What constitutes a Big Education?

The debate about the purpose of schooling should be a values based debate. Because the debate about the ‘ideal school’ is really about the kinds of adults we are trying to produce and what kind of society we want to live in. Personally, I want to live in an open and democratic society. Where people use the shared language of reason, where we can find our common humanity transcending the differences which threaten to divide us, where our civility, generosity, empathy and humour are celebrated characteristics which will help us achieve peace, where the profound is valued above the trivial, where authenticity is honoured and where everyone, not just a privileged strata of society is free to live a good life. 

I firmly believe that when freedom is the goal, education must be the solution. 

Schools are absolutely integral to building an open, democratic society – for they are the communities within which children are not only taught but socialised. Schools are the institutions responsible for passing on society’s norms, customs, culture and values. I think it was Vanessa Ogden who said that ‘Schools are where civilisations are built’. 

Therefore, we have a duty to make our schools the best they can be. Schools should be producing students who not only possess knowledge, but the wisdom and courage to make judgements, intellectual, moral, and aesthetic, and have the wherewithal to join in “big debates about mankind.”  To put it another way, we should be providing the kind of education that will prepare young people not just to write a good exam, but to live a good life. 

So, how can this be achieved? My experience teaching in schools has shown me that the answer is not ‘the status quo plus a bit more PSHE.’ 

The current system has much to commend it. Standards have risen, school buildings have been improved, participation rates at University have reached almost 50% and by historical standards, unemployment levels for young people are low. 

However, against this backdrop – the poverty rate among young people aged 14-24 is higher than any other age group, 13% of them live with families who cannot heat their homes. Far from enabling young people to live a good life, Inequality is in fact growing amongst the poorest in society.  Arguably this is one of the reasons why a majority of teachers are reporting worsening behaviour in the classroom. 

A staggering 30% of 16 year olds still don’t manage to achieve a ‘pass grade’ in GCSE English.  Employers report that school leavers do not possess the ‘soft’ skills they require and the teaching profession is undergoing a massive retention crisis. 

Perhaps this is because so many school leaders have internalised the language and logic of the accountability system they no longer realise they are making decisions shaped by a government agenda, rather than considering what would be in the best interests of the wider community. 

Certainly the accountability system has hollowed out and narrowed the education children receive. In its most insidious form it has created a raft of professionals doing no more than teaching to the test. 

Perhaps we are losing so many teachers because as countless surveys demonstrate, the legions of honest and committed teachers who work in our schools pay a heavy price in terms of morale and professional self-esteem for their forced collusion in this elaborate, resource-intense, time-consuming game. 

For students too, the game is unfair. For whilst it is clear that good exam results open doors, it is also clear they cannot guarantee success. They cannot guarantee fulfilment and do not represent a high-quality education. The answer is not design better exams. Because changing the rules won’t change the game. 

How best to prepare our young people for the 21st century is a conversation we should be having when we talk about education. We need schools to be focused on the primary, not proxy goals of education – that of accomplishment, personal fulfilment and societal progress.  To foster a Life-long love of learning, to allow students opportunities to take themselves out of their experience, and to put their learning to good use.  

I’ve seen too many talented children be left behind by a school system that can’t adapt to their needs. I’ve taught too many children who have reached secondary school without basic literacy, having used poor behaviour to mask their shame. I’ve seen too many young people begin 6th form full of ambition, only to find the pressures of mental health insurmountable. I’ve witnessed too many young men fall victim to criminal activity, becoming just another statistic in the history books.  

Young people deserve more. 

I remember my Dad saying to me when I was small,  ‘It’s a lottery who you’re born to Hannah.’ Education shouldn’t be a lottery,  but it is. 

I’m acutely aware at how lucky I’ve been in my life, but I came into teaching hoping I could help make all children feel like winners. 

Schools can be the community that can pick students up when they are at their lowest. Schools must be able to fill the gaps where families cannot. Schools should inspire and intrigue, bring joy and hope. Schools should be preparing young people for an ever-changing world, where they can dictate the terms of their future.  

I have dedicated the best part of my adult life to improving the experience of students I teach, but I have spent too long being part of a system that maintains the status quo. It’s time to change.