The future of the left since 1884

You don’t fatten a pig by weighing it

The political consensus around education is wrong - anyone outside Westminster knows this. Parents, employers, colleges and universities know it. Certainly the young people and teachers in our schools know it. We need a progressive alternative. Built around a 19th century...


The political consensus around education is wrong – anyone outside Westminster knows this. Parents, employers, colleges and universities know it. Certainly the young people and teachers in our schools know it. We need a progressive alternative.

Built around a 19th century model, and hardly changed since 1948, our education system is not fit for purpose. It is time for significant positive change, and those on the left have a responsibility to imagine and create that alternative.

Rather than an informed debate, what do we get from our political class? There is an all too familiar pattern in politics to wait for unease to bubble up from another fracture in the education system, such as the GSCE/EBacc fiasco, only for our politicians to use this energy to fuel another attempt to maintain the status quo and then paper the cracks.

Michael Gove has played this pattern brilliantly. By turning the attention on the scales being used to weigh the metaphorical pig (this old phrase is often used in education to represent students) he has used this recent failure in our exam system to push through the most regressive shift in curriculum since Kenneth Baker. He preempted this years results with the threat of a return to O-levels and CSEs. This was to address his claims of ‘dumbing down’ in our education system. Following the uproar around GCSE results, Gove got the EBacc through parliament unopposed. Have no doubt, there is worse to come. By taking us back in time, these policies will protect the outcomes of the few at the expense of the many – under the cover of protecting academic excellence and “raising standards” (surely the most damaging phrase in education policy – as if anyone would chose to drop them!). All this misses the point that an education system can do so much more than just give out qualifications – it can help educate a child.

Perhaps we should start with a simple question what is the purpose of education? Any answers surely point beyond simply handing out qualifications. The Innovation Unit has done brilliant work demonstrating the effectiveness of models of teaching and learning that are all about engaging pupils, achieving better outcomes: in terms of academic results; pupil, parents and staff satisfaction; ‘destination data’ (where kids go after school); and active involvement in community projects. These are schools succeeding by measures other than exams. Leading voices, such as Sir Ken Robinson (a British national treasure), are asked to set up school systems elsewhere in the world, and to share the learning to global audiences, yet are not involved in policy here.

Unfortunately, Labour are showing no sign of listening to the experts, the international research or the voices in their constituencies. Instead they have gone back to old slogans. Mr Gove has taken the New Labour drives to ‘raise standards’ and create academies to their logical conclusions. It is no accident that Lord Adonis (past, and possibly future Labour education minister) shares platforms, jokes and policies with the current secretary of state as they are united by a common vision for education.

By focusing on tools of measurement, our politicians conveniently sidestep the question of what we want our education system to do. Our current secretary of state (and, unfortunately, his predecessors) and his Labour shadow, Stephen Twigg, have both maintained this blinkered focus on the academic results.

A child should be educated for life, not taught to be tested. Our schools should prepare our young people for a life of health and wellbeing, to be skilled at collaboration and communication, to be digitally literate, and responsible citizens. Many of the best schools do this. But not enough. We need more schools that do not depend on good GSCEs alone.

Making the most of the free school policy, I am part of a proposal to build a school that does just that. ONSchool answers a need for more school places in our city, and helps evolve what school is for. Our pupils will be expected to aspire to academic excellence, and for that to be measured by tough exams. ONSchool will focus on a personalised, modern education for the future – one built through participative local democracy.

We hope that this model, building on other progressive schools, such as Route39 and School21, will demonstrate a way out of our obsession with weighing pigs, and back towards preparing our young people for their future.

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