This week’s editorial in the Observer – on education – was something of a dog’s breakfast, so let’s take a look at some of its elements and see what can be made of them.
Interestingly the Observer itself couldn’t make up its mind what the editorial was about – and so gave it a different heading in its print version to the title it put on the website version:
Print Version: We must educate, not just school, the young
Website: A vocational element is vital to a full education
Possibly half of all pupils starting school last September will work in careers and industries that have yet to be invented. Education, preparing young people for an uncertain present and an unknown future, has rarely faced a greater challenge.
However . . . education is in danger of becoming an anachronism for many young people because it offers too little relevant preparation for 21st-century life.
[Michael Gove’s] mission appears, to some critics, to be driven by the minister’s fondness for his own traditional education rather than an understanding that the unpredictability of the future will require a genuine diversity of approaches.
So far so good – there’s no question that we still have an education system based largely on the 19th Century concept of examining pupils’ knowledge of discrete ‘subjects’, even though we know that the web of knowledge is in fact interlinked, interdependent and hugely complex; even though we know that learning how to become an independent learner, and enjoyment of learning for its own sake, are the keys to future success in life. But this is where confusion starts to kick in:
The huge increase in vocational education has helped to disguise the extent of the failure of our education system to adapt to modern times.
[What’s ‘vocational’ education got to do with it?]
The problem is that while [Mr Gove’s] words indicate commitment to the value of the practical and experiential as an equally valid route in education, the scale of his actions last week, intentionally or not, conveys a different message.
[How is it equally valid? Why is it a separate route? Why can’t all pupils experience the practical and the experiential, as well as the theoretical and the abstract?]
Review, refinement and rationalisation of the vocational sector are undoubtedly required. But these need to take place in the context of a wider understanding of how and why the English education system has gone so badly wrong. In areas of low aspiration and poor attainment, where teachers’ expectations are also low, igniting a passion in a pupil is made all that much easier if the practical has an equal status with the academic.
[Again – why can’t all pupils experience units of learning that are practical as well as abstract? As far as igniting passions is concerned – this often fails to happen in either vocational OR academic types of education.]
Studio schools, university technical colleges (UTC), academies and free schools are each trying different approaches. What they all acknowledge is that the flaws in vocational education are symptomatic of a much larger crisis in learning. Thousands of young people leave school with little more than a sense of failure. In addition, employers complain that even among the highly academic, there is a dearth of those who have “employability” – good communication, initiative and drive.
We are blighted by a notion that divides academic and vocational into first- and second-class educations, while non-cognitive abilities, the ingredients that make up employability, are an “extra” instead of an integral part of learning. In Scotland, by contrast, the Curriculum for Excellence teaches skills for learning, life and work, trying to help young people to be self-aware, adaptable, resilient and determined – in or out of employment.
These skills are gold. In a study by the University of Sussex University, students in two classes were taught the same content and acquired the same grade B in GCSE maths. However, in one group, the pupils took away “an expanded mind and a greater sense of confidence and capability in tackling all kinds of real-life problems and difficulties”. The others “had learned nothing of transportable value”. The first had been properly educated, the second had been merely schooled.
The difference between educating and schooling is one that needs to be better understood and applied for all pupils, not just the few. As part of this, Mr Gove’s overhaul of vocational education is necessary, although too brutal. In the two years before the streamlining takes place, he and we have time to consider what a world-class education system ought to offer. To turn away from this challenge is to chain ourselves to the snobbery of the past and to betray both current and future generations.
Here are the key sentences in all of the above – “The first had been properly educated, the second had been merely schooled.” “The difference between educating and schooling is one that needs to be better understood and applied for all pupils, not just the few.”
So why are they so buried within this editorial, almost to the point of losing their visibility entirely? And why was this concept dropped from the website version of the headline?
We also need to ask – what’s the key issue here? Surely the biggest issue by far is the difference between real education and mere schooling? So why confuse the issue by going on at such length about vocational education and ‘skills for employability’?
Here are two distinct and two absolutely crucial issues facing education, and both need an editorial of their own if they’re to be properly understood. This one, which blurs so many important areas of understanding, just won’t do.
The simple truth is that both vocational and academic learners, plus those who fall between the two extremes, need opportunities to develop all of their brain’s capacities and all of their intelligences – the intellectual, the instinctual, the personal, the artistic, the creative, the imaginative, the emotional, the social, the physical and the spiritual. At the moment we pay mere lip service to some of these, whilst relentlessly pursuing ‘standards’, meaning attainment, meaning the ability to pass timed tests and examinations.
We know what’s considered the ‘gold standard’ in English education – top grades in exams and entry to the best universities. We have much to learn from other countries, including Scotland, where the development of the whole child is considered as important, and in terms of success in life as well as work, even more important, than marks and grades in high stakes exams.
We have nothing against high academic attainment. We merely wish to see opportunities for ALL pupils, including the most academically able, to achieve in all those other crucial areas of their development. We’d like to see more education and less schooling.