic study that shows that the incessant proof of the factual contributions of the “subject” is of any use in later life. If the school curriculum were a medical cure, it would fail its first peer review. Employers look for qualities of personality, presentation, and general knowledge that governments never teach or test.
Almost all educational reformers throughout the centuries: Friedrich Froebel, Charlotte Mason, John dewey, Maria Montessori, Rudolf steiner – advocated for hands-on, creative, and collaborative learning rather than learning through top-down national curricula. Screenless, individual-oriented learning Steiner Waldorf schools are currently all the rage among high-tech parents in California’s Silicon Valley. However, since Margaret Thatcher began nationalizing local schools in the 1980s, England took a different direction, bequeathed by the psychologist Sir Cyril Burt and his classification theories and intelligence tests. Measuring became insane, and what could be easily measured was taught more easily. Creativity, music, sports, and the non-quantifiable arts disappeared from view. Thatcher’s cabinet reportedly spent more time arguing about the curriculum than it did about national defense. The consensus was not a change, but a little more measurable math and science.
There was no research on the validity of this policy. Today America and Britain persistently score wrong in the world tests of mathematics in Pisa, classics of the creation of quantifiable matter, however, they persistently take the majority of the Nobel prizes in science. British science has long suffered from unpopularity in schools and universities, yet its specialists stand out on the world stage. Similarly, education ministers yearn to copy China’s rote math teaching, while Chinese parents queue up to educate their children abroad.
Children leave schools in England lacking in essential aspects of modern life such as knowledge of law, money, health, politics, the environment, music or human relations. Few schools educate as even the Athenians did in public discourse and civic duty.
It is not easy to see how this could change. Clearly, it must begin by treating schools as autonomous institutions, as something more than central government agencies. As in Germany and other European countries, appropriately qualified and assisted teachers must know better than distance examiners the potential of their students, or they should not be teaching.
Until online learning recently came out of necessity, the structure of school life also remained as it was in Victoria’s reign. Students sit in rows in front of a blackboard for periods of one hour, despite Mason’s discovery a century ago that 20 minutes it is much more effective. They pause for Christian holidays and the fall harvest, without asking if this makes educational sense. They forget what they have learned and then waste weeks reviewing it stressfully, before forgetting again. This is a preparation not for life, but for obedient monasticism, from which much of school life still derives.
Unlike politics or economics, educational policy is not radical. But I like to think that many of the young people who will have spent two years out of school will look back with some pride in how they handled it. Freed from the tyranny of the test, they will have spent more time with their parents, relatives and neighbors. They will have learned new personal, household and practical skills. With the relief of confinement, hopefully they have experienced life on the street or in the country more, with a new sense of exploration and risk. Just maybe, as a result, they adapt better to life, even if no one is around to measure it.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism