IF I WAS EDUCATION SECRETARY…
Last week the Prime Minister announced a general election on June 8th. So in this blog I thought I would indulge myself in imagining what I would do if I was elected to the new parliament, and then asked to serve as Secretary of State for Education.
How would I approach it? In the same way we approach things at FBS; by working backwards – in this case from what a world class education system should deliver.
What would we want our schools to produce? Young men and women with the minds and ability to ensure this country is economically prosperous, with our professions and intelligence the best in the world so we can all lead happy and safe lives. And alongside these professionals, the business people, entrepreneurs and inventors who can take risks and push boundaries; the creative young people who can produce majestic pieces of literature and art, who can grace the West End and entertain us with their singing, dancing and acting; and the young people can make our country world beaters in sport.
We also need them to produce young people of character. People who have a social conscience and see it as their duty to help others in this country and in other countries who are less fortunate. Journalists that respect the truth, have a keen sense of justice and have compassion for those they are reporting about. Questioning, thinking young people who don’t just live for the here and now but recognise we are spiritual as well as physical, and consider the big questions of life.
So how would all this be achieved?
Schools would have to provide a curriculum that ensured pupils have a deep and broad knowledge of history and geography and can appreciate the arts, literature and music. Pupils who are at least bi-lingual and numerate and literate. Students who understand technology and science and how things work.
Beyond ‘raw’ knowledge, schools must ensure their students develop the skills to apply it. To use that knowledge to improve things further; to push the boundaries of possibility. Problem solvers, risk takers, game changers. People who have the ability to work with others, the know how to improve their performance and the performance of others. People who understand what other people believe and why they act in the way they do.
These essential skills are hard to quantify, assess and evidence. They are soft skills that need toughening up in our education system. They need to be embedded in everything pupils do in school and recognised for their worth outside it- so we would need something along the lines of the FBS enterprise diploma, accredited by universities, industry, professions and businesses.
Controversially perhaps, I would not abolish testing. In our jobs we are tested every day of our lives and we need to know where we are and what we need to do to improve. Others also need to know what we can do. If we are going to produce world leading doctors, engineers, lawyers, journalists and so forth our young people need to know what excellence looks like, what they need to be able to do, and what they can do. But while this needs to be quantifiable and measurable, for pupils the focus should be on what they need to do next – not an aspiration for a particular number or letter. Their target should always be the next thing they need to do. Glass ceilings should not be placed on any pupil. Our tests also have to be fit for purpose. They need to test and assess what we want them to know. We need to bench mark our young people globally as it is against these young people our young people will compete. So, knowing what is needed and what the competition is will dictate the skills we must develop and how and what we test. Does this really need to be ‘big’ sets of exams for pupils at both 16 and 18? I would abolish them at 16.
I would also change the way we judge and measure schools. Of course academic success is important. But we should also acknowledge the huge importance of attendance. If a school is a great place to be, students will want to go. Attendance is a measure of our provision. As for taking children out of school during term time, holiday companies need to come on board and not hike up prices during school holidays. I appreciate the rules of supply and demand, but surely the incentive for going not during school holidays for those who can, is to go when there are not thousands of school children around!
The behaviour, attitude and manners of our young people should also be a huge factor in how we measure schools. This could be assessed through the Enterprise Diploma, evidencing how students interact with other pupils and people from different social, economic and cultural backgrounds. This would encourage schools to be more ‘comprehensive’, sending out their pupils into the ‘real world’ more well rounded and less socially ignorant and awkward. And as for measuring how successful schools are academically, instead of looking just at the grades their students leave with, why not look at university retention rates? How many pupils from each school stay on at university or drop out? This will prevent schools from spoon feeding students and encourage them to develop independent learners. Schools should also be measured on their school music and drama productions, sporting triumphs, participation rates in sport and music, how healthy their young people are. All of these results should be published to give a full picture of every school.
Our world class schools will also need the wherewithal to recruit and retain outstanding practitioners. And where they’re lacking, schools should be allowed to spot talent and train teachers themselves with the responsibility of ensuring they meet the highest standards. This is best illustrated with the dearth of good/outstanding Maths, Science and Computing teachers. Why not go to industry and business to find them, make the profession attractive to them and then train them up?
And to attract and retain the best practitioners, schools will need more funding. Given the public purse will only stretch so far, I would look at ways of encouraging local communities, parents and businesses to ‘buy in’ as stakeholders. It would make schools more accountable. And schools that produce outstanding pupils will benefit businesses, the community, industries, professions and the country as a whole. We all need to play the long game.
I would also set about changing the culture of education. We need to embrace self-evaluation and challenge. We need to stop being defensive and insular and share the good we do with others, within and across our educational establishments. We need more rigorous inspection – but done in a way that schools and individual teachers are empowered to make the improvements they need, not feel got at, overwhelmed and stressed.
If we’re to have a truly world class education system it must serve the best interest of all young people and our country. We need to move away from the notion that everyone must go to university to be a success. By sending some students off to university we are setting them up to fail. The challenge is to provide more practical qualifications for them which are on a par with and subject to the same rigour as academic qualifications, and ensure there’s a career path that respects them. These qualifications, whilst different, should in no way be less stringent and demanding and should be developed closely with businesses and industry, national and global. We need plumbers and mechanics just as much as doctors and lawyers.
Finally, I would want schools to make it clear that there are more important things in life than school. We live in a world full of sadness, worry and suffering. We live in a society where standards and values change from one generation to the next. All young people have to face death. So they need the opportunity to think about these things, be given all the knowledge and conflicting evidence for these big issues and the skills to critically interrogate them. Accepted norms should never be just accepted but always be challenged and questioned.
I’m not standing in the election and so I won’t be the next Education Secretary. But if I was…