Opinion

If we want the UK to be an education powerhouse, we must abandon old-school thinking

Education needs an urgent rethink to make sure future generations aren't let down

Illustration of items to do with education: a brain, a lightbulb, an apple, a guitar

Illustration: Sam Peet

If you’re lucky you’ll have had an education moment. There will have been a person to lift your eyes and expand your horizon. It may not quite be a Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society – though, frankly, that didn’t end well for everybody – but there will have been a teacher or somebody at your school who introduced you to something that stuck so fast you can trace much that came after to then. 

Equally, old annoyances linger. These could be anything: you might harbour abiding frustration at the new teacher who played you out of position so you’d eventually be benched from the school Gaelic football team, just a few months after you’d been captain and led them to greater success than they’d had previously, as your school was more known for hurling. And you may carry this with you for 30 years. But that’s clearly just a hypothetical as no sane person would allow such a minor inconsequence to linger.  

Nobody recalls the sustaining part of education in terms of exam and test success. Yet this remains the marker. And increasingly all education is weighed by usefulness. And it is impacting every aspect of life. 

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League tables in England result in parents racing to enrol their children in well-performing schools. Which brings competition for homes, forcing up prices and making these areas increasingly exclusive and the local schools the preserve of the middle class. So state education becomes quasi-private – with the premium paid on house prices, not in teaching.  

Universities race to keep their heads afloat. They open the doors to ever increasing numbers of students from overseas as this is where the money is. Places for UK students are fewer, and costs for them spiral – except for Scottish students in Scotland who, so far, are not required to pay annual fees.  

With universities illustrating their value through graduate employability some courses are judged surplus, and we see open hostility from a government that condemns “low value” degrees.  

You have to wonder what purpose Tony Blair’s goal of 50% of Britons going to university will serve, if students are moving into jobs that don’t pay or offer brighter futures, leave them carrying a lifetime debt, or even see them taking action against colleges they deem to have failed them. If you commodify a product don’t be surprised if those paying for it question its value. 

The Westminster government might claim their focus on apprenticeships shows they are moving beyond traditional tertiary choices, but experts insist it isn’t working. Figures show that of the 348,000 people who started some form of apprenticeship in 2021 in England, around 163,500 are estimated not to have completed them. The training and opportunities aren’t cutting it. 

At the other end, we have seen teachers quitting the profession in huge numbers, citing pay and the corrosive fear of Ofsted inspections. The Department of Education found 40,000 teachers resigned from state schools in England last year, with another 4,000 retiring. That is hardly sustainable.  

So what is the point of education? How does the UK become a powerhouse fit to meet the needs of the pupils and the skills needed for an evolving world? 

The first has to be to invest properly. Help the schools that need it and make social mobility more than an easily trotted-out soundbite. Make state education just as good as private. Stop trying to politicise third level. Encourage students to annoy and challenge. And put the right level of money into universities to allow this.   

Then listen carefully. What is the point of encouraging smart young people to learn and apply critical thinking, then avoid using it in future. 

And listen to teachers. They understand more than the rest of us do. 

The point of education has to be providing space to grow for the future, for all. 

Paul McNamee is editor of the Big IssueRead more of his columns here. Follow him on Twitter

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