David Didau: Think long and hard before ripping up the schools system

"Our system is far from perfect but bold and bloody revolution is not the answer. Instead we need to unpick some of the web of popular misconceptions in which education seems so inextricably bound"

Education can, to the untrained eye seem more fraught and fractured than ever before. Employers and celebratory commentators routinely call for our outdated, ‘Victorian’ system to be reformed and for schools to focus on so-called ‘21st-century skills’. With the relentless increase of automation and the gig economy, traditional jobs will no longer be available and so the education system must somehow prepare children for jobs that haven’t yet been invented.

Twenty-one years ago, Tony Blair told the nation that his three priorities were education, education, education. In the intervening years almost twice as many people go to university, but with the increasing burden of tuition fees many feel higher education is beyond them. At the same time, teachers and teaching unions report being choked by meaningless paperwork, perverse accountability demands and dubious data. Added together, does this create a perfect storm in which the old must be scoured away to make room for a shiny new techno vison? Frankly, no.

Our system is far from perfect and there’s much that schools could do to improve the life chances of disadvantaged young people, but bold and bloody revolution is not the answer. Instead we need to unpick some of the web of popular misconceptions in which education seems so inextricably bound.

First, why do we think our school system is ‘outdated’? Various reformers would like to do away with classrooms, desks, books and even teachers talking to students. Understandably, these efforts have met with some resistance. Why, reformers wonder, are some teachers so resistant to change? In fact, teachers, like everyone else, tend to embrace change as long as it’s positive. What we tend to hate is loss. Consider a scenario in which a school informs its staff that they are all required to work one less day a week for the same pay. Will anyone resist the change? The truth is that most of these ill-conceived ideas add considerably to teachers’ workloads. 

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We also need to ask whether the internet really has changed everything. We still have essentially the same brains as our Palaeolithic ancestors and the need to be creative, solve problems and collaborate is so vital to the survival of the species that these things have become evolutionary adaptions. It was just as important for Socrates to think critically, Julius Caesar to solve problems, Shakespeare to communicate, Leonardo da Vinci to be creative and the builders of the Great Wall of China to collaborate as it is for young people today. But more importantly, these ‘skills’ should more properly be thought of as manifestations of knowledge. Anyone can collaborate on organising a night out to the pub or solve the problem of how to get dressed in the morning, the only thing that appears to make these things valuable today is the extent to which they depend on what people know. To think critically about, say, climate change or the energy crisis you need to know a hell of a lot. 

While it’s true that our access to information is unparalleled, there is no substitute for storing information in our brains. Knowledge is a function of organic tissue – information only becomes knowledge when it lives and breathes inside our minds. Any attempt to substitute a more traditional approach to the school curriculum for a focus on trendy-sounding generic skills will only impoverish children and those that are most disadvantaged will suffer most. In addition to all this, the claim that most people are now doing jobs that weren’t invented 10 years ago is bunk. The top ‘in-demand’ jobs in 2014 included mathematician (at number one), university professor, statistician, actuary, audiologist and, curiously, dental hygienist.

The only reason teachers continue to drown in meaningless administrative tasks is down to the ignorance and short-sightedness of individual headteachers

But what of student debt? Isn’t the marketisation of higher education strangling working-class children’s access to university? What puts people off attending university is not debt, but the fear of debt. The fact that many students borrow up to £50,000 is meaningless, what matters is how much they repay, and what you repay depends entirely on how much you earn after getting your degree; those who land fabulous jobs will repay a lot, those who earn little will repay nothing. Essentially, tuition fees are an equitable way to get those graduates who benefit most from going to university to subsidise those who benefit least, all without increasing the tax burden on those who don’t attend at all.

Finally, whilst the burden of unnecessary workload no doubt blights the lives of very many teachers, it’s important to know that both the DfE and the government watchdog, Ofsted, have told schools in no uncertain terms that they ought to stop generating so much pointless paperwork and abandon the delusion that collecting ever more data will solve anything. The only reason teachers continue to drown in meaningless administrative tasks is down to the ignorance and short-sightedness of individual headteachers. 

Does education need to improve? Yes. Schools must stop burning through teachers as if they were an ever-renewable resource. Business leaders and futurologists must stop spouting their absurd, unevidenced demands about what schools should be teaching. The media must stop spreading myths about student debt. And we should all acknowledge that the education system is, in many ways, healthier than it’s ever been.

David Didau is an education blogger and author of Making Kids Cleverer. learningspy.co.uk @DavidDidau

The Big Issue asks, ‘What is school for?’ in this week’s Education Special. Available from vendors now or in The Big Issue Shop

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