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28 July 2008

It’s all a question of balance

Introduction to the New Statesman's special supplement on schools and education

By Staff Blogger

There are some features of our education system that we have taken for granted for so long that we don’t question them. Yet the fact that more than half of all pupils fail to achieve five grade A* to C GCSEs including English and maths should give us pause for thought.

In Singapore top-performing schools such as the Hwa Chong Institution have torn down the walls of subject departments, dropped O-levels (yes, they still exist), and concentrate on cross-disciplinary learning in which students’ creativity, self-direction and leadership potential is developed. Higher education institutions such as Nanyang Polytechnic allow 16-year-olds to join undergraduates and lecturers in teams working on cutting-edge practical R&D projects commissioned by industry. Many of our schools are built like 19thcentury fact-feeding factories that Dickens’ Mr Gradgrind would be proud of, where lessons are “delivered”and pupils are passed along the assembly line and sent out into the world at the same time, regardless of how well-prepared they are. In these pages creativity guru Sir Ken Robinson (page 4) challenges governments to think about the impact of a measuring culture in which the content of learning is driven by a narrow range of knowledge and academic abilities, rather then an understanding of what competences young people will need to succeed in the world, creativity being one of them. The Royal Society of Arts’ Open Minds curriculum has offered schools in this country a way of reordering their priorities to make acquiring practical skills and abilities key objectives, with content learned on the way. But its scope is limited by national curriculum requirements.

Those like shadow minister for schools Nick Gibb (Round Table, page 16-30) who fear a focus on skills might be bad for attainment should consider the positive impact the OM approach appears to have had on the GCSE results of participating schools.

The introduction of diplomas (page 8) was billed as a bold systemic attempt to offer practical styles of learning to pupils of widely different abilities, but cannot be properly judged until it has been rolled out, starting in September, although it is already encountering fierce criticism.

Employers like Colin Birchall (page 6) can testify that many pupils who fail at exams are cast adrift needlessly, given that they are still capable of doing a decent job. So perhaps a more balanced way of appraising individuals is needed, enabling those who don’t shine in academic subjects, but do develop qualities such as team-working and initiative, to have a recognised e-portfolio of achievements as well as qualifications to show to prospective employers.

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