February 11, 2021
On 19th January 2021, members of the New Visions for Education Group, meeting on Zoom, heard from Shadow Schools Minister Wes Streeting about the Labour Party’s policy initiatives for post-pandemic education in England. At that meeting Wes Streeting spoke about his willingness to receive contributions from the Group. Here Sir Alasdair Macdonald, Chair of the Group, describes a vision of 21st century education with lessons learned from recent experience, and invites members of the Group Council to take part in a vitally important new debate.
There is little doubt that a case can be made for reform of virtually all aspects of our education system. A long list could quickly be drawn up – early years, SEND, funding, teacher education, the ‘middle tier’, vocational education, higher education etc. However, there is a risk, even a danger, that in looking at these issues separately we miss an opportunity to look holistically at education for all ages and all purposes, to consider the role of our educational institutions in society, and to create an inclusive system.
Over the last twenty years the agenda has been increasingly set by politicians and a relatively small group of educationalists who, through piecemeal change, have favoured a very traditional approach to pedagogy, the curriculum and qualifications. We now have a significantly narrowed primary education and a concerted attempt to return our secondary schools to the 1950s, to what is essentially a grammar school curriculum. We have retained and strengthened an outdated qualifications system which was developed when most young people did not stay in education beyond the age of 15 and whose primary function was to sort pupils. The qualification system now has the additional function of school accountability.
There is a growing awareness of the need for fundamental change including renewed interest in the Tomlinson Working Group on 14-19 Reform of 20 years ago. The pandemic and lockdown, which have put enormous pressure on schools and colleges, have generated considerable interest in the possibility of much wider change. There will have been two cohorts of young people whose GCSE and A levels will have been assessed by teachers and have not written examinations leading to a debate not only about assessment methods but also about what to teach and how young people are educated.
We need to focus on what a 21st century education should look like, an education that provides our pupils with knowledge and skills but also enables them to think, to question, to understand and to maintain the flexibility that will be essential in a world of ever faster change. We will need a system of assessment at the end of school education which shows what young people have learnt and can do. We do not need an assessment system which subjects youngsters to hours of high-stakes written examinations which classify many of them as ‘failures’ after 12 years of education.
At our last meeting Wes Streeting MP, shadow schools minister, spoke about his willingness to receive ideas for future Labour policy. We want to respond to his challenge. This is potentially a huge task and one that requires considerable thought and planning. Our Group needs an outline narrative of what we are proposing. How should we do this? Who will come forward to set the ball rolling ? Who will join a small working group?
Not all Group members will be able to help. If you are and have the time and space to help, please email firstname.lastname@example.org or respond to the email recently circulated by our Secretary, John Fowler stating what you could do and your areas of interest.