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Children Should See Education as an Opportunity, Not a Straitjacket

Education is about raising expectations and facilitating ideas, it isn’t about dragging the lifeblood out of childhood, argues headmaster Peter Tait.

As the current education revolution gathers further momentum with Michael Gove’s blitz on absences during the term, truancy, the length of the school day, school holidays and the state-independent divide, something is happening to our children.

Hand in hand with the disquiet caused by league tables, the competition for places at top schools and universities, the calls to start formal education earlier and the referred pressures placed upon teachers and schools to deliver, is an epidemic of stress related diseases, eating disorders and incidences of self-harming.

Is this really any surprise when we have an approach to education that is focused on driving up standards without ever appearing to consider how such a thing might be best achieved or even the fundamental question of what, in 2014, represents the best education for our children?

We know what will help: smaller class sizes, greater freedom for schools and teachers to manage their curriculum and their classrooms, improved classroom discipline (and, yes, there have been positive moves here), more money allocated to training and retraining teachers.

Also, more emphasis on building character and resilience, breaking down the glass ceilings that flatten aspirations, and less emphasis on summative exams which can stifle curiosity and independent thought.

But most importantly, we need to move from a situation where pupils are being compelled into working longer hours and sitting more tests than almost any other country in the world, into one in which they are given a different mindset, that education is an opportunity that lies at the heart of advancement and fulfilment; something they want to pursue, not some straitjacket or artificial compulsion.

No wonder we have an epidemic of ill health amongst our young, especially in London and the South-East, despite Steve Munby triumphing London schools as being a success story, (ironically, the place where student mental health is most at risk).

No wonder we have children turned off learning because they have grown cynical about its inequities. No wonder tutoring is now our fastest growing industry.

Until we get rid of the whip and focus more on the carrot in sharing attitudes to education, and actually show that education is more than passing exams, we are going nowhere. The question is how to make children believe.

We can acknowledge some positive changes. For instance, we can assume that our academic performance needs to improve. And we do need to raise our expectations for our children (although this is more a failing of our society than our schools).

The changes in the computer curriculum were welcomed as has been the focus on improving social mobility, even if it is just words. Yet when we get the former Schools Minister, Nick Gibb advocating rote learning as the way to compete with their peers in the Far East, one wonders what he is thinking.

Of course, some rote learning is good and necessary, in the same way that we need a mix of knowledge and skills and pedagogy. Naturally, we should insist on excellence and try to improve examination results – but not at any price. We should be looking at how we measure children – and why.

We should look at the disjoint between what schools are producing, often by placing children under duress, and what employers, universities and, dare I say it, society wants.

We should focus on addressing key issues like class size and the amount of funding lost to bureaucracy and look to move the focus in education from demanding more from children in the way of time and tenuous results to asking more of them as people. Finally, we need to give our schools some social capital.

Parents and children are weary of hearing comments about how initiative, curiosity and time for collaborative learning are all sacrificed because ‘they are not being examined’.

It appears there is no time for deviation in our quest for better exam results, no time for exploration, no time for the commensurate social development that needs to take place, no time to allow for readiness or for challenging the scurrilous idea that education is confined to the walls of a classroom.

For what? Are our children at 18 better motivated or better educated? Or just better drilled and tutored, yet in fact, less-rounded, less resilient, less inclined to want to keep learning?

So what do we have: children being blamed for not working harder, cynical about what lies ahead for them; teachers being lampooned for the lack of effectiveness in raising performance and aspirations; schools sacrificing children on the altar of league table for their own ends. All of this is a disaster.

We seem to be looking everywhere and no where: the Far East, Australasia, Finland, as if there is some trick to it. There is not. Education is simple: it is about the effectiveness of the engagement, developing attitudes and a good work ethic, raising expectations, inspiring and facilitating ideas.

It is – and especially in this brave new world of technology – about setting students new challenges and the intellectual freedom to deliver. It is about engendering self-discipline; it is about the quality of what is delivered and acquired, not the quantity; it is about starting children on a lifelong journey, not subjecting them to a marathon, before their brains and bones are set.

It is not about dragging the lifeblood out of childhood.

We should focus more on character and less on prescribed knowledge – especially that chosen for us by politicians – and we should worry about things that really matter – that self-harming is on the increase and that we are undergoing an epidemic of stress-related diseases.

We should address the fact that our children live in a toxic climate which is being created for them for no good reason.

Ask the employer, who wants a well-rounded person, with good social skills, the ability to work collaboratively, a good work ethic and a sense of humour. Ask the parent, who wants a happy, well-adjusted child with ambition and a hunger to learn. Ask the child, who wants a little bit of childhood back.

We are moving forward, but we are not empowering children and making them trust and believe in the power of education. That is a waste that will not be corrected until schools and politicians know how to keep students’ best interests at heart.

Peter Tait is Headmaster of Sherborne Preparatory School


Source: The Telegraph

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