Just another brick in the wall

British schools have become joyless production lines. This is the moment for change.

Governments do not understand schools. They rarely have throughout history. They see education not as a means, but purely as an end, a process validated wholly by success in bad exams that they equate with academic achievement and even scholarship. My hope remains that the coalition government will make a better job of it than its predecessors.

Schools and universities should be places of challenge, joy and deep fulfilment, in which all the faculties a student possesses are identified, nurtured and developed. They should open the minds, as well as the hearts, of the young. It is vital that they do this, as many adults possess neither open minds nor open hearts. Our young should learn how to think and how to feel. Education is their greatest chance to learn how to live. Yet, the world over, schools and universities seem increasingly to be closing the mind and the heart, not opening them.

A school should be educating the young for life in all its fullness - not only for work, but for the 21st century in all its unknowable dim­ensions. Attending school should be as highly prized by students in this country as it is in emerging countries such as Vietnam and Uganda. Young people at school in Britain should be grateful to be studying in such well-resourced environments and their parents should be appreciative, too. The lack of gratitude often shown by our schoolchildren and their parents for the education they receive - whether free or paid for - is a large part of the British malaise.

Universities should be rounding off the education experience, taking undergraduates to new heights of scholarship, excitement and learning, and giving them the profoundest intellectual experiences of their lives. Higher education should be stretching students broadly, too, beyond the merely academic, preparing them fully for life. It should be turning out responsible, capable and deeply fulfilled young men and women.

British schools should be leading the world academically and in the provision of psychologically nurturing environments in which they develop their young. They are doing neither. British universities should be leading the world in teaching, research and innovation, as well as striving to export their unique qualities abroad. They are losing ground on the first and are failing properly to do the second. British schools and universities are falling far short of what they could and should be achieving. Figures from a major analysis of OECD countries, the Pisa study, published at the end of last year, show that the UK has dropped behind its competitors in reading and mathematics. "We are a C country with A* pretensions," was the verdict in the Times Educational Supplement.

The sobering fact is that our schools are not even attaining the one objective to which all else has been sacrificed: securing good exam passes. Our schools are heading ineluctably towards becoming exam factories, students moving mechanically from lesson to lesson until they are spat out at the end of the process clutching a certificate listing largely meaningless exam passes. Peter Abbs, for many years one of the most persuasive voices decrying the impoverishment of education, has written: "The fear is that schools, colleges and universities have become no more than corporations run by managers . . . without character, charisma or charm."

This new "industrial revolution" is not a uniquely British phenomenon. Tony Wagner of Harvard University, and author of The Global Achievement Gap, says that American schools are also failing because their passive learning environments and uninspiring lessons focus more or less exclusively on preparing the young for tests. Indeed, schools the world over are having the creativity and life sucked out of them as they dance to their governments' demand for "exams, exams, exams".

My worry is that the coalition government views an emphasis on creativity in teaching as a left-wing ploy to distract attention from the real business of raising "academic standards", by which it means exam passes. Britain can't even boast that young people are content: it came bottom in a 2007 Unicef study of child well-being in 21 industrialised nations.

Meanwhile, British universities, with funding levels considerably below those in the US, are slipping against overseas competitors. They, too, are becoming factories, populated by undergraduates with little love for their subject and little idea why they are there, and taught by academics with little interest in or ability at teaching, whose research, especially in the humanities and social sciences, is rarely taking us closer to true knowledge.

The fundamental problem is that schools should be educating the whole child, not just instructing them for tests. This should not happen at the expense of an academic education, and, properly done, it enhances it. At Wellington, inspired by Howard Gardner of Harvard, we say that each student possesses "eight aptitudes", which can be seen as four sets of pairs making up an octagon - the logical and linguistic, creative and physical, moral and spiritual, personal and social. Taking just the two intellectual aptitudes, the logical and linguistic, schools do not properly encourage the young to think or reflect deeply in these areas.

Schools no longer teach academic subjects - they teach exams: not history, but history GCSE; not mathematics, but mathematics AS-level; not chemistry, but chemistry A-level. Schools engage too little in scholarship. Rote learning and instruction have taken the place of genuine learning and imaginative responses. Teachers are being reduced to technicians, students to secretaries, schools to factories.

At the root of the problem is trust and the lack of it. Government doesn't trust governors, governors don't trust heads, heads don't trust teachers or parents, and teachers don't trust students. Michael Gove's policy of academies and free schools, however, is a step in the right direction. As Julian Glover wrote in the Guardian on 23 May, "Schools policy in England is succeeding and will soon reach the point where it cannot be undone."
But will our government really trust schools? For inevitably some will make mistakes. Or will they try to impose a pedestrian curriculum, a debilitating rather than liberating inspection regime, and autonomy in name only?

Profound developments, including the digital revolution, globalisation and new research on the brain, make change essential. But at present, we have yesterday's schools for yesterday's world.

The question is not whether we can afford to do all this, but whether we can afford not to do so. Nothing is more important to invest in than education. It is the present and the future. We have no option but to change. I call again for a "great debate" in Britain about the purpose of schools and universities, more ambitious than the one initiated by Prime Minister James Callaghan at Ruskin College, Oxford, in 1976. We have to rethink our schools and universities from the ground up. Such an opportunity for a rethink occurs perhaps once every 50 years. Our young crave it. Our teachers deserve it. Our country needs it. This is the moment.

Anthony Seldon is Master of Wellington College. He is the co-author most recently, with Guy Lodge, of "Brown at 10" (Biteback, £20)

This article first appeared in the 30 May 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Hands up who knows how to fix our schools

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times