This week I spent time speaking to a few groups of year 11 students in preparation for their upcoming GCSE Exams and a cohort looking to join a youth leadership programme we are piloting. Bang in the middle of this week came an announcement from the government that they were only going to record the first available results of students taking GCSEs in the school league tables. This move apparently came about because the government, and to be fair a lot of educators, felt that many schools were gaming the system to manipulate the way they appeared on the school league tables. I for one think that more data than how just exam results should figure in the choices parent’s make for their students, yet even I know I have fallen into the trap of basing the main focus of my choices for my daughter’s around how well they perform in exams.
It got me to thinking that education as whole is a messy and very political subject with no easy solutions to what can sometimes be very complex solutions. Try as we might there are no silver bullets. There is however choice.
The Price of Privilege
As a parent who has experience of having one child in private education and another in state I have seen how it can be a in essence a real lottery. I personally believe that much of a child’s success in school is a combination of good school leadership, proficient teaching staff, awareness of the future and present learning options, supportive parents and an atmosphere of success which engenders the student to want to do well. Yet a lot of the expectations for academic success in certain schools are horrendously absent in some schools who don’t have this.
My eldest attends a school which shortlisted her for a lecture on getting into Baliol College in Oxford. Teachers identified from year 10 that she was part of a cohort who were capable of achieving results to attend Oxbridge or one of the other Russell Group Universities. My youngest has just started at girls grammar school where the expectations are incredibly high. The houses are named after ambitious women scientists, activists, giants of literature and business. A road map is set before both of them that failure is not really an option.
I say this from a position of privilege. Privilege in that as a parent I can afford to pay for private/extra tuition. Most parents in the UK can’t. Privilege in that I work in the education sector, collaborate with other partners around learning and future careers for the students. Many parents don’t know about this. Privilege in having a network of contacts in university and their preferred industry that could make things a lot easier for them. Call it nepotism. Call it what you want but I am honest enough to recognise that this gives them a distinct advantage. I have a vested interest in spending time with them on their work and listening to them share their hopes and dreams and action plans for future living.
Whilst I may go to state schools and share the learnings I have adopted around study skills, self leadership and career pathways from top independent and state schools they only form part of what I mentioned above. I wrestle with whether my education company suffers from saviour complex when we spend as much time as we do in state schools and colleges that don’t have the same advantages my daughters school have. I wonder how much seeing the world through a filtered lens affects not only me, but sometimes what appears to be a skewed view adopted by the current education secretary? I think of the current Ofsted chair who’s own school success seems to be the template for his view of school governance and success. The cynic could easily address the fact that his school was very selective and his leadership style was questionable, but this is more about seeing how a it can be so very easy to take a privileged template as a blueprint for success without considering all the
State Schools are Good
I believe that the state school at it’s heart is a good thing. It has it’s army of critics and a host of speakers and writers forever crying out for a reboot but I think it is good. The opportunity for students to learn subjects for both understanding life and creating a template for future employability is amazing. Yes there are problems but what alternative do we have to the existing system?
It is important to recognise a core thing. For those crying out for state education to change they must realise it is a political thing. You can change the model all you want but it has to be systematic. Housing needs to change. Industry needs to change. There needs to be a cultural shift. It isn’t something that exists in isolation. The educational success story in Finland which everyone seems so excited about required a major social shift. If we were to adopt that in the UK, programmes like Teach First which do a good work would have to shift to postgraduate students. Private schools would have to close down. Selective education would be a thing of the past. Russell Group universities would vanish. In their current elitist form anyway.
As with organisation, private or public, state schools will survive with great leadership, a thriving ethos of success, supportive parents and community and resources which help the student to develop intellectually, emotionally and physically to cope with the present and in preparation of the future.
Selective schools can partner with those who do struggle a bit. Not in a patronising way but in the sharing of best practice. Inclusive schools by return could educate some of the selective schools how they have learned to cope with students with learning differences,
Unschooling as an Option
There are some young people who are not designed for schools. Private or public they neither have the will or patience to cope with group learning. Even some of the more specialist schools like Montessori’s etc are not sufficient enough to deal with their need to be autodidacts, learning at their own pace and with relevance to what they enjoy.
In the US there is a huge move towards homeschooling or unschooling. A lot of what I have observed has been driven by religious or cultural beliefs. This worries me sometimes as I think the removal of a child from mainstream so as not to be “corrupted” by different thinking only tends to reinforce stereotypes and lack of diversity.
With the expansion of online learning tools such as Khan Academy, Coursera, Udemy and the plethora of learning sources on places like YouTube students have a plethora of sources to choose from and learn from at their own pace.
In the UK unschooling is frowned upon in the main but I think it is definitely a viable third option for students who wish to be educated at their own pace. Many perceive it as skiving and the DofE tend to view it in quite a draconian way. I have heard of many home schoolers who have had their choices questioned by the civil service and suggestions that their children will not be sociable as a result. This is, in the main, ignorant and doesn’t take into account the fact that many homeschool and unschoolers are part of a wider network who do come together socially. In addition homeschooling is probably the most financially efficient way of educating children. Think of the money you save not buying school uniforms, school meals, exorbitant school trips and being able to travel abroad outside of the peak charged times of school holidays.
Education should always be about choice. Not only in terms of where one can be schooled but how students learn and apply that learning to life and future options. If a parent decides to do that at home, or pay for a private school or aim for the top state school that option should be available to them. There is no one way that should fit all.
If we think of choice only in terms of the school one attends we are limiting ourselves. Yes of course we live an unequal society but we can only really operate in the parameters we have. Idealistic thinking around change and difference doesn’t serve our young people in the here an now. It is futuristic and something to work towards, form policy on, lobby on whatever but in the here and now it should really be about getting students to recognise the what, the what and the how and that true education and learning is not just restricted to the school you attend.
In my next post on this I would love to dive a bit deeper on what the purpose of education is really about. Comments are welcome.