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)