February 17, 2021
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 National tests and examinations have been replaced by teacher assessment.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.
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.
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.
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.