Against the background of serious concerns about sexual violence and abuse in schools and Ofsted’s announcement of a review, New Visions Group Council Member, Professor Kate Myers reflects on her own experience of tackling the issues nearly 40 years ago in 1983 and calls for the work done then to be revived.

Kate Myers is Emeritus Professor, University of Keele. This article was first published in abbreviated form in The Times (UK) on 5th April 2021.

It’s shocking but not surprising to read about the allegations of sexual harassment suffered by female pupils at several prestigious public and state schools. Sadly this is not news for many of us.

Long before Me too, and Black Lives Matter many feminist educators were trying to raise the issues of many (but not all) boys behaving badly in mixed sex settings.  Co-ed schools were often schools for boys where girls were at best tolerated but often treated as unwelcome guests.(1)

Nearly forty years ago a group of us organised a conference called ‘Equal Opportunities: What’s in it for boys?’  Having taught for 13 years in a comprehensive school in the Inner London Education Authority I had been seconded to the Schools Council’s Sex Differentiation in Education Project. The Equal Pay Act 1970 and the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 were both in place. Following the legislation, many of us worked hard in our schools attempting to raise the aspirations of our female students. In particular we were concerned about girls’ underachievement and under-representation in significant subject areas. Increasingly we started to feel that it was equally important to address the quality of their life in mixed schools.(2)

It was evident that focusing on girls was not enough, hence the conference which was funded by the Equal Opportunities Commission and supported by the Schools Council(3)  and Inner London Education Authority. Our premise was that it was not fair on the girls to try to change their behaviours and attitudes unless we also worked with the boys who would grow up to be the men they would work with and some of them, live with. We deliberately did not demonise men and boys. Often they had not been exposed to the issues nor encouraged to reflect on the girls’ perspective. We wanted to encourage them to change their behaviour for their own sakes as well as for the sakes of the girls they interacted with. We worked alongside male colleagues who were as passionate as we were about these issues.

As well as keynote speeches there were several workshops led by both women and men. Topics included looking at sexuality and health education, working with boys in boys’ schools and working with boys in mixed schools. We came up with a list of suggestions including developing whole school policies, instigating self- evaluation by schools, producing teaching resources, and staff training.

The pack of teaching materials(4)  which we produced following the conference were essentially practical. Looking at these materials now there is a big omission. We did not cover the intersectionality of equality issues. Then, we did not have to deal with the consequences of social media and online porn, both of which have exacerbated the impact of the issues. Nevertheless, much of the content is still relevant. We covered topics such as looking at what boys and men have to gain from equality: such as better health; a greater emotional range; better personal relations; more time with the family; a better working life. We produced questions for teachers to ask about their schools such as: do teachers deal with bullying, by bullying the students? Are male staff appropriate role-models? What behaviour values are reinforced/praised? Do staff have different expectations of male and female students?  Do the expressive arts have a high status in the school? Are male pupils encouraged to give girls space to talk? How do sensitive boys cope in the school? How does the school deal with sexist banter and jokes? The final section has workshop activities for teachers and for students.

Work on these issues carried on for some time in schools, local authorities and teachers’ centres’ in many parts of the UK. However, although there was significant enthusiasm, there was also significant and, in some cases, outright opposition.

The initial conference was for London schools although the subsequent report attracted national press coverage. It was not all favourable, but was certainly of its time.  Under the headline ‘Sexual Engineers’ The Daily Mail’s editorial stated:

You would have thought that turning little boys and little girls into literate law-abiding citizens was challenging enough for our schools. But no, the sexual engineers in our midst, who have long been concerned about little girls being excessively girlish, and now agitated because little boys are excessively boyish. The Schools Council and the Equal Opportunities Commission (a free and loving relationship between quangos if ever there was one!) declare in unison: Boys need liberating too. Beelzebub, it is said finds work for idle hands. And quangos can justify their own existence only by devising new and ever more bizarre problems to worry at. Just liberate us from the quangos and see how many of our supposed difficulties melt away like icicles in the sun. (Daily Mail editorial 26.1.83)

This reflected the climate in the early eighties. We had a powerful woman prime minister who was not a feminist. The Schools Council was closed down in 1984 and ILEA in 1990. Although some of the work continued it became a bit like the Fawlty Towers sketch “Don’t mention the war”. For a period, it was virtually impossible to focus on equality issues in schools without the fear of a backlash.

Perhaps the zeitgeist has changed? It is unlikely that a national paper would write an editorial along similar lines now.  The consequences of the appalling murder of Sarah Everard and the subsequent understanding of women’s concerns about their safety on our streets have not elicited similar dismissive and ridiculing headlines. Nor has the bravery of the young women who have contributed to the website

So is this a water cooler or a watershed moment? Will change follow from the media and public responses dominating the current news? Since 2011 schools have to adhere to the Public Sector Equality Duty which amongst other things instructs them to: ‘Eliminate unlawful discrimination, harassment and victimisation and other conduct prohibited by the Act’.  The Ofsted framework for inspection also includes a section on harassment. Consequently, there are already legal incentives for schools to make changes.

I offer two suggestions that could be implemented immediately. First if schools really want to know what is actually happening to their students, they should administer annual anonymous surveys analysed by the different groups represented in the school. The analysis should help both teachers and their pupils to produce a whole-school policy which should be regularly updated – and not just by the senior managers. Second, to the men and boys who are shocked by what they have been hearing and reading. Ensure you are an appropriate role model with your brothers, fathers, friends and sons. Discuss with your friends how to change things and particularly together work out strategies to challenge the ‘locker room’ and laddish behaviour prevalent in schools, clubs and workplaces. Help change the climate.

If the time has really now come to actually do something about these issues there is no need to start from scratch. The teaching and other similar materials mentioned above are available in the archive of the Institute of Education, University College London.



1. See for example Pat Mahony’s Schools for Boys? Co-education reassessed 1985.  

2. Nan Stein and Eleanor Linn’s work on sexual harassment in US schools 

3. The Schools Council 1964 -1984 ran curriculum projects and co-ordinated secondary school examinations in England and Wales 

4. The materials mentioned are all available in the archives at the Institute of Education, University College London. 

* The Equal Opportunities Commission was set up under the Sex Discrimination Act and had statutory powers to enforce the gender equality legislation that existed. It was replaced by the Equality and Human Rights Commission in 2007

* The Inner London Education Authority (ILEA) 1965 – 1980 consisted of 12 inner London boroughs

* Equal Opportunities What’s in it for boys Materials for Teachers, Schools Council 1983. The Members of the planning group: Anne Carter, Steve Edwardson, Richard Eke, Peter Kahn, Frances Magee, Leslie Mapp, Kate Myers, Gill Pinkerton, Guardino Rospigliosi, Chris Watkins





In a major new report, part-funded by the Association of Education Committees Trust and the British Educational Leadership, Management and Administration Society and based on extensive research and contributions from a broad range of education experts, Susan Cousin and Jonathan Crossley-Holland examine the operation of high performing education systems and make recommendations for a new model in England. 

On this page we republish the Report’s Executive Summary and its Recommendations. The full report is available here for download in PDF format.



Since 2010, England has pioneered the move towards a self-improving school system where school partnerships lead improvement by sharing expertise and building capacity. However, evaluations have found that the government supported infrastructure to support school-led improvement has not benefitted all schools equally, with those most in need the most poorly served. The Covid-19 pandemic during which the latter part of the research was conducted has highlighted the challenges of responding rapidly to local need in a system which lacks a robust infrastructure.

The research was commissioned to investigate how high-performing education systems operate, in order to develop a set of criteria by which any revised governance model for the English education system can be judged and to outline clearly the role(s) of a middle tier. Four systems were explored: Estonia, Finland, Ontario (Canada) and Singapore. These high-performing jurisdictions strive for both excellence and equity and have taken evidence-based steps to deliver both. A single reform strategy was cited in literature on all four high-performing jurisdictions: ‘Leadership from the Middle’ defined as “a deliberate strategy that increases the capacity and internal coherence of the middle as it becomes a more effective partner upward to the state and downward to its schools and communities, in pursuit of greater system performance” (Fullan, 2015: 24). Top-down leadership does not last due to lack of sustainable buy-in from professionals; bottom-up change does not result in overall system improvement: some schools improve, others do not and the gap between high and low performers increases. A strong message from the study is that, as systems become more decentralised, to maintain equity as well as excellence, there needs to be a coordinating mechanism across a locality or region. Greany (2020) suggests that local coherence may be associated with improvements in student outcomes.

What the English system lacks are clear shared goals and a strategy to unify the system so that it works for all children.


Section One outlines five principles of a successful school system derived from the literature:

• alignment;
• subsidiarity;
• a focus on collaborative learning;
• a positive ethos with shared moral purpose;
• a whole-system focus to ensure efficiency, equality of access, cost-effectiveness and economies of scale.

Respondents were asked to rate each principle for importance and to give a judgement on how well the English system performs against the principle. In each case, the rating for importance was stronger than for performance. There is a clear appetite for reform. The need to rebuild in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic is seen as an opportune moment to reset for the future.

Many features common to high performing systems can be found in England, but only in pockets of provision. What the English system lacks are clear shared goals and a strategy to unify the system so that it works for all children. In interviews and focus groups, there was overall a recognition of the need to rebuild capacity at the middle-tier level to achieve a more managed system.

There was a strong view that the accountability system needs to be recalibrated, away from a focus on ‘proving’ towards ‘improving’.


High-performing systems have clear alignment of purpose between politicians, policy-makers and practitioners and clearly defined roles. The research highlights the interdependence of different elements of the system: the accountability system affects the recruitment and retention of teachers and leaders; admissions policies can lead to the marginalisation of disadvantaged pupils; overcentralisation disempowers parents and communities; and a fragmented system with overlapping responsibilities leads to the inefficient use of resources. At the heart of the problem lie the twin issues of a lack of shared vision for education and a lack of clarity about where decision-making power lies for key governance functions.

Section Two takes a governance approach to conceptualise the role of the middle tier.  It considers the optimum level for responsibility to lie for seven key governance functions: 1) teacher supply, 2) support for vulnerable pupils, 3) the curriculum, 4) school improvement, 5) accountability and quality assurance, 6) admissions and place planning, and 7) preparing young people for the future. The research recommends strengthening the middle tier with greater integration, collaborative decision-making between the centre, the middle tier and schools; and better coordination of services across an area. It supports calls for a more clearly defined set of roles for the middle tier including local authorities (LAs).

A large majority of respondents felt that LAs should be given greater authority to fulfil their roles in relation to: oversight of pupil admissions, including the enforcement of Fair Access Protocols; place-planning; and coordination of support for pupils with SEND or other disadvantage where support is needed beyond the school. There was strong support for unifying school improvement for academies and maintained schools, on a locality basis, led by school leaders. Different views were expressed, however, about what the basis for the locality should be, with advocates of all current arrangements: LA, area-based partnerships (AEPs), Combined Unitary Authority, Regional or sub-regional (e.g. Opportunity Areas). Many, but not all, favoured moving away from LAs as the basis for school improvement, to sub-regional or regional structures, in order to widen access to good practice and for economies of scale.

There was a strong view that the accountability system needs to be recalibrated, away from a focus on ‘proving’ towards ‘improving’. There was support for the idea of area-based accountability, of using district data to derive a measure of local accountability for all schools, primary, secondary and further education, so that schools’ successes were mutually dependent, stressing that all are part of a local service.

The Covid-19 pandemic has both made the need to build a robust system more urgent and provided examples of what the future might look like, in terms of increased collaboration and multi-agency working. The potential of technology to motivate pupils and enhance teacher collaboration has brought into focus the urgent need to ensure internet access for all pupils. Many practitioners, as well as the charities and parent groups consulted, argued for a greater voice for parents and pupils, seen as crucial for social justice and social mobility.

Section Three looks at current approaches to place-based working, which is rooted in localities but looks outward, drawing on wider expertise and resource. It is seen by interviewees to provide clear benefits: essential “glue” or coordination of activities; a collective sense of responsibility and pride, to reduce local competition which drives local hierarchies and increases the effects of disadvantage; and a focus on contextual factors which can provide barriers to achievement or offer solutions. In addition, it has the potential to increase cost efficiencies, provide external quality assurance and prevent ‘reinvention of the wheel’. Government and professionals have recognised the potential of place-based approaches to reduce the social attainment gap which is beginning to widen again as Covid-19 exposes societal inequalities. Opportunity Areas and AEPs demonstrate the value of collaboration between LAs, early years providers, schools, multi-academy trusts, dioceses, colleges, universities, businesses, health professionals and voluntary and community organisations, working beyond organisational boundaries
towards a shared aim. It is recommended that a national evaluation of existing place-based models is commissioned, to draw together good practice to inform system learning.

England’s middle tier has been variously described as ‘missing’ or ‘muddled’. The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the need for a strong middle tier to fulfil a coordinating role. Now is a good time to reset and take to scale the benefits of the place-based approaches described in this report. Claims that over-centralisation of decision-making has contributed, in some regions, to poor economic growth and a sense of being ‘left behind’, have led to the government’s ‘levelling up’ agenda. The government intends to develop a ‘more thoughtful’ (Gove, 2020) approach to local leadership, to allow communities to take control of the policies that matter to them through a devolution of power to combined and unitary authorities overseen by elected regional mayors. The potential advantages of strengthening links between education and other Combined Authority strategic roles were welcomed by several members of the focus groups.

The OECD are clear that: “the way education systems are designed has an impact on student performance” (OECD, 2012: 25). The design of the education system is a national responsibility. There is a strong case for a review of the role of the middle tier with the aim of reducing fragmentation and improving support for disadvantaged pupils. The recommendations in the report are intended to be helpful in making progress towards the best practice principles derived from high-performing systems. The research offers examples where progress is already being made in delivering some of the recommendations by voluntary agreement across a locality: monitoring of vulnerable pupils in Warwickshire; admissions protocols across Sheffield; School Improvement by some Area-based Education Partnerships. It is hoped this report will encourage more such initiatives.


Summary of Recommendations

System Design

1. A review of the current system is needed to reduce the fragmentation, duplication and anomalies of the present system if England is to be as successful as high-performing systems in giving equal weight to performance and tackling disadvantage.
2. The five principles of system design should be used as a guide to system reform.
3. The future role of the middle tier should be clarified in terms of the following functions.


Support for Vulnerable pupils

The research illuminates how weaknesses in teacher recruitment, training and retention and a narrow curriculum monitored by a punitive accountability system, combine to disadvantage learners who are vulnerable.

4. The government should allocate adequate funding to services (including youth, mental health, family) that support vulnerable pupils.
5. Mainstream schools should introduce, if not already in place, more inclusive policies for SEND pupils (including CPD for all teachers and enhanced roles for special needs teachers and SENCOs).
6. The LA should be granted the powers to fulfil their statutory duty to ensure places and services for vulnerable children, including the right to intervene if Fair Admissions Protocols are not followed or to challenge a school’s pupil data if they have concerns.
7. Recognise the progress of disadvantaged and vulnerable pupils as a collective responsibility of all schools and agencies in a locality by setting a metric against which LAs report. LAs, working with schools, should produce data termly on their progress and placement in schools and an annual action plan. All schools should be required to provide LAs with the relevant data and support the implementation of the plan.


School Improvement

8. Unify the governance of the system by bringing together LA and RSC responsibilities for school improvement into a single locality governance structure. The DfE should support each locality to establish a School Partnership Board (sub-regional or local, depending on the area). The Board to be responsible and accountable jointly to the LA and RSC and be held to account for performance. The locality could be based on AEPs, Combined Authorities, LAs or Opportunity Areas but need to include all schools in the area.
9. School improvement should focus on the ambition for all schools to improve on their previous best. Outstanding practice should be accredited and openly shared.



10. All schools should complete a robust, externally-moderated self-assessment to agreed national and local metrics and an action plan to deliver against these, monitored by the local School Partnership Board.
11. Revise the role of Ofsted to provide national validation of the processes of self-assessments and peer moderation in each locality.
12. Britain is the only country in Europe to retain examinations at age 16; we should follow other systems’ examples of moderating standards across a system without testing every child every year, by representative national sampling. The money saved on examinations should be reinvested into schools to provide students at 18 with digital passports of the whole range of skills.


Pupil admissions and place-planning

13. Every school should have the right to propose an admissions policy to be translated by the LA into a formal set of arrangements for all local schools; this local body should administer the arrangements and deal with appeals, including for pupil admissions outside the main transition points. In the absence of national action, localities should follow this approach through voluntary agreements as a number already do.
14. DfE to set out a coherent framework for the planning and commissioning of school places which acknowledges a) the central role of the LA in planning and commissioning sufficient school places to meet local need and b) stipulates full consultation with parents, staff and local stakeholders. In the absence of national actions, LAs, Dioceses, MATs and SATs should adopt such an approach.


Rarely does the opportunity arise to stand back and re-examine all that we think we know. For all the hardship, tragedy and frustration it has brought, COVID-19 should at least provide us with such an opportunity. There are those who want simply to restore comfortably all that there was before and there are others, like Professor John White, who want to learn lessons and make changes for the future. In this radical reappraisal of the nature and purpose of our education system, John sets out the case for his new vision for education.


John White is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy of Education, UCL Institute of Education




Written during and partly in the light of the Covid pandemic, this article presents a picture of how education especially in England but also elsewhere needs to be transformed to meet the challenges and opportunities presented by five current and ongoing global events. This involves changed perceptions not only of the aims of school education and the curriculum, but also of work and school work; examinations and assessment; successful learning; equality in education; moral and civic education; the role of the teacher; links with higher education; teacher education.



This paper is being finalised in the first few weeks of 2021, almost a year into the Covid pandemic in the UK. Since February 2020, this has increasingly affected arrangements in schools and post-school institutions. School education has been divided between face-to-face classes and internet-based learning on occasions when children have to stay at home. National tests and examinations have been replaced by teacher assessment. Gaps in provision between more affluent and more deprived learners have become all-too-salient. Tensions between government and educational bodies over whether schools should stay open have created conflict between economic demands and concern for people’s well-being. As the crisis has gone on, it has begun to turn many people’s minds towards wider horizons and make them question educational and other related social arrangements hitherto taken for granted.

It is with these and other wider horizons that this paper is concerned. In these early 2020s we are living, in the UK as elsewhere, in societies that are undergoing dramatic change for a number of reasons. Schools – I focus on England but points I make apply to other systems – are bound to be affected. Their main contours, that is, their overall purposes and the practices intended to realise these, need to be transformed. The paper begins with a short account of how these things are in English schools today. It then briefly outlines five factors making for change – increased longevity, the climate crisis, the changing nature of work, the rise of the internet, and, last but not least, the Covid emergency. The third and longest section discusses the overall aims of the transformed school once these factors are taken into account, the curricular and pedagogical arrangements best suited to further these aims, new forms of assessment, post-school education, and teacher education. There is a brief conclusion.

One more point. The paper is not claiming that transforming the school in the various ways mentioned will be enough on its own to bring about reform. In a society like the UK there are massive, often regionally- and culturally-related, discrepancies in wealth, living conditions and related phenomena like health, life expectancy and self-esteem. The transformations suggested in the paper presuppose considerable improvement in the material well-being of disadvantaged families so that their children can fully benefit by these changes. It is not that all these wider social reforms will have to be in place before school reform can begin: there is every reason for them to occur pari passu. Discussion of empirical data on disadvantage and the reforms needed to combat it is beyond the remit of this paper, which focusses specifically on educational matters, many of which invite philosophical reflection to a greater or lesser degree.


1  Schools’ aims and practices today

The official aims of English schools currently in force, no more than half a dozen lines in length altogether, are skimpy, vapid and imprecise as a guide to what schools should be doing; and not even all of these – those pertaining to the National Curriculum – apply to academies. So what are schools’ aims in practice? The main emphasis here, according to the head of OFSTED, is on achieving test and examination results, enabling students to go further in their education and gain desirable paid work.

Work is at heart of school education, not only in its actual goals, but also in the kind of learning that takes place in them. Not all educational activities that could reasonably take place in or around schools involve work. Reading for pleasure does not. Acquiring knowledge does not necessarily do so. One can pick up all sorts of information about plants and animals in a stroll through the countryside: no work in the sense of intentional production need come into this. The same can be true about a visit to a factory or participating in a discussion group.

But with a few exceptions, schools today are work-places – sites of ‘school-work’: most lessons are about delivering some end-product, whether it is the answer to a sum, a piece of writing or translation, or, more generally, a certain proficiency in a branch of knowledge. This is not surprising seeing the dominance of tests and exams, both because doing well in these is an end-product in itself – it is what students are encouraged to work for – and because these are designed to test knowledge rather than activities like reading for pleasure.

The knowledge tested belongs to time-honoured and separate subjects – maths, history, a foreign language, etc. Again, this fits an exam-dominated regime. Ways of teaching these subjects that have evolved over the past 150 years lend themselves to widely-shared syllabuses and types of pedagogy across the whole country, facilitating the design of national examinations. There is little room for schools to include interdisciplinary activities, not least in areas of topical concern like climate change. These activities would be hard to accommodate in a national examination system.

No one would deny that assessment of individual student performance should be at the heart of school education: if teachers are to help students to progress, they must know how well they are faring and what obstacles must be overcome. Whether tests and examinations as we know them should also be at the heart of schooling is far more doubtful. They are generally taken to provide a dependable public record of how well an entrant understands a subject: a student with a good grade in A-level geography has a better grasp of the field, in breadth and in depth, than someone with a lower mark. But is this necessarily true? Exams are unable in all but the most exact subjects to assess students’ deeper understanding (as distinct from more superficial knowledge of isolated facts). This deeper knowledge depends on making multiple connections that often vary legitimately between person and person. Adequately answering an exam question in history on the causes of the Second World War, for instance, depends on understanding to some degree or other some or all of a range of issues including the reparations demanded of Germany after 1918, fascism in Italy and Spain, the collapse of the Weimar Republic in Germany and the rise of Nazism, the post-1929 global depression, the shifting relations between Germany and the Soviet Union, the rise of appeasement, international treaties…It is in fact hard to tie down the number of connections that could be made. Complex understanding of this sort cannot be assessed by examinations as we know them.

School exams thus have multiple deficiencies. As we have just seen, they fail to provide the dependable public record of a student’s understanding in various areas; and as we saw earlier, their dominance in schools restricts the curriculum and disfavours activities not confined within subject barriers, not concerned with knowledge acquisition, and not requiring work. In addition, they corrode pedagogy by encouraging teaching to the test; and, not least, they are a well-documented source of anxiety for many students, as well as leaving the large number of students who do poorly in them with little or nothing to show for themselves after a dozen or so years of schooling.

Given these defects, one may reasonably wonder why steps have not taken to do away with them. Part of the answer is that for the past century and a half or more success in them has been seen by many students and their parents as an irreplaceable first stepping stone to post-school education, not least in universities, and thence to well-paid and interesting jobs. A more comprehensive answer is that over this period ruling élites have used the exam system as a way of dividing the population into those allowed on to these stepping stones and those who are not.

At present roughly half of all students go on to university and (usually) university-level jobs after A levels, and a minority of these go on to Russell-group universities and more prestigious jobs. A large fraction of these élite jobs is in the hands of the 7 per cent of the population who took their exams at private schools. In 2014 these included 33 per cent of MPs, 53 per cent of senior diplomats, and 71 per cent of senior judges.

Since the mid-nineteenth century, schools and their examinations have been the handmaiden of the prevailing social and economic order, a vehicle for ruling élites to preserve their position across the generations. They have furnished these élites with highly qualified lieutenants – including some who have climbed the ‘ladder of opportunity’ from lower social classes – who help to run the enterprises they own or control. And they have also guaranteed a supply of less qualified workers to fill more menial positions, workers inured from school-days onwards to long hours at often uncongenial work.

It seems extraordinary that students should be made to experience 15,000 hours of class learning without their, their teachers or their parents being given a candid account of what all this is for. One would expect school learning at the very least to help students lead a flourishing personal life and to care, as concerned democratic citizens of their country and of the world, about the well-being of others. But there is nothing about this in present arrangements. True, there are subjects called Personal, Social, Health and Economic Education and Citizenship in the English National Curriculum. But not only are they insignificant compared with English, maths, science and other traditional subjects: the topics they deal with, important as they are, like sex and relationships education, learning about finance and about the mechanism of parliamentary democracy in the UK, are isolated  fragments of a wider picture.


2  Five factors making for change

The system described in 1 may seem to some a permanent fixture, but it could well become obsolescent as a result of a number of dramatic – and interconnected – changes already in train.


Living longer

Our longevity has increased dramatically since the nineteenth-century beginnings of state schooling until now. Owing largely to improvements in health, life expectancy has very nearly doubled between 1870 and 2011; and in 2016 it was calculated that one in three of today’s babies would live to see their hundredth birthday.

Despite the arrival of the hundred-year life, we still think of education as something that has to be crammed into a person’s first decade or two. For decades after 1870, this was only to be expected. When else could people learn what they needed for their short lives if not in their very early years? Today is different. Unless action is taken, the overwhelming majority of our young children could experience eighty years or more of their lives as an education-free zone. This gives us a strong incentive to radically rethink educational provision – to spread it out across a lifetime rather than bunch it up into the first few years.


The internet

Since the end of the twentieth century, the expansion of the internet has led to massive changes in the ways we communicate, work, shop, acquire news and other information, pursue social relationships and are entertained. At the same time, people have become increasingly aware of its misuse in personal bullying, criminal activity, cyberattacks by foreign powers, increasing surveillance of people’s lives and threats from political extremists.

In several ways the rise of the internet is likely to transform our familiar concept of education. First, there is growing support for supplementing classroom-based with free on-line lessons of the sort currently provided by BBC Bitesize and Oak Academy in the UK  and by Khan Academy in the USA.

This means children can experience teaching of the highest quality and supported by all kinds of visual aids. However good a school teacher is at presenting their material, few can hope to match the excellence of on-line offerings which have taken abundant time and money to produce.

A second benefit of these on-line lessons is that they are available not only in classrooms but also in students’ homes; and in the Covid crisis this has happened de rigueur. This enables students to see them at their own convenience and allows them to go more deeply into a curriculum area of their own choosing. A third advantage is that they need not be confined to discrete school subjects. They are also good purveyors of the interdisciplinary learning – eg on climate change – which, as we have seen, is marginalised in traditional subject-based schooling.

Home learning during the Covid crisis has also made use of teacher-created videos and zoom-based lessons. More generally, students can also find out so much about anything they want simply by googling. The web is a potent vehicle of autonomous learning. What was once available only in public libraries is now there at the touch of a computer key.

The internet is young. In coming years we can expect to see further educational uses of it – in learning that is partly school- and partly home-based; in the use of zoom and its more sophisticated successors in discussion sessions, eg about political and social issues, both within a student’s own class and in wider groupings, including participation from their peers overseas; in educative applications of social media; and, no doubt, in ways now unimagined.

All these developments underline the need to ensure that every student has personal access to a home computer and space of their own in which to use it.


The future of work

Changes in work patterns caused by automation have also been under way for some time. There are differences of opinion about the extent to which this will do away with jobs, but there is wide agreement that occupations most at risk are low skilled or routine ones like waiters and waitresses, shelf fillers and elementary sales occupations. High skilled jobs such as medical practitioners and senior professionals in education will be among the least affected.

One way of coping with the reduction in jobs is by shortening working hours so that more people are employed. This has long been a goal of social reformers, as in Keynes’s optimistic prediction in 1930 that in a century his grandchildren will be enjoying a fifteen-hour working week. In the last year or two there has been increasing support for shorter hours, especially in the shape of the four-day week. There has also been interest in the idea of a universal basic income (UBI). Among those benefiting would be the unemployed, including those unable to work because of health, age or childcare, and perhaps those disinclined for the moment to seek work at all.

If work does indeed become a somewhat less central feature of our lives and people have more time to pursue other concerns, this is likely to challenge the place that preparation for work plays among the aims of schooling, leaving more room for broader aims to do with personal fulfilment and civic involvement.

The climate crisis

Unless urgent action is taken to reduce carbon dioxide and methane emissions caused, for instance, by vehicles, air travel, deforestation and meat farming, the world is likely to get hotter, polar ice will melt, sea levels rise and forest fires, storms, floods and droughts become more frequent.

The climate emergency means that we will have to pay more attention to the goods we buy. This means using fewer of the Earth’s resources; relying less on fossil fuels, meat products and plastic packaging; and recycling where we can. There is a strong case for living more frugally in these and other ways, that is for not buying more goods and services than we need. The economic goal of increasing GDP will have to be put into reverse. This will further reduce employment, thus strengthening points made in the previous section.

Again, there are educational implications. Climate change will have to have a higher priority in the school curriculum. Economic aims of education must give ground to those concerned with personal and civic well-being. Living a less resource-dependent life will become an objective for young people not only to discuss but also to embrace. Schools should play a part in this reorientation.


The Covid pandemic

The Covid emergency has disrupted the familiar world of production and consumption, with further inroads into employment and more home-working; lockdowns have also enabled some people, despite various deprivations and anxieties, to enjoy a new, less hectic and work-focused existence and to come to see the importance in their lives of human intimacy and the natural environment. As already mentioned, the pandemic has also massively extended the various educational uses of the internet mentioned above and led some to think that, post-Covid, there should be more reliance on ‘blended’ learning. It has, in addition, raised questions about whether tests and examinations are always the best and fairest ways of assessing students’ work, as well as revealing gaps in educational provision between richer and poorer learners, eg. in access to the internet. The longer the emergency lasts, the more questioning there is of what have hitherto seemed to be unchangeable features of the educational landscape such as the face-to-face nature of teaching and learning, and traditional school exams.


3  Education transformed

The five factors in Section 2 are likely to change the way education is conceived and practised over the next few decades. The future is unpredictable and things may get worse, not better. This Section explores how they could improve. It takes for granted that, for this new vision to be realisable, political policies will seek to ensure that everyone has adequate income, housing, conditions of work and access to personal computers.

Our educational system was born 150 years ago when life expectancy was very low. Now that most of today’s new-born can expect to live nearly a hundred years or more, we need no longer put all the weight on what happens in the first twenty. We should no longer conceptualise these two decades as a hectic time when, for reasons both of preserving the social hierarchy and nurturing the economy, governments sort children into different pre-career paths and parents scramble to put their own offspring children on escalators to what they see as the heights. We should put behind us the examination bottleneck at the end of schooling through which young people have to squeeze in the hope of a future in the sun; and see as shameful a system where all the spoils go to the winners, leaving others with an impoverished life and a sense of failure.

Schools should be transformed. They will no longer be the prime, and for most people, the only site of systematic learning. One reason is a new approach to work. However much vested interests still want it to be the central feature of our lives, there simply won’t be enough of it for the traditional work ethic to continue. – For several reasons: automation will erode jobs; overcoming the climate crisis requires a shrinkage in demand and so production; many jobs lost during the Covid emergency will not return. This points towards the desirability of a reduction in the working week, initially to four days. Many adequately-off people’s income will be less, but the more frugal life-style required by the climate crisis and perhaps reinforced by Covid-19 will reduce their spending. More than this, people, including those who will now work partly or wholly at home, will be freer from employers’ control over them, and have more time to themselves throughout their lives to pursue what most attracts them. If, as is now increasingly mooted, a universal basic income is introduced, partly to ensure that those out of work or for other reasons in financial hardship have enough to live on, this should increase still further the number of people freer to devote time to what is of interest to them.

Among these interests will be many that depend on further learning of all kinds. Parallel to the reduction in working hours, we should envisage the creation of a nationwide network of educational institutions covering academic, artistic, sporting and practical learning: colleges, libraries, youth centres, adventure centres, clubs and societies of all sorts. These will be sites of life-long education. At present provision for this is insignificant. Not only that: formal post-school education is divided on status lines between universities and colleges of further education. But this is a purely administrative separation, impossible to justify theoretically. We should think instead of a unitary network of local, comprehensive universities broadly equal in status and so lacking the hierarchical distinctions, eg between Russell Group and other institutions, that we have now. The only exceptions would be a few research universities associated with work of outstanding, globally recognised significance. These apart, local teaching universities will enrich the lives of their students perhaps well into their seventies or eighties.

If this kind of structure is in place, there will be revolutionary consequences for how we think of schools. They can relax. No longer need the better ones among them feel they have to pass on to their students everything they require to live a full adult life. No longer will the work-orientated exam-factories that many of them have become be grinding relentlessly towards a destination set in the late teens. Schools will be able to proceed at a slower pace.

How, in more detail, might they make this transformation? There are several aspects to this.



First, there needs to be a re-evaluation of schools’ aims. We should put behind us the pitiful official ones whose inadequacies were exposed earlier. The same goes for the actual goals of so many schools, to do with exam success and preparation for work. The proper aims of school education are, at their most general level, to build on what families should do in setting students on the road to

[a] leading a flourishing personal life, and

[b] helping others to do so, too. With the climate crisis now upon us, a third aim should be added to these other two, an aim bearing intimately on, but going beyond, human well-being.

Aim [c] is that schools should help young people to see that they have a responsibility to do what they can to prevent the destruction of life on earth and of the physical environment that supports it. As this is an existentially significant aim in a way the other two are not, this is a ground for seeing it as the most fundamental of the three.


To do with the climate crisis

We now need to give more flesh to these very general aims statements, beginning with the latter. Aim [c] points in two directions. Schools, like families, should encourage their students to exercise the responsibility in question by living frugally, ie. refraining from an expensive life-style that makes carbon emissions worse. But if this is all that is expected of the students, it will not do enough to avert disaster. Immediate, large-scale, governmental and international action is needed. Schools should be encouraging students to bring pressure to bear on their government and other powerful institutions.

Students will need to acquire the relevant understanding needed to do these things. This draws in obvious ways on chemistry and physics, biology, and on geography. It also includes social, economic, and historical understanding of national and global factors like population increases, the rise of cities, and the prioritising of economic growth. Ethical reflection also comes into the picture, about, for instance, the role of wealth in human flourishing. Schools can also encourage students to take action to mobilise public opinion and to force governments to respond.


To do with personal flourishing

To turn now to aim [a] – setting students on the road to leading a flourishing personal life. What counts as this has been a central philosophical question since the Greeks and here I shall have to telescope. I shall take it as read that, in order to flourish, prequisite needs – for things like various personal freedoms, self-respect, food, exercise, good health, good housing, company and so on – must be met. As for one’s flourishing or well-being itself, this is not a subjective matter, dependent on the satisfaction of one’s strongest desires, e.g. for fame, wealth, power, sexual gratification or comfort. It is based on successful and wholehearted engagement in intrinsically worthwhile activities and relationships, e.g. being with loved ones, artistic creation, love of what others have created, love of nature, intellectual endeavour, making things, helping others through political involvement or more directly to live more abundantly, physical exercise, exploring new places and cultures…These as well as other things can be the object of wholehearted absorption. Some of them may be pursued as paid employment. Others may also involve productive activity but without monetary reward.

I am assuming here that people make their own choices among these. Not all societies have tolerated such personal autonomy, dictatorships and theocracies included; and for some traditional societies the concept has been unknown. But in a society like our own, we rightly take this ideal – exemplified in choice of partner, employment, place of residence – as read.


To do with helping others to flourish

Aim [b], is preparing students for a life that helps other people to flourish. Schools should reinforce the altruistic dispositions that families have begun to shape – eg. equal respect for others, caring for their needs, being truthful, fair, understanding and encouraging in one’s dealings with them. It is helpful to see the range of these dispositions as extending outwards from the most intimate relationships to those with friends and neighbours, to caring as a citizen for the well-being of strangers in one’s local and national communities, to ones responsibilities as a citizen of the world. The last ones of these overlap with climate crisis aims under [c].


The school curriculum

What might schools look like if we accept these three aims? I begin with the curriculum, using this word to mean the content of learning that can be derived from a set of general aims. We should think of it, indeed, in terms of more specific aims (or sub-aims) rather than, as is standard today, as a set of school subjects. In discussing aims, I did in fact give examples of such more specific aims. If we take general aim [c], for instance – that schools should help young people to see that they have a responsibility to try to prevent a climate calamity – we saw that it requires as a sub-aim having some grasp of relevant chemistry and physics. This may well be, but need not be, acquired within discrete subjects: it could come about via interdisciplinary enquiry. A school subject is only one kind of vehicle by which ends can be achieved: cross-disciplinary work is another, as are a school’s ethos and its out-of-school activities. ‘The school curriculum’, as used here, covers all of these.

In a short paper, I cannot hope to comment on the curriculum in any of the three areas in anything like a comprehensive way. Instead, I will focus in each of the three on one illustrative topic. The longer, final section on personal well-being will also say something about the range of topics to be covered in this area.


Climate change aims

Here my cameo topic is the sub-aim of encouraging students to refrain from living in a resource-costly way that makes carbon emissions worse. There are two points to make about this.

First, it may be objected that the aim is paternalistic. If we prize personal autonomy, it seems that it should be up to individual students to decide whether to choose frugality or trying to earn a high salary so that they can buy expensive goods and jet off to foreign holidays. But although autonomy is of the first importance, it has to be overridden in this case so as to ensure the continued existence of all life on earth and of the earth itself as we know it. Frugality has now to be a duty rather than an option.

Secondly, frugality need not be seen as a deprivation. True, some of those who see it as duty may take it in that way. Others may simply have a disinclination to spend much money: in their free time their mind is focused on their jogging or their writing and other things like shopping only get in the way. They feel no obligation to be frugal like those in the first category; they merely find themselves living that way because it helps them to do the things they want. For yet others, frugality is something positive and to be welcomed as desirable in itself. It is a way of living identical with or perhaps overlapping the ancient philosophical ideal of the simple life. This in turn is closely connected with the idea of living close to or in harmony with nature.

School students can be encouraged to discuss all three variants so that they can see which one suits them best. (And here personal autonomy does come into the frame). Since they have to be frugal anyway, some students may well see the third type of frugality as a boon. As we saw above, one of the positive spin-offs of the Covid-19 crisis has been the welcome many have given to the less hectic life they have had to lead, finding a new delight in proximity to nature in their daily walks and in their gardens.


Aims to do with helping others to flourish

Most climate change aims could well fit under this rubric. I have put them in a separate category because they go beyond a concern for the welfare of other human beings to a desire to save from extinction other animal as well as plant life as well as to preserve the earth’s physical environment.

Here I concentrate on just one of the altruistic dispositions mentioned earlier: treating others with equal respect.

This egalitarian notion is different from the current watchword of ‘equality of opportunity’ which, in a school context, is a term that governments use to justify an arrangement enabling a minority of students from ordinary families – via the examination system – to become, as we saw above, well qualified lieutenants of ruling  élites. This section’s disposition is about respecting everyone as an equal, whatever their class background, gender, sexual orientation, race or nationality.

The Me Too and Black Lives Matter movements and their aftermaths have made us more aware of sexual and racial discrimination. On the latter, during the Covid crisis people have learnt much about the roots of racism through media initiatives on the African slave trade and about the unfair treatment today of black and minority ethnic people in employment and in the judicial system.

This illustrates a more general point about moral education in schools. Fostering an altruistic disposition like equal respect – and the same is true for others – depends on students acquiring relevant knowledge and understanding. In the Covid crisis many of us have also come to see more clearly the disadvantages that many poor, including BAME, people suffer in income, health, education, housing, employment, self-esteem, and access to the internet. Tomorrow’s schools should be providing age-appropriate sociological, psychological and historical understanding of all such matters.

All this shows, too, how inextricable moral education is from citizenship education. It reinforces the present inadequacy of Citizenship as a National Curriculum subject. To be a good citizen a young person needs to know more than the names of democratic institutions and a little about their rules. They need extensive understanding about how people live and work across the country as well as about how their lives are shaped by macro-economic decisions about wages, taxes, investment and extent of government regulation. The rise of fake news and the ease with which ordinary people can be persuaded to vote for élites that may not have their well-being at heart, underline the vital importance of enabling people to understand the social and economic contours of their society and its political structures. Schools can lay the first bricks in the wall.


Aims to do with personal flourishing

These have partly to do with helping students to satisfy their basic needs as a prerequisite of their own flourishing. An example is maintaining the physical and mental health that will take them through their hundred-year life. This involves understanding the darker side of the food and drink industry as well as peer group pressures in our age of social media, both of which threaten healthy living. Some knowledge of science – in this case about human beings’ physical and mental make-up – is also patently necessary in health education, just as it is in climate change and civic learning. As always, this knowledge and understanding is necessary to support a student’s personal dispositions, in this case those to do with staying healthy. As always, too, schools and families should be working together to develop these.

There is much more to say in detail about this cameo aim, but I wish now to widen the horizon beyond prerequisites to look at the fulfilling personal life itself. To repeat what was said earlier, schools should acquaint students with an array of intrinsically worthwhile activities from which to choose those that most suit them; examples are artistic creation, love of what others have created, love of nature, intellectual endeavour, making things, helping others through political involvement or more directly to live more abundantly, physical exercise, exploring new places and cultures…To some extent this means that familiar items such as mathematics, history, and music as well as science will still appear in school curricula, but the way they feature will be different.

We are currently used to curriculum activities taught to everybody over several years – ten plus years of mathematics, for instance. But with personal fulfilment rather than exam success in mind, we should rethink. How many options does one need to have experienced in order to lead a fulfilling life? The answer is only so many that one finds some things among them sufficiently absorbing. Would Shakespeare have flourished better if he had been given an encyclopaedic education as a schoolboy?

This speaks for a different approach to the curriculum in this area. Instead of joining the long march through the subjects over a number of years, students will have a reduced compulsory component. There is a strong case for introducing taster courses in an areas like the post-elementary mathematics taught in secondary school. These could last a year, say, and after that time students would have the choice of pursuing the area further or giving it up in favour of something more appealing. There could be a sizeable part of the school day totally spent on self-chosen activities.

Schools would thus focus far more than now on pursuits that students find absorbing. Where these require work – and as we have seen things like reading for pleasure do not – this work will be something students genuinely want to do, rather than the constrained and often off-putting labour that is so prominent in the typical secondary school regime as we know it. This seems all the more sensible in the light of the hundred-year life and a likely reduction in the working week. If all goes well, young people born today will have more time to themselves; and much of it could be taken up with activities as well as relationships in which they can lose themselves. One of the central functions of the new schools is to equip them for a life of this sort.

These schools will become more relaxed places. Today’s schools urge students to think ahead – to exams, university, a decent job. But having a life plan is not an indispensable part of a fulfilling life and there are many who flourish in a more laid-back way. As paid employment recedes somewhat in significance there may be more living for the moment. Again, the Covid emergency, especially in people’s sense of relief in escaping the grind of normal life during lockdowns, has pointed a way forward. We are used, as schools are now, to the mantra that education should be about students doing their best or striving to reach the limits of their capacity. But there are no good grounds for steering learners towards such maximising goals. Again, there is more reason to favour a more relaxed school ethos.

Supporting this is the fact that worthwhile pursuits typically need plenty of time to pursue. Think back to examples of them that I sketched earlier: friendships and other intimate relationships, artistic creation, love of what others have created, love of nature, intellectual endeavour, making things, helping others to flourish, and so on. A common feature is that they tend to take place over extended periods of time. This is true in more than one way. Reading a good novel or being a care worker is not a momentary activity; and the activity itself in its more general sense – eg loving good fiction – typically extends over a period of one’s life and is not over in a single day. In this these pursuits are not like short-lived events such as drinking a cup of coffee or buying cornflakes.

Schools, too, are places where activities occur in short bursts, in this case within timetabled slots. But the grid-enclosed nature of school learning is not conducive to a curriculum of intrinsically worthwhile activities. If a learner loses herself in her academic or artistic or practical pursuits, why not enlarge the time she has to take them further rather than shrinking it because she has to move on to something else? We should learn from advocates of ‘slow education’ like Mike Grenier who teaches at Eton. “Slow education”, Grenier explains, “means developing lasting relationships between student and teacher and between student and learning”. It means more time for discussion, reflection and learning in depth, he says. At the moment, we’re giving them packaged subject syllabuses and feeding them bite-sized dollops. It’s like a GP handing out pills. When you’ve taken them all and completed the course, you’ll be ‘better at’ whatever subject it is. Children from age four to at least 18 are required to prove themselves on a series of tests. It is a very impoverished view of what human beings are. Slow education means cutting down on curriculum content. The total sum of knowledge we now have on most subjects is enormous. Think of biology and the developments in genetics and neuroscience over the past 25 years, or physics and the increased understanding of quantum theory and how the universe works.It’s all being crammed into syllabuses and it’s reached saturation point. Teachers say to students that ‘we have got to get through it’. The generation we are teaching now will live to at least 85 or 90. Why are we in such a hurry?” [The Guardian 13 August 2019]


Alternatives to examinations

As the well-spring of many of the afflictions that schools suffer at the moment, there is a strong case for replacing at least most examinations by a more suitable form of summative assessment. An accumulating record of a student’s achievements of all kinds – academic and non-academic – could be useful both for university acceptance and for future employment. As in some pioneering schools today, this would be a joint endeavour from the earliest years, involving not only teachers but also parents and indeed students themselves. The internet would play a useful role here, not only in facilitating comments by the interested parties and updating the record, but also in allowing the inclusion within it of visual and oral material reflecting a student’s attainments in, for instance, the visual arts and music. Critics may have doubts about its impartiality, perhaps comparing it unfavourably examinations. But given the imperfections of the latter – brought vividly to public attention during the ‘exams scandal’ revealed during the Covid crisis in the summer of 2020 – the comparison is ill-founded. Doubts about a record of achievement system could be allayed by having some kind of monitoring from outside the school. The reliance of records on the internet could well facilitate this.


Who should control the curriculum and its aims?

As things are now in England, since 1988 the most general curricular aims have been laid down by government as part of their responsibility for the National Curriculum. The experience of the last thirty-plus years has not been encouraging. Apart from moves by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority in the early 2000s to consider schools’ aims in some depth, the topic has been largely ignored in favour of detailed specification of requirements in curriculum subjects. The result has been the bland and virtually meaningless two or three lines we first saw in 1988 which are still with us in 2021 buttressed by a couple of shaky additions. It is right in a democracy that what schools should be for be democratically decided – rather than leaving this in the hands of sectional groups as happened before 1988, when schools and teachers were in charge. The problem with putting this in the hands of education ministers is that they, too, constitute a sectional group – and in their case, often with a non-educational political agenda.

A proposed solution often floated is to leave aims to be worked by a Curriculum Commission at arms-length from government. A difficulty, though, is: who would appoint the Commission? Can one guarantee that its membership would be objective and not represent sectional interests? A possible way forward would be to make the selection and conduct of the Commission responsive to interested parties across the community, and genuinely open to incorporating changes suggested by citizens in general. Whether this would be enough of a democratic mandate is another matter. An alternative would be to keep curriculum aims in governmental hands but, on what these should be, oblige ministers to follow the advice of an independent body perhaps like a modified version of the Chartered  College of Teaching. Clearly this whole topic needs further discussion.

The Commission – and henceforth this also applies to the alternative independent body just mentioned – will arrive at its own conclusions but it is reasonable to expect these to include equipping students to be members of a modern, democratic society who enjoy a fulfilling life of their own choosing, help others to do so, do what they can to forestall a climate disaster, and engage in satisfying work, paid and unpaid.

The Commission will want to generate more determinate aims. The civic aim, for instance, points to acquiring some understanding of what living in a democratic community involves; and to strengthening dispositions necessary for democratic life like concern for others, cooperativeness, personal autonomy, tolerance and treating others with equal respect. Another example. Seeing the role of STEM activities in the economy, the Commission will want students to have sufficient grasp of these to hold down a job in the area if they want this.

The Commission will no doubt make its aims, perhaps including those just given, more determinate still, but there its remit ends. As we move from more general aims and into more and more specific sub-aims, there is good reason why schools and teachers should increasingly decide which of these and what priorities among them best suit the situation of their particular school. They are in a better position to judge this than an education minister intent on laying down in detail what curricula schools should be following. Teachers are also in the best position to decide how aims are to be pursued, ie by what curricular vehicles (eg subjects, whole school processes, out-of-school activities etc) and by what  pedagogies. The National Curriculum has always transgressed this, framing curricular content mainly within a particular kind of vehicle – the school subject. Since 2010 ministers have also encroached into pedagogy by, for instance, policy on synthetic phonics. This should be a matter for schools themselves.


Ways of learning

I mentioned earlier ways in it which the internet has been impacting on school learning. They include free on-line lessons of high quality and supported by all kinds of visual and video material. These are not only within conventional school subjects but cut across them in an interdisciplinary way. The Covid crisis has made many of us aware for the first time of how on-line learning at home can supplement face-to-face teaching. Blended learning combining on-line and face-to-face has also become popular.

Without the Covid crisis, breaking away from usual ways of teaching might have taken years longer, partly because of the deep-rootedness of traditional methods. For centuries it has been taken for granted in teaching as well as other areas like law, medicine and banking, that professionals deal authoritatively with their clients face to face in a specially appointed room that emphasises the different status of both parties. In all these areas, beginning in some cases before the Covid emergency but speeded up by it, this pattern has begun to erode. Email, websites and remote meetings are changing different professional landscapes. Seeing how rapidly tech innovations like these come into being, we can predict further inroads into traditional modi operandi.

The familiar concept we have of teaching and learning  is being transformed. For one thing, students with access to computers can now access learning material at home. This gives them freedom from the minute-by-minute surveillance that has always accompanied school learning. Further autonomy comes in the shape of being able to interact with teacher-made videos at a time of their choice, in their being able to supplement teacher-generated material with free on-line lessons, and in the ease with which they can google information relevant to their studies.

In the school of the future the role of the teacher will be transformed. Although face-to-face interaction will still be central, teachers will become somewhat more like organisers of learning rather than sole transmitters of content. The home as well as the school will become a hub of systematic learning, with parents, students and teachers working closely together. We saw above how this can take place with regard to assessment. There is every reason why it should happen elsewhere in school life. This will be especially so if, as is bound to happen with a shorter working week – and with less working in offices etc. partly as a result of Covid – the home will become more central to most people’s lives..

Face-to-face interaction will still be central to school teaching. But in an era of slow learning, it will change in line with Mike Grenier’s remarks above. Teachers will no longer have to hurry students through the syllabus with exam pressures in minds, but will have time for a more personal relationship with learners, for exploring and discussing ideas in an unhurried way.


From school to university

The bottleneck of exams through which secondary schools push their older students will no longer exist. With exams replaced by records of achievement, sixteen and eighteen will no longer be such crucial ages. Students will not be pressurised to go on to higher education at the end of school. With perhaps eighty years of life ahead of them, they will be encouraged to go on with their formal education when it best suits them. As suggested earlier, this continuing education will be within a system of local comprehensive universities catering for all ages. These will amalgamate the kind of work currently undertaken in Colleges of Further Education with that associated with universities as we know them today. Like schools, and building on the trail-blazing Open University, they will combine face-to-face with off-campus, on-line learning, including MOOCs. Collaboration will be encouraged between the university and the school system in methods of on-line education.  Some version of the record of achievement system proposed for schools will also be introduced for these new institutions in place of classified examination results. This will draw on the currently existing HEAR (Higher Education Achievement Record).

Society will still need a well-educated minority to occupy its leadership positions. At present students in private and high-end state schools massively dominate these. There is a democratic case for phasing this out. There should be a quota system restricting the numbers of currently privileged school students en route to these positions and favouring various currently disadvantaged groups. If, as is likely, this would still leave something of a bottleneck problem at eighteen, with some young people from all social groups wanting to go to university as soon as possible so as to secure a high-end job, this could be alleviated by incentives for them to see more of the world before applying for university – perhaps in their mid-twenties or later.


Teacher education

The head of OFSTED commented in 2017 on teachers’ ‘weak theoretical understanding of curriculum’ in an age when so much is laid down for them in our detailed national curriculum. She was right to look back approvingly to the ‘time (long ago) when teachers were taught the theory that underpins curriculum planning’. Although she does not mention it, this was mainly in the period when in-service teacher education flourished between the mid-1960s and the mid-1980s, at which point the Thatcher government pulled the plug on automatic public funding for teachers wanting to deepen their professional understanding. Returning to this is even more appropriate as schools are transformed. Teachers will not only have to internalise the aims that guide their work: they will be collectively responsible for working out how the aims are best realised in their school. This is a far cry from the conception of teacher education, or rather training, embodied in the government’s proposed new Institute of Teaching.



This paper has built up a case for a new vision of education in an age of longer lifespans, climate change, reliance on the internet and decline in employment. What is learnt in school will be more relevant than now to urgent social issues like the impending climate catastrophe and to preparation for democratic citizenship more broadly. Schools will also become more enjoyable places for both students and teachers, given a new focus on depth of involvement in appealing worthwhile activities rather than the present hectic pursuit of test and exam success.


Bethan Marshall responds to attacks on teachers as she describes the realities of their heroism during the continuing Covid-19 crisis in schools.


Everybody needs to be educated but they also need to be kept healthy. The recent desire of Greenwich local authority to close its schools in the last week before Christmas seems a reasonable decision. The powers that be in that authority have obviously listened to the plight of teachers battling against ever increasing difficulties to cope with a pandemic.

It has become fashionable to vilify teachers as whingers and layabouts, front line workers who don’t deserve the credit that is given to others who have fought Covid 19: healthcare workers, care home workers and the police. Rod Liddle’s article recently in The Sun more or less summed up the attitude of many ‘Covid has made heroes of many of our front line workers but not teachers.’

I have to confess I am not in a school myself; I am in teacher education but that puts me in touch with a vast number of schools within the capital and I have links with schools elsewhere in the country and I will never cease to be impressed both by the students that I have who daily attend school and the teachers who support them. I have always been aware that those who are not part of the education system have a strange idea of what goes on in schools. I had hoped that teaching young people at home might give adults a better concept of what teachers do every day week in week out. But maybe that was just wishful thinking.

Since September schools, particularly secondary schools, have had to negotiate keeping students and staff healthy while also educating them as best they possibly can within rules of social distancing. This means working out shifts for students to arrive and have breaks; movement around the school; bubbles of year groups; working out whether it is better for students or staff to move around the school and when and where to wear a mask if you have to wear a mask at all. All this in classrooms which are either increasingly freezing as schools are encouraged to leave the windows open to increase ventilation and now with rates of pupils having to self isolate, teachers having to do the same.

Students and teachers are packed into overcrowded rooms, breathing the same air with a virus that pays no attention to the fact that these are schools which are there to educate young people. We are told that it only takes fifteen minutes before it becomes unsafe in a closed environment. Students and teachers are there for six hours a day, often with no PPE in the classroom.

The logistics of what senior leaders have to negotiate on a daily basis, working out who has to be sent home and how lessons can be covered with an increasingly sick staff, beggars belief.

Of course senior leaders and teachers want schools to stay open; they have all entered a profession dedicated to educating children. They have kept schools open throughout this pandemic and they,above all others, are concerned that Coronavirus has exposed the very wrong inequities in our society, which they already knew were there. When it is over and the Rod Liddles of this world have gone on to attack somebody else they will continue to fight for the education of those who are the least advantaged. But as it nears Christmas perhaps we could show a bit of good will and say teachers are heroes too and that they deserve a break.

Dr. Bethan Marshall is Senior Lecturer in English Education at King’s College, University of London and Vice Chair of the New Visions for Education Group.



The school system in England, Covid-19, Temporary Continuity Directions, free education, local government and what next?

New Visions Secretary John Fowler discusses the new government direction on remote education, its implications for schools, pupils and parents and how local authorities could be utilised despite their absence in the government’s approach to remote learning.

From 22 October 2020 schools in England were placed under a new legal direction, a Temporary Continuity Direction, to provide “remote education” when pupils are not able to attend school due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The DfE Explanatory Note states:

“The Direction requires that where a class, group of pupils, or individual pupils need to self-isolate, or there are local or national restrictions requiring pupils to remain at home, schools are expected to provide immediate access to remote education”.

To this should be added there are many schools where pupils are being sent home because staff have Covid-19 or are self-isolating and there are not sufficient staff left to keep the school running safely. See the BBC News item Northern England schools ‘most disrupted by Covid’ for the extent to which schools are providing remote education.

The National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) when the direction was published thundered that it “is a grave error which risks irreparable damage to the relationship between government and the profession”. The education trade press reported extensively on the direction and reaction to it, and there have been mentions in the national media, see Laura McInerney in the Guardian “How can England’s schools educate isolating children if families can’t afford wifi?“

Predictably the local government press has remained silent. For the many local government readers who have missed the direction, the TES has done an excellent piece on what the direction means What you legally have to do for self-isolating pupils (18 October 2020). (Registration On the TES website may be required to access the article.)

The legislation is found in the rushed Coronavirus Act. The Secretary of State is given almost unfettered powers to issue directions without Parliamentary scrutiny.

Siobhain McDonagh MP raised the direction in an adjournment debate on 20 October 2020 pointing out that:

“Ofcom estimates that the number [without internet access at home or a laptop, desktop or tablet] affected could be as many as an extraordinary 1.78 million children in the UK” and that “Staggering data from the Children’s Commissioner indicates that more than 58% of primary and just under half of secondary school pupils were being provided with no online lessons whatever”.

Minister Nick Gibb listed in reply what the Government has done to support remote education including the delivery of a further 250,00 laptops and tablets to schools in addition to the 220,00 delivered in the Summer Term, work with the major IT and telecom suppliers, and the DfE-funded Oak National Academy.

The direction was published in the London Gazette on 1 October 2020 and DfE guidance Get help with remote education was updated. More extensive guidance can be found in Guidance for full opening: schools which was last updated on 21 October 2020 and now stands at 54 pages if printed.

The decision to issue a direction, which some see as heavy-handed, and enables the Secretary of State to go to court to seek a compliance order with serious consequences if defied, may be because increasing numbers of children are being sent home. The DFE publishes data every Tuesday on school attendance collected on the previous Thursday. On 22 October, there were estimated to be 573,300 pupils not attending school for Covid-19 related reasons compared to 409,000 a week earlier. See SchoolsWeek Attendance plummets as more pupils forced to self-isolate (27 October 2020). The article records that 26 per cent of state-funded schools had “one or more pupils self-isolating who had been asked to do so due to potential contact with a case of coronavirus inside the school”. This is up from 21 per cent last week’.

It remains to be seen whether the threat of legal action against schools will have an effect. Schools know the value of maintaining onsite teaching wherever possible. However, will schools be up to providing remote learning for all pupils from the start of any period of self-isolation? (NB: For local authority maintained schools, the responsible body is the governing body and not the local authority except in the few cases where delegation has been suspended and an interim executive board has not yet been established.)

Much remote learning depends on home access to information and communications technology which many families do not have. The Government has responded to requests for information about how many laptops, tablets and 4G wireless routers have been delivered with a webpage. However, the lack of laptops is a continuing problem. See TES ‘Grim’ Covid stats prompt laptops plea to ‘failing’ DfE (27 October 2020). And the housing conditions for many families is another impediment to effective remote education no matter how many laptops are supplied.

England has had a chequered stop-go track record to the development of educational technology in schools over the last 20 years. However, schools have probably made more progress on using ICT in the school curriculum in the last six months than they had in the previous 10 years. This is to the enormous credit of school staff, especially where they have had to develop “blended learning”, a mixture of face-to-face and remote teaching. However, schools need both the resources, staff training and time to get it right. OFSTED is visiting schools to assess the quality of remote education and the Regional Schools Commissioners are trying to monitor what is going on.

The absence of a specific local authority role in securing remote learning is indicative of the government’s approach to the development of the school system. There has not been a government statement on the development of the school system since the long since abandoned Educational Excellence Everywhere White Paper in March 2016, three prime ministers and four secretaries of state for education ago.

There are two essential components of school systems in developed democracies. The ‘state’ must:

secure sufficient schools, suitably staffed and equipped, to enable all children and young people to be educated; and
require parents to ensure their children are educated and, in return, access to school education is free.

This has been the settled position in the UK for 75 years with the functions carried out, for most of this period, cooperatively between central and local government across each local authority area. (For the purist readers, there were bodies called Part 3 authorities until 1972 which had education functions in addition to the county local education authority.) However, every reader will know this once effective central-local partnership has broken down in recent years.

Has Covid-19 changed anything? Earlier this year, the LGIU published two pieces relating these components to the Covid-19 pandemic: Covid-19: Reopening schools to all pupils – a view on best practice and current law (21 May 2020) and Covid-19: what about free school education? A personal view (17 April 2020). And the LGIU has tracked developments throughout the Summer. See Starting school in September 2020: catching up and recovery (16 September 2020).

The provision of education in state-funded schools in the school curriculum must by law be without charge whether the education takes place on or off the school site. Remote education places additional costs on parents and, in spite of schools’ valiant efforts (with local authority support in many cases) to support home learning, the distribution of 500,000 laptops and tablets is a small proportion of the 8,000,000 children who may need to switch to remote education. The cost to parents may have been recognised for the most vulnerable who are in receipt of laptops but there is still a large proportion where this is not the case even accepting that a few families already have ICT equipment for each child. It appears that state education is no longer without charge for all parents.

While schools are quite rightly in the driving seat to make day to day decisions, a well-equipped and experienced local authority could step in to help schools in difficulties although sadly that infrastructure is neither present nor with sufficient authority in many areas to take on such a role. Local authorities arguably performed well in finding school education during the lockdown for vulnerable children and the children of key workers when schools had to close although little has been published about this role. But has school education been available for all since March? Probably not given the figures quoted about by Siobhain McDonagh.

The ‘test and trace’ question has reminded many that local functions are best performed locally in partnership with an effective national infrastructure. Could the same apply to the school system and if so has local government got the capacity to argue and fulfil a major and pivotal role again?

This article was originally published by John Fowler as a blog for the Local Government Information Unit.

After the public examinations chaos of 2020, New Visions Group Chair, Sir Alasdair Macdonald, calls for a clear plan for 2021 based on a system of centre assessed grading and given to schools now, in 2020, before the October half term break.

There are many important issues in our assessment system that need addressing but our 2021 exam cohorts are the urgent priority. It is difficult if not 7impossible to see any way in which exam-based assessment next summer can be fair or equitable. We know that our Pupil Premium pupils and other vulnerable groups have fallen further behind during lockdown and with the inevitable temporary closures and resultant education on-line over the coming months the ‘gap’ can only widen even further. Year 11 and 13 cohorts are already being sent home.

We also know that our teachers will do everything that they can to support their pupils but this could lead to an inordinate amount of catch-up lessons and other strategies on Saturdays, holidays etc. This will almost certainly impact on the well-being of both pupils and staff.

Schools need to know before half-term in October 2020 what they are working towards. This may sound unrealistic given the speed at which the DfE and OFQUAL are working but headteachers and their staff must know as soon as possible what they are preparing their pupils for. In terms of covering the curriculum content the autumn term is crucial and confirmation not arriving until say November or December would put an inordinate degree of pressure on exam cohorts.

If we are to achieve any degree of fairness for vulnerable pupils, many of whom have had very negative experiences over the last 6 months, any exam-based model, be it pushing the exams back by a few weeks or reducing the content will inevitably favour those who are privately educated, those from middle class backgrounds and those with more articulate parents. It seems very wrong that this pandemic should add another layer of disadvantage. Given sufficient time to prepare could we not develop a better system of centre assessed grades. Last summer centre assessed grades were used at very short notice and although there were issues the world of sixth forms, colleges and universities has not imploded.

Next summer could be much better if we prioritised quickly the need to plan and implement a system of centre assessed grading that involved testing (possibly using externally written materials), ‘mock exams’, coursework and other forms of assessment. There would  be an opportunity to implement moderation of school grades and this could be school to school but led by the exam boards.  A working party could quite quickly create a methodology that would at the very least be as reliable as reverting to the traditional GCSE approach and would certainly be more equitable. The normal Government methods and timescales  will just not work in the current crisis. We need to challenge the traditional modus operandi. For example  a group of examiners, leaders and teachers could be identified, they could be taken off all other work for a period of time, isolated and asked to come up with a model.

As already noted this is urgent and Years 11 and 13 deserve this level of prioritisation. We know that any proposal would have flaws but we desperately need a ‘solution’ that is as fair as we can make it, and we need to avoid a repetition of last summer’s confusion. An improved model based on centre assessed grades would lack the benefit of the trials or pilots that would be required to create a really robust system but we should not, falling back on a cliche, let the pursuit of the perfect be the enemy of the good. Such an approach would also challenge and reject the view that our teachers cannot assess their pupils fairly. We need to build the trust in the profession that has been constantly eroded by our punitive model of accountability. The moderation process could play an important part in this.

There are many groups and individuals who are questioning whether high status public exams at 16 are still needed. Is GCSE past its sell-by date? Is studying only  3 A levels from age 16 too narrow a curriculum for the 21st century? As  Laura McInerney recently stated in The Guardian – ‘The problem is not the pandemic. It is that we have constructed a system where a set of tests, taken over a couple of weeks, are the gateway to many of life’s chances”.  There may well be a strong case for a review of our assessment system including the possibility of a Baccalaureate or Diploma model but right now the main issue is overwhelmingly fairness for our current vulnerable pupils in their exam years.



Dr. Bethan Marshall, Vice Chair of the New Visions for Education Group and Senior Lecturer in English Education at King’s College, London joins the debate on replacing GCSEs with teacher assessment looking at the Canadian model of teacher based course assessment and the exam that almost no-one fails.

Canada is divided into ten provinces and three territories. All jurisdictions have a system of teacher-based course assessment. In other words there is no final examination which is sent out for others to mark. It is all done in house. If we look at the example of Ontario, which has the greatest number of students, this gives the teachers carte blanche in deciding what the students study. There is a curriculum document for each subject determined by the Ontario government but it relies on fairly generic principles. In English, for instance there is a demand that they study the media, a Canadian author and a renaissance playwright but no specific author is mentioned. This gives the teachers a great deal of freedom as to what and how they study as there is no syllabus with named authors either. They can determine what they teach based on the class in front of them. It also allows, potentially, for more formative assessment as the content of the class is not dictated to from outside but can be personalised to the students they are teaching.

Moreover, there is no external inspection system which again gives the Canadian teachers a sense of autonomy and freedom to teach what they want. Different jurisdictions have different ways of monitoring what goes on in the classroom, for instance Saskatchewan has a system of internal review, Ontario has the Teacher Professional Appraisal System. Both these are more like the one that John Macbeath and the NUT proposed in 2005 which suggest a process of self evaluation within schools. In their book Empowered Educators in Canada, (Campbell et al, 2017)1 which looks specifically at Alberta and Ontario, they conclude that both have brought about changes and development in how schools operate through ‘professionally led change’. They also cite a practice of leading from the middle as opposed to top down changes which are regularly inspected, (such as OFSTED) and tested (GCSE and A-Levels) as has happened in England. In other words there is greater trust of the professionals, the way they teach, and therefore of there ability to assess students’ work

Most jurisdictions, however, do have some kind of literacy and numeracy test when the students are around fifteen, which is externally marked. In Ontario this is known as the Ontario Secondary Schools Literacy Test OSSLT and Ontario Secondary Schools Numeracy Test OSSNT. Neither of these tests are seen as the province of any one department they are very much seen as cross curricular and there is little if any teaching to the test despite the fact that in order to graduate from high school you have to pass the literacy test. Students who do not pass the test at the first attempt can tale it again the following year and if they still haven’t passed it they can take a class in their final year of school. The result is that almost everybody passes the test in the end. The vast majority of schools end up with a 100% pass rate. The School Boards (local authorities) do take the tests apart but this has little or no impact on the students or teachers.

The only caveat to the teacher based summative assessment system is that there is no standardisation of results. Other countries and jurisdictions have had rigorous systems in place to ensure that the grade of a student in school A is the same as that of school B and these have been extensively researched as well. Queensland, for example, until recently had a course-based summative assessment where they had annual reviews of the results so that they could ensure standardization across schools. AQA in this country had a very similar procedure to the one in Queensland where they had moderation within and outside the schools in the form of a review panel which checked on all the schools results. The lack of a means of standardizing school results has meant that the IB has become more popular in Canadian high schools but even this has a large component of course-based assessment.

The Australian experience is interesting in that they too introduced a literacy and numeracy test somewhat akin to our SATS and abandoned course based assessment. One researcher says that the unintended consequences “mirror many experienced in the US and UK, including teaching to the test, narrowing the curriculum focus, increasing student and teacher anxiety, promoting direct teaching methods, a decrease in student motivation and the creation of classroom environments that are less, not more, inclusive”2

As Klenowski and Wyatt-Smith point out:

The traditional divide between objective and subjective judgement became established, the former routinely associated with standardised testing, and the latter, teacher judgement. Underpinning the divide was the ill-conceived notion that standardised testing led to more reliable judgement, especially where marking was regulated (e.g. by machine marking), and relied less on the human brain for decision-making. 3.

We have gone for standardised testing, the Canadians for teacher judgement.


1 Campbell, C.; Zeichner, K.; Lieberman, A and Osmond-Johnson, P (2017) Empowered Educators in Canada: How high performing systems shape teacher quality. San Francisco, Jossey- Bass

2 Thompson, G. (2013) NAPLAN, MySchool and Accountability: TeacherPerceptions of the Effects of Testing. The International Education Journal:Comparative Perspectives, 2013, 12(2), pp. 62–84 at Page 64

3 Klenowski and Wyatt-Smith (2012) The impact of high stakes testing: the Australian story Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy & Practice 12 (1) 65-79 at Page 68