Education is more than just academia


As yet more research contradicts the government's curriculum reforms, SecEd editor Pete Henshaw asks how many more experts and researchers need to speak out before ministers realise the damage they are doing.

Another week in education and another study that directly contradicts the government’s obsession with academic learning.

A study of 1,000 parents has revealed that 87 per cent of them believe the role of schools should involve more than just delivering academic results. The research, by Populus for the Jubilee Centre for Character and Values at the University of Birmingham, found that these parents ranked character development as highly as academia. Also, 84 per cent felt teaching should encourage good morals and values too.

I believe there is an increasing desire among parents for their children to be educated in such a way that nurtures the whole child – not just their academic minds, but their creativity, social awareness, attitude and so much more.

In many ways, modern life has never been harder for our children. The route to adulthood is not so clear-cut for many, and the myriad pressures children have to cope with in our 24-hour, materialistic and sexualised society are very different to those faced by previous generations.

Furthermore, the competition they face to get onto the jobs ladder is fiercer than ever – not to mention that when they get there the world of work is constantly evolving.

Where once you chose a profession for life, now our young people require to develop the numerous skills needed to adapt and cope as working environments change. As the saying now goes, we are educating our children for jobs that do not yet exist. And where once one knew that a good academic degree would guarantee a job for life, now many other attributes are being prized by industry.

Just ask the Confederation of British Industry (CBI). Historically, the CBI has focused on standards in maths and English, but last year changed its tune, calling for an end to the “exams factory” that is modern schooling.

Its First Steps report said that Ofsted should prize, alongside academic rigour, the “broader behaviours and attitudes” that youngsters need to get on in life, while its director-general John Cridland said: “We need schools to produce rounded and grounded young people who have the skills and behaviours that businesses want.”

Our politicians also require to see the need for this and understand that academic study is just one piece in a much larger and more complicated and challenging jigsaw.

Of course our children need academic rigour, but they need skills as well. They need the ability to adapt and change in the modern world of work, the ability to team-work, problem-solve, take judged risks, be creative and innovative. The ability, as Piaget says, to know what to do when they don’t know what to do.

The respected Professor Tanya Byron is clear about the damage we are doing by focusing on academic content – it does not teach students “how to think”, she told SecEd last year: “If we can teach them the importance of self-awareness, self-motivation, social awareness and empathy, the ability to manage relationships and work as part of a team, problem-solving and goal-setting, then we are going to develop a much brighter, innovative, entrepreneurial next generation." See the article here.

The problem is that our education system and accountability regimes are still organised around the presumption that academic qualifications are all one needs.

We still prize university education above other routes, we still rank academic qualifications above any others, and we still make life and death judgements about schools using these criteria, severely inhibiting their ability or willingness to embrace skills education. It is also in this way that politicians judge their own success (which is why we have so much testing – it certainly isn’t for the child’s benefit).

Parents agree, business agrees. The only people who do not agree are within the Department for Education it seems. The raising of the participation age this year to 17 and then to 18 in 2015 offers an opportunity. Let’s scrap GCSEs, let’s test only at 18, then let’s use the time this frees up wisely – to educate the whole child so that they are given the knowledge and the skills that modern life requires.


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