What are we educating for?

The other night I went to my first real unashamedly political event, a session organised by the “progressive conservative” bright blue (so new they’re yet to appear on Google) at the British Library, discussing the role of education in 21st century Britain.

The event deliberately went back to first principles on education, focussing on why we bother to send people to school/college/university in the first place, then going on to look at how we need to change our current approach. Hence the title, above.

The speakers really made the event for me, especially as Toby Young’s presence on Newsnight last week had motivated me to put down my own thoughts on the matter.

It must be said that Anthony Seddon generally out-shone Young in terms of stage presence, but the former came across much more so as someone who really wants to make a difference, rather than one who simply offers a critique of current policy.

The two were united in their criticism however, with Young pointing to various studies which have shown how measures such as social mobility (which, if nothing else, education should surely aim to improve?) have painted a worsening picture over the previous 50 years, and Seddon lambasting targets and exams in encouraging a sort of herd-like behaviour, where all effort is focussed on the short-term goal of achieving the best score, rather than in maximising purer academic performance.

As the arguments were developed further, the point was made that the education system focuses too heavily on teaching children to recall facts, rather than to develop the sort of critical thinking and logical reasoning required in today’s fast-moving world. PSE in particular was noted as form of indoctrination, where pupils are taught item-by-item what is right and wrong, rather than being given the chance to decide this for themselves.

There were disagreements between audience members and the panel and at times between the two speakers themselves over how best to formulate an overall educational policy and how to measure it’s outcomes, but there was almost universal agreement that the current system which has served us so well for the previous century is now looking increasingly out-dated, and that despite the personal interest of two PMs and many more high-profile education ministers, the massive investment made over the last few years have not delivered the improvements hoped-for.

The argument was therefore presented that another approach is needed. Seddon was particularly critical of policy for deliberately excluding parents from the education process, arguing that schools and parents must be in line with each other and that a failure to bring the two sides together causes alienation reduces the sense of belonging. Young’s school, if successful, could change this.

As Seddon surmised at the end, we are all common stakeholders in the process of education. We have all been educated, and many people have or may in the future have children who will go through the same process. Current circumstances provide a once-in-a-generation chance to get things right this time, and so now is the time to act.

http://www.brightblueonline.com/

Can Sweden teach us a lesson?

Interesting report on last night’s Newsnight over Tory “dreams” to bring a Swedish-style schools system to the UK, with independent groups receiving funding to operate within the state sector to increase competition and choice.

Radio 4 covered the same topic recently, interviewing actor Toby Young about why he wants to set up a new school here in Ealing. According to Young,

“Our parent group, which is about 250-strong, would apply to be the main sponsor of a new academy… Ours would be the first parent-sponsored academy.”

Doing a bit more digging, it seems Young kicked things off last year with an opinion piece in the Observer. The Ealing Gazette picked this up shortly afterwards and put a local twist on it and more recently, the Guardian and Newsnight re-opened the debate with their own further coverage on the subject.

Labour have taken us so far down the academies route, and (perhaps surprisingly) the juggernaut shows no sign of stopping.

But this is a scheme dreamt up in the heady days of the boom years. Underlying the academies scheme is a belief that the state (in combination with suitably wealthy donors) can play a central role in tearing down the old and replacing it with shiny new facilities, with scant regard for what is there already. Academies have done for the education system what the 1960s did for urban planning, to the extent that bodies like English Heritage now feel compelled to issue warnings.

In Education as in IT, the days of the all-enabling state are well-and-truly over. People have lost patience and the system has run out of money.

As Young’s example shows there are a huge number of people on the ground who think they can do it better and are motivated to do so. These are parents, teachers and others in the community who want to take back some of the control that’s been taken away from them over the last 60 years, first by central government and the LEAs and more recently by the academies. As Antony Seldon says in the Radio 4 piece:

“We’ve had a pretty state-run system for the last 100 years where schools have been run from the centre… and parents have been marched off to go to this school and it’s been pretty ordinary… We need to abandon the factory schools that served us so well in the 20th century and move towards a much more individualised system…”

The Newsnight report shows that the Swedish example is not perfect. Standards must be enforced (this being an idealĀ  role for the state) and non-profit status should be required for any organisation wanting to set up a new school, but bearing these in mind we can surely do things better by opening the process up further and allowing “individuals and organisations to flourish”.

A Limited Revolution

I’ve spent the last couple of days catching up on recent news, including some of the iPad stuff from the other week.

A few blog posts have pointed out that the people talking about it are probably not the target market for the device, and in any case they’re likely to already own a half-decent laptop/desktop and probably an iPhone too.

But the separation is not just about geeks versus non-geeks, it’s about creators and consumers.

Consumers in the classic sense will love the iPad. It’s designed for browsing the web, reading e-books, listening to music and watching movies. Though iTunes, Apple already makes plenty of dollars from these people and will likely be even more successful with a larger device. A bigger screen means more pixels, and HD means more money.

But for those of us who like to think of ourselves as creators the iPad, with it’s locked-down OS and lack of third party app store support, is not such a good thing. Nor is it helpful if we want to provide the next generation with the tools they need to think creatively and independently, and to encourage them to hack at and mash-up software, services and content.

The iPad may well transform home computing, but that will be as far as the revolution goes. We need more open platforms that we can build on if we’re going to carry on innovating, not another device to lock us further into Apple’s walled garden, and their vision of how computing should be.