Education – A Manifesto for Change pt.2

In part 1 I talked about the case for education as a tool to prepare students for life rather than just exams, and the need to include politics in the core curriculum. Overall this leads to more children learning how to take initiative and the value of creativity. The stereotype of the disinterested youth is a well-known one, as is the expectation that young people don’t know what to do with their lives so they have to go work in a shop. How inexplicably dull.

I do not believe young people are inherently clueless. Initiative is a matter of culture: if people are not in an environment which encourages them to take initiative – or, at least, gives them the tools to at least consider it – then, shockingly, they don’t. But, if pessimism and indifference are ingrained within people from childhood, then they are far less likely to overcome that later in life. Children who come from economic disadvantage will already have this mentality (I did for a very long time), whereas those with wealthier families are more likely to feel optimistic about their chances. It is the school which brings these two disparate socioeconomic groups together, and it is the responsibility of the school to ensure that the cycle of privilege is smashed to tiny pieces.

Moreover, the structure and environment of schools have gotta go – no ifs, no buts. It is a tired system bereft of quality and necessitating innovation. Too often in school, I witnessed blatant authoritarianism from teachers, which manifested itself in many different ways. The most common was a hyper-sensitive approach to school uniform. Now, I understand the philosophy behind the uniform. It creates a common identity and it encourages conformity. It is a pity that this is the same logic used to justify life under dictatorships. One of the only arguments for school uniforms which makes sense to me is it reduces the pressure on poor parents to invest in fancy clothes for their child. This becomes moot, however, when you encounter schools which send kids home because of incorrect uniform, forcing parents to fork out yet more cash for yet more poorly designed clothing. The cases of this are on the rise, and every time I see it it makes my blood boil. There are two options: completely eradicate the culture of fear and intimidation present in schools over what is, at the end of the day, an outfit, or scrap the whole damn thing.

There’s nothing wrong with a healthy respect for authority, yet there is a vast gulf between earning respect and commanding it. Sadly, there were more teachers who fell into the latter category. I don’t deny that teachers should be respected; indeed, I wish teachers were held in the same regard as doctors and lawyers like they are in countries such as Finland. However, when a teacher steps into that classroom, all of that goes out of the window. Any teacher who thinks their degree and their experience is going to earn them any favour in a class of kids is automatically losing a battle. The relationship between teacher and student is intrinsically personal and based on trust. Commanding and expecting respect does not foster trust – it creates hostility. Especially when you’re dealing with hot-headed, pubescent children. In which reality is that beneficial for anybody in a learning environment? As Tywin Lannister so wisely said: “any man who says ‘I am the king’ is no true king.”

In abolishing needless authoritarianism, we can begin to reform school into a more relaxed, communal environment. Our obsession with targets and grades (an unfortunate by-product of New Labour’s reforms) has turned education into a service when it should be a positive and fun experience. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if students were able to contribute directly to how the school is managed? Pupil satisfaction surveys would be a start. Rather than being a service, a well from which children have to retrieve flashy grades from, the school can be a microcosm of society in itself: students making active decisions, putting in alongside getting something out. Sure, student councils exist, but only an idiot would say that they have any real influence. And yes, I am aware of how this comes across – naive to think that young people would even be remotely interested in anything other than video games, seeing their mates, and having sex. I really don’t buy into this idea. Perpetuate the stereotype, and they’ll stick to it. Give them the opportunity to go above and beyond, and they’ll take it. All any child wants is to be cool and powerful; perhaps we should indulge this, and appeal to their nature.

Taking this idea to its zenith, it may be worth introducing the democratic process as early as secondary school. Something I am interested in is making the position of headteacher an elected one; teachers can nominate themselves to lead the school, and are directly elected by the entire student and teaching body. The idea of a head being an installed leader, and of it being a particular career path, completely goes out the window. Instead, schools become a much tighter community, and it’s guaranteed that the person in charge of the institution knows it well, and has the popular consent to lead in whatever way they wish. I should clarify that this is fairly radical, and is either a fantastic idea, or a fucking awful one, yet I’ll put my name to it anyway. I look forward to somebody dredging this up in 20 years and accusing me of being a crazed, frothing reformist.

I do not purport to be an educational expert. I have not studied child psychology, nor have I undergone any teaching training, nor do I study education in any capacity. I have been out of the schooling system for some time now (in my view, sixth form is pretty A-OK, and university… well, that’s a whole other debate), so it is possible that culture has moved on, and I am clueless. What I do know is how children think, that my time at school was only made positive by friends and that having the attitude of “could we make this better?” is never bad. Britain is currently in the mood for reform. We will, inevitably, see sweeping changes to our society roll out soon. Inevitably, some of those changes will be to education. Let’s broaden our thinking a little. Let’s join the likes of Finland and Germany, and try something a little bit different. Who knows – perhaps, in the process, we could spark an educational revolution.