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19 June 2024

The case for a revolution in education

Put the teaching of character, creativity, the arts and sport back into schools as the right of all pupils.

By Anthony Seldon

How to fix Britain? Start taking education seriously, and view it as a life-transforming public good. Stop seeing it, as all governments have done, as a transactional, exam-focused activity and preparation for a world of work that no longer exists. 

Education should not be valued just as a means to an end. It is intrinsically valuable in itself. It is the path to liberating people of all backgrounds and abilities to living fulfilling and meaningful lives. 

Labour’s manifesto has some good ideas on education: 6,500 extra teachers, more staff training, 3,000 new nurseries and extra mental health support for every school. Even though relatively modest in ambition – there will only be one extra teacher for every three schools, for example – these plans are necessary and sensible.

But there is nothing in Labour’s proposals to uplift and inspire, nothing to unleash joy in students, and little to make teachers feel that government is on their side. The proposals see education as a process with inputs and outputs, not as an intrinsic good in itself.

Nor does Torsten Bell, chief executive of the Resolution Foundation and Labour’s candidate for Swansea West, appear to get it. In his timely new book, Great Britain? How We Get Our Future Back he discusses education in terms of its value as an economic investment. Like many economists, he is more interested in quantity rather than quality-of-life measures. 

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Few people know what the word “education” means. It doesn’t mean learning how to sit exams. I have never met an education secretary – and I’ve asked all the recent incumbents – who knows what the word means. Perhaps they really do think the word means exams, but are too embarrassed to admit it. In fact, it means drawing or leading out what lies within. 

If schools, colleges and universities do not identify and lead out the talents that lie within all young people, then those talents will remain dormant for life. Schools today are better at finding out what young people cannot do than what they can – witness the one third of pupils who are told that they have “failed” at GCSE. It’s distressing that Labour has nothing to say on that subject. Or indeed on neurodiversity more generally.

So how do we save Britain? Give schools more autonomy to decide how and what they want to teach. Have high expectations of performance for sure, but also behaviour. Place far more emphasis on the nurturing of human intelligence rather than narrow cognitive intelligence – in which algorithms and AI will always outperform people. Put the teaching of character, creativity, the arts and sport back into schools as the right of all pupils. Make school places where passionate and committed people want to teach in once again. Economic growth may or may not return to pre-global-financial-crisis levels. What we can do is ensure though that young people have a joyful, enriching education, which opens them up to lives where they will be imaginative parts of the new economic system, and positive members of society. That is how we will save our country.

This article is part of the series “How to fix a nation

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