The tail wags the dog – again

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Rather than structures and qualifications, should not the national conversation be driven by a discussion about the purposes that education should serve, asks Marion Gibbs.

I am ever hopeful that there will be a great national “conversation” about what education is all about and what purposes it should serve. 

How should we balance the right for all children and young people to have opportunities and an agreed core of entitlement, with the benefits of schools and colleges being free to innovate and produce passionate and highly motivated learners and independent thinkers who are ready to be creative and energetic adults who contribute to our society?

Sadly, the level of debate about education in this country rarely seems to rise above structures and qualifications, the structure of the school system, the structure and content of the examination system, and the qualifications of teachers. The latest final pronouncement on the new GCSEs came out in the half-term break (one might cynically wonder why so many education announcements are made during school holiday time).

The plans for the new English and mathematics GCSE courses had been well trailed in advance, as had the numerical grading system. An outcry followed about the proposed English literature GCSE and the fact that it would not now be a compulsory element of the all-powerful performance tables.

One view is that this will devalue the study of English literature and many pupils will no longer have the opportunity to read “good” literature, the other view is that the new literature examination with its emphasis on classic texts is not accessible for many and therefore should not be compulsory.

Once more the tail is wagging the dog. I reflected on my own experience at a state grammar school in the 1960s. I did not do English literature O level – it was banned in our school on ideological grounds. The staff believed that dissecting literature in the sort of way required for the O level was not conducive to its appreciation.

We read and studied Shakespeare and poets and novels and enjoyed them, but we did not take an examination. I went on to take A level English literature and gain a top grade and had English as my second subject in my PGCE – not having English literature O level has never harmed me in any way.

There has been a similar debate about whether subjects such as drama and PE should be offered as the new-style GCSE. It is very clear that in 21st century England, a subject’s validity and place in a school curriculum is believed to rest on whether or not it is examined and whether or not it counts towards the EBacc and the performance tables. 

Such centralisation of the curriculum could be regarded as worthy of a totalitarian state and militates against our recent governments’ philosophy of choice and freedom. As I said earlier, the tension in education is between ensuring that all pupils have their entitlement and allowing individual schools and professional educators to offer what is relevant and stimulating for their pupils.

Unfortunately, more time and energy is often spent arguing about whether a particular subject is worthy of inclusion in the compulsory core than about what is the best preparation for life beyond school for individual pupils. Will we ever progress beyond this?

Consequently, it was most uplifting to hear from a small charity which is making a big difference to the lives of many pupils by employing a simple, cost-effective formula. It has set up Inspiring the Future (www.inspiringthefuture.org) – a kind of dating agency where employees offer one hour of their time to visit a state school in their local area and to talk with pupils about what they do. The idea is to raise all pupils’ aspirations and open their eyes to the many and varied different careers and work opportunities which exist.

A recent event for an offshoot of the programme, Inspiring the Future: Inspiring Women, was held at Lancaster House in London. Around 100 girls from state schools met for a speed-dating event with 10 top professional women. Schemes like this are making a real difference and will continue to do so. They are focusing on our young people’s futures, which surely should be what education is all about?

  • Marion Gibbs is head of James Allen’s Girls’ School in south London.


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