The Education System

I'm not a teacher, and my own school education is now lost in the mists of time. However, I have and continue to take an interest in education, and following the showing of the recent BBC TV programme "The Classroom Experiment" I've decided to put some thoughts into words.

For those who haven't seen it, "The Classroom Experiment" was an experiment in Hertswood School, a UK comprehensive, in which Professor Dylan Wiliam, a leading educationalist and past teacher, tries out a set of ideas that challenge some of the basic tenets of how schools teach. The experiment affected one class for one term, and was challenging for both teachers and students. It did however prove its worth in improved progress and better social and learning skills for the future and the trial is being extended throughout the school.

I found this experiment to be extremely interesting, and I am glad that the initiative came from an experienced teacher rather than from some politician, and that both staff and students were part of the feedback. One student said, in essence, "there's no point in asking anyone but us how well the teacher is doing!" and I cannot but agree.

The thoughts I have had are not, however, about how to teach - I will leave that in the capable hands of Prof. Wiliam and others. I am thinking more widely. What Prof. Wiliam has done is take a step back and challenge assumptions about learning. I would like to challenge the assumption that we know what school is supposed to be doing.


I'm sure many people (think they) know what school is about. It's teaching the 3 R's. Reading, WRiting and ARithmetic. Oh, and a bit of science, geography, history and, probably, religion. In my view, that is decidedly not what school is for. I'm not saying that some Rs aren't going to go amiss, but the point of school is simply "to prepare our children for adult life".

We must go a bit further than this rather pithy summary, though, before we get to something that we can give to a school, because there are some things we should be able to leave to parents - learning to talk, walk and eat, for example. So let us refine that a bit further and say what we actually mean by "for adult life". We wish our children to:

  • feed themselves adequately, with an understanding of diet and how to cook;
  • be employable in one or more of a thousand occupations each with their varying requirements;
  • understand how to stay fit and healthy, preferably including a continuing desire for exercise;
  • understand the need for the many social hooks that bind us and enable a society to exist - for example, the value of working together;
  • understand other countries and societies: how their ways differ and that our ways are not necessarily better, just different;
  • understand risk and probability, both in science and in society (especially that risk is not something it"s even desirable to eliminate entirely);
  • understand the law - your rights and responsibilities and the more common "don'ts, and how to avoid the pitfalls;
  • understand finance - how banks work, the risks and rewards of shares, the tax system;
  • understand how politics works and your rights and responsibilities as a citizen;
  • understand how language is put together and how to go about learning others (with a worked example!);
  • understand computers - use and abuse of - not just how to post to Twitter but how to care for and use computers and the net effectively and safely;
  • see something of the arts - music, painting, writing, and sculpture - both practically (there's much evidence of general benefit) and as part of our culture;
  • ... and probably other things too!

Out of this list, my own education many years ago was sorely lacking. I did English, French, maths, physics, biology, chemistry, geography, history, religion, music, art (woodworking, pottery and painting) and PE, taught for the most part "old style" with lots of books and theory and very little of the practical or interactive with the exception of PE and art. Later at A level I added computer science. In my work, I would have been much worse off without a degree, and the knowledge gained there has mostly been of great use, but even there the emphasis was on "book knowledge" - facts - not on experiential knowledge.

In my own education, I learnt many things I have not used since - for example in maths, what an Eigen value is, or how to integrate an equation. Similarly, there are many things I was "taught" but did not learn: back then, much of history was of no interest and I did only what I had to (and yet my sister loved it). Strangely (or perhaps not) I have since become interested in history but not the Ks & Qs and dates, but the history of peoples and of discovery, and of how things came to be as I see them now. It"s probably about how we develop over our lives.

I have not really talked much about one item on the list above that many would regard as an essential part of schooling: getting a job. This is because as I grow older I see quite how pointless it is to try to teach in a limited school curriculum even part of the skill set needed for even the "normal" jobs we have today. There are simply too many skills, disciplines and too much knowledge that might be required. Just consider: in the 1960s, when the curriculum I studied was developed, it was reasonable to consider physics as a single subject. Now, it has split into materials science, nuclear physics, electronics, theoretical physics, biophysics, astrophysics, optics, polymers and more. Each of these fields has as much knowledge in it as was in the totality of the subject just 50 years ago, and few people in each branch can claim to know all there is in each branch, let alone in the whole discipline. What is more, these fields are still growing. The same has happened in Chemistry, Biology, Economics and more. How can we possibly consider teaching all this to our children?

Instead, we need to introduce students much earlier to self-development, to a good understanding of what is out there how you might gain the ability to do it, and then provide support for students in following that path from age 11 upwards (without limit). I have for many years thought that so many teenagers end up in retail simply because they see it happening. In the future, this will change: retail is already a hugely different place than it was and it will continue to change rapidly. We need a workforce that can effectively "tune itself" to fit, rather than relying on the school (and university) system to impose a direction.

So where does this leave us? I strongly believe that:

  • Treating school as just  a place of academic learning means that children are ill equipped for many aspects of modern life, and they can become "tuned out" if they fail to see the relevance of it to their own future;
  • Some children are more suited to practical rather than theoretical pursuits, and an emphasis on academic excellence being the "true" goal of school undermines their confidence and ability, with disastrous effects on both their future wellbeing and a loss to society in general;
  • Science, technology and similar skills will become even more important in the future, but that doesn"t (yet) mean we no longer need gardeners, plumbers, carpenters, welders, undersea divers, archaeologists, or many other professions that are valuable and necessary;
  • Teaching life-skills, including how to learn new skills, will result in a better society that can operate more effectively and with lower costs.

I understand that the curriculum has changed a lot in the last 20-odd years, and more of the time is indeed spent in these areas. However we still have a huge emphasis on (advanced) maths, on getting to University, and little support for people in planning their career. I repeatedly hear of children who essentially don"t know what is out there, who "drift into" university, who want to be in retail "because that is what their friend did". Not to mention that once a child reaches 19 they"re out on their own, for the most part. For the most part, these young people are not enthused, they are just following the herd. We as a society will do much better if we can get the best out of our next generation, not just what they can just-about-live-with.

Let us put in place an education system that is holistic, and that works!