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Reform, Rearrange and Resource: The three Rs we really need

5th February 2013

We must move beyond dichotomies to truly transform education, says ResPublica's Monika Kruesmann

Education is one of those subjects, up there with healthcare, law and order, and possibly religion, which never fails to attract attention and generate discussion. On the whole this is a good thing; sharing ideas and information is the key to catalysing change. The problem is that too often real progress and innovation are nowhere to be seen. Instead, debate oscillates between the two well-known pedagogic poles: traditional learning versus avant-garde intuiting; rote versus construction; information-gathering versus character-building; arithmetic versus number games. Each time the swing occurs it is accompanied by a flurry of media articles and the launch of new programmes and projects; but the essential dichotomy remains.

The need to break out of this polarised thinking was recently highlighted by Anthony Seldon, Master of Wellington College, in his speech to the Jubilee Centre for Character and Values at the University of Birmingham. Explaining that “…it is not enough for young people to emerge from school with a string of exam passes and for us to pat ourselves on the back, thinking that the box has been ticked and the ‘job done’”, Seldon focused on the underlying purpose of education: “The work of education, as the linguistic root suggests, is to ‘lead out’. Schools need to lead or draw out of young people all their talents and aptitudes.” This must involve elements of both academic attainment and character development.

Shadow Education Secretary Stephen Twigg picked up on these ideas in his piece in The Spectator, where he suggested Labour’s new Technical Baccalaureate as the answer to resolving the false dichotomy. Drawing on examples from schools which are finding ways both to fulfil syllabus requirements and give students unusual and creative learning experiences, he points to the complementary symbiosis of balanced approaches: “…a strong focus on character development pays dividends when exam results come in and sets young people up for success in later life.”

These articulations of the problem, and of the need to break down false dichotomies in education thinking are welcome; but none yet go far enough in terms of providing concrete actions and solutions. ResPublica is addressing this lack through projects in our Models and Partnerships for Social Prosperity workstream. Grasping the need for real and urgent change, ResPublica’s work is building up a picture of what a new education system could look like, and of the steps that need to be taken to achieve it. The ‘3Rs’ are important – but in this context they need to stand for something new.

Reform: Reform is hardly a new idea in education; but what passes for this is too often tinkering around the edges. The system itself remains largely unchanged; it is just coloured in differently, or a smooth side is added where previously there was a bump. What is needed is genuine reform; a fundamental, ground up, re-forming of the system, in which the underlying purpose of education is holistically and widely understood, and the policies and programmes made to implement that purpose are properly shaped to achieve it.

Rearrange: Naturally there are core elements of the education system that will remain; there will continue to be schools, there will continue to be universities; there will continue to be technical and vocational training institutes. But how these are arranged in relation to each other needs radically the change. Specifically, the barriers that currently block meaningful and widespread collaboration between these institutions, and between the students within them, need to go. School students and staff need to work on projects with university students and staff. Technical training institutions need to partner with schools, and the channels for students to move between them need to be simple and open. Locally-relevant and more creative management models, such as co-operatives and community schools, need to be considered. And students in all kinds of institutions need to be able to work and learn together with, and from, each other – we sell both ourselves and our young people short when we assume teaching emanates only from formal teachers.

Resource: Successful change only happens when it is adequately resourced. This means not only funding, which cannot, even in times of economic austerity, be short-changed without risking the future. It also means putting in the intellectual stimuli; making freely available cutting-edge information on what other groups and nations are doing in education; letting national curricula be informed by local imperatives and experiences; giving students and staff the time and guidance to make the most of this information, and see how it can translate into local action; and giving the education system as a whole the respect it deserves as the incubator of UK society.

The problems with our education system, and the need for change, are well known. Debate and discussion within and outside Government and Parliament are welcome. But successful transformation will only come with the breakdown of dichotomised thinking – the mission and purpose of education can and should be about both knowledge and being. Concrete steps to make this happen are the priority.

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