Wot, No School? How Schools Impede Education

It is hard to dispute that secondary schooling isn't working for at least 25% of its pupils. It is arguable that it is, at best, unsatisfactory for another 50%. The consequence of the wastage in personal fulfilment, civilised behaviour and productive capacity, is incalculable.

What is education for?

The majority of responses to this question will begin with remarks about an older generation passing on to a younger generation the skills and beliefs and learning that will enable them and their culture to survive and thrive. However, it will only be a matter of a sentence or two before people begin to speak of GCSEs and A-levels and degrees - the outcomes of academic examinations which test an aptitude with which only a minority of people are naturally endowed. It will only be a few breaths before they have substituted the notion of 'school' and exams and qualifications for the notion of 'education'.

The first thing we have to do before we can move forward is to recognise that 'education' and 'school' are not synonymous terms. It isn't the teachers who are getting education wrong. It isn't the pupils who can't learn. It isn't the parents who make the wrong choice.

We have to recognise that the great barrier to education for teachers and learners is the system - the secondary school itself and the ludicrous insistence that academic ability is the greatest good for all children and all schools, despite the obvious evidence that once you have left school no-one is remotely interested in your academic ability - except, of course, an academic institution.

The solution we propose has a combination of the evolutionary and the revolutionary. It is based on asking what is education for? rather than what are schools for? It is based on a consideration of what learners and teachers need, rather than what institutions and bureaucrats need.

'Chance of a Lifetime' asks two simple questions which seem never to be asked in all the heated debate about 'schools'/'education'.

'What are our children learning?'

'Why are they learning it?'

Throughout time the primary function of 'education' has been the transmission of the values and the accumulated knowledge of a society from one generation to another.

The primary function of 'school', particularly secondary school, in our century is not so clear. Is its function to teach values and knowledge, or skills and techniques? If so, whose values? What knowledge? Which skills? To which pupils?

No one seems to be stopping to think that maybe it isn't the pupils, it isn't the teachers, it isn't even just the curriculum or the exams, it isn't the type of school it's the secondary school itself!

The institution, school, has become more important than the original objective, education – the drawing out of skills and capabilities. 

What gets in the way of effective teaching and meaningful learning is the dehumanising institution with its panoply of academic examinations for all, regardless of interest or aptitude;

Teachers, hounded by bells, drowning beneath the paper beloved of the bureaucrats, osing the will to live in the face of each new political 'initiative', originality frowned upon, ordered to conform, directed and inspected at every turn, are close to surrender.

Pupils learn early that there is no equality of schooling. Pupils who come from homes where there are books, conversation, musical instruments, a place of your own to work, parents who support your homework, who have all the ingredients for academic success, will succeed - just as all the people who decree what is success, what is failure in school, succeeded.

For the vast majority of youngsters without those advantages school teaches you early that you won't succeed. For instance, more than half of children in local authority care leave school with no GCSEs at all. In 2003 only 6% of looked-after children attained 5 or more GCSEs.

Teachers, too, know that many of their pupils are destined for school failure almost from the beginning. They may not lack intelligence, they may not lack skills and talents and aptitudes. They do lack school skills and they are very unlikely to acquire them. To get such pupils to pass an academic exam of any kind, or of any value is going to be nearly impossible, without huge amounts of extra time, extra tuition, one-to-one help, which the teacher can't give and the parents can't afford - and all for what? To learn a lot of stuff that you'll never need to know again.

Because the school system is so rigidly founded on the notion that academic ability is of the greatest good, and that GCSE and A-level equal different degrees of intelligence, vocational skills are instantly seen as a sham, a sop for those who can't get good grades.

Teachers' training and inclination makes it hard for them to value non-academic skills and talents. If you have to do woodwork, metal work, dressmaking, commerce, or catering, employers believe that school has decided that you are third class, stupid, idle, good-for-nothing. Since they have got to know all about you in the 15000 hours they have had to teach you, school must be right.

But it isn't.

People who are good at school are often those who are good at working the system, maintaining the status quo, staying within the orthodoxies. They tend to go out and be good at the things that school trains them to be good at and rewards them for being good at. They become successful in the professions, as doctors, lawyers, teachers, in the Civil and other services, as accountants and adjutants: they make things work smoothly, they support the system, they maintain the status quo.

But for those who were not good at school, whatever their intelligence, talent or aptitude, a more hazardous future beckons. At one end lie the unlucky, the criminals, the vandals, the hooligans. Above them are the erratically employed, those who make little of the restricted opportunities that school has given them. At the other end rise the lucky ones, who threw aside the disregard of the school system and became the movers and shakers, the founders of new businesses, the creators and the seizers of new ideas.

Scattered across the whole middle range there are engineers, artists, musicians, designers, inventors, actors, comedians, whose talents were not recognised, or were not useful at school. Some had a lucky break or two: many didn't. Some found someone, or something to motivate them to try and try, to overcome the obstacles in their path, to ignore the siren voices, 'Why bother? You can get away with doing almost nothing, with a little bit of duck and dive and dodge till something better turns up': many didn't. Some of them are successful, many are not.

As we look towards what we should be offering to them, to the purpose rather than the method of education, we should recognise the simplest fact that it is not that our secondary school pupils can't learn, it is that many of them won't learn what is presented to them in secondary schools. They won't do 'school' learning, but they will learn, often with unnerving speed and accuracy, not just complex computer games and skills, and everything there is to know about the Football League or the musical career of the latest bands, but also how to 'hot wire' a car, how to outwit the law, who will buy what and where to get it, how to do amazing things on a skate board etc. etc. etc.

School is an institution established for the promotion of education. Though an institution's objective may have value, the institution itself has no intrinsic value. As we have seen, the institution 'school' has not only become more important than the original objective 'education', it has become confused with it. The demand is that pupils and teachers should be good at 'school', should be good inmates, good servants of the institution. Originality, thinking 'outside the box', thoughts and ideas which may change the world, creativity, innovation, things which cannot easily be measured, do not sit comfortably in such an institution. Yet, as we look towards creating an education fit for the twenty-first century, originality, creativity, innovation and discovery may be precisely what we need for the economic benefit of society and for the enrichment of our personal lives as individual human beings.

The politicisation and institutionalisation of learning, and the demand that the taxpayer should pay for education, has led to the inevitable consequent demand that pupils and teachers should demonstrate that they are doing what we are paying for them to do, are giving us value for money. Since at least the excesses of the 1960's we, parents, employers, universities and increasingly panic-stricken politicians, have not been convinced that they are doing this. So, we have introduced controls and regulations to measure their performance. Inevitably, as these show that we are still not getting the results we think we want, we have introduced more and more of them, heaping measurement upon measurement in a political and bureaucratic figure-fest.

In order to become a 'good school' a school has to be able to publish successful 'performance indicators'. These indicators are set by a central organisation outside the school.

Now, the 'performance indicators' do not just measure the education provided, they determine that what is taught in schools. Now, what our children have to learn there, the 'education' which must be provided for them, consists only of that which can be measured.

The institution was openly declared as of more significance than the people within it, the 'results' more important to the government than the education to the pupils – never mind the education, look at the percentages. How the institution does is what matters.

As with the secondary school exam measurement system teachers in 'SATS years' know that they have to spend a disproportionate amount of the time available to them 'teaching the exam' rather than teaching the children. Teachers don't want to instruct - especially what pupils not only don't want to learn but know won't be of any use to them once they have escaped the institution - but, if they are going to be school teachers, they have to. Their working lives depend on it.

Thousands of the teachers have fled, most reluctantly. The pupils have had to remain behind.

'Education in this country will never function effectively until pupils, at least at secondary level, can choose their areas of study and do not spend every day wastefully being forced to learn much of what they do not want to know.'
A J Marsden, Retired Secondary School Teacher.
Extract from letter to the Times Educational Supplement

This is what we must aim to change; to free our teachers to teach and our children to learn what is of value to them, not to the men with the measuring sticks.

Far too many children experience the debilitating, de-motivating frustration of receiving little or no education in the things that will matter to them in living fulfilled adult lives. So we have to decide what things do matter.

If our concern is truly with education, rather than with indicators, we have to enable the ones who aren't good at academic subjects, aren't good at school maths, or school science, or school English, but who are good at sport, or creative or performance arts, who can perform mental practical calculations at high speed, or who have an enviable manual dexterity or ability to make things work, or to get other people to work for them, to escape the labels we give them, 'slow', 'under-achieving' or, in the parlance of the playground, 'thick', and to grow in achievement, success and personal fulfilment. 

There must also be no question of the gifted pupil, gifted in whatever field, 'hanging back till the last sheep has jumped over the fence.  He need wait for no one.  He may move forward as fast as he likes, following the bent of his genius' [Stephen Leacock My Discovery of England 1922.]

If primary education requires a reconstruction of the school in which it is to take place, to release the priceless gift of the teachers to teach and the children to learn, then the bell has tolled for secondary schools