The US education system famously adheres to the “no child left behind” philosophy. Or at least, it used to. Here in the UK, we subscribe to the noble idea that no child should be allowed to fall behind at school. Yet, on both sides of the Atlantic, that has translated into every child being held back.
In our quest to ensure all children succeed we have created the opposite – a system where most people experience a mediocre education whilst those outside of the mainstream system succeed. Equality in mediocrity is not something we should ever strive for.
Yet this is exactly what the education system was designed to do – produce comprehensively educated factory workers and publicly educated imperial administrators. We have inherited a system where for the vast majority, individualism is crushed, weakness (and even brilliance) is frowned upon and creativity is irrelevant.
Education systems are living demonstrations of the values of a society. And right now, our education system suggests we value conformity, authoritarian control and the class system. These are not the values of 21st century Britain and must not be the values of our education system.
Learning conformity and control may have been ideal for the 19th – and even 20th – century economy. But now, when dynamism, creativity and charisma are the driving forces of individual and collective success, they are no longer needed.
It is not good enough to tweak the edges of a 19th-century structure every few decades, renaming O-levels to GCSEs or switching to linear A-levels is not a real change. To be dynamic in the future we need big structural reform now.
The first step towards building the future is to close our eyes and imagine it. We already know where we want to be, it’s time we think about how we get there – how we reorientate our education system around our values.
We need to start by rethinking its issues. Truancy is not the fault of pupils or their parents, but the fault of an education system where people are left behind or held back, where people are not engaged and not treated as individuals. The real way to deal with truancy is not to send letters to parents, or even more cruelly fine them, it is to allow every child to progress at whatever they pick and at the speed they pick. Telling pupils what they will learn, and when they will learn it, must be abolished.
Let us flip the machinery of education and make education, not children, the product.
The industrial model of education, with pupils turned out in batches based on age, must be abolished. Segregate based not on age, but on capability and by subject in the context of individual choice. Anything less is a fundamentally dehumanising experience.
If we ever needed a clearer example of this dehumanisation, this industrialisation of education, let it be this year’s A-level and Highers results. It’s easy to say the results this year are dehumanising but it masks the truth – they always have been.
And finally, it must be said that in the information age, when humanity’s collective wisdom is but two clicks away, the teaching of facts and figures is no longer fit for purpose.
We are killing our creativity, killing divergent thinking, all in the name of mass memorisation and it will be felt long-term in economic sluggishness.