Having spent an entire career committed to public state education, with a guiding principle of free education for all, it was fascinating to attend a lecture by the headmaster of Eton College and to be broadly in agreement with everything he said about holistic learning and the needs of young people.
Tony Little was the invited speaker for this year’s National Education Trust annual lecture – now held in memory of Mike Baker, an education journalist whose insights and observations on education are greatly missed.
The title of the lecture was “Looking Back to Move Forwards”. Mr Little considered the lives and works of three of his predecessors at Eton in order to focus on some priorities for education in the 21st Century.
Some might query the head of Eton addressing an audience about the aims and purposes of education without having experienced the challenges of working in inner city areas, in socially & economically deprived communities. Others might say that his experience of education is within an economic Utopia, where funding is plentiful, so how might he offer helpful insights into what we should prioritise in terms of an education that’s available for all?
What must be said about Tony Little (as well as his fellow headmaster Anthony Seldon at Wellington College – both of whom are retiring at the end of this academic year) is that regardless of being perfectly aware of the status and the privileges that they and their schools enjoy, they’re prepared to put their heads above the parapet and challenge educational policy. Both realise that the majority of the experiences available to their pupils should be available to all children, and that the acquisition of fistfuls of A-grades in high stakes tests is by no means the be all and end all of education.
Tony Little’s key points were as follows – direct quotes as indicated.
- Universal truths, particularly those concerning the importance of good teachers, last throughout time.
- The role of the teacher is to “discern to what thing every wit is disposed”. (William Horman: “It’s the excellence of teachers to identify the talents of pupils”)
- Whilst the volume of what’s directly taught through the curriculum has increased, the shrinkage of education in its broadest sense is clear to see and quite alarming.
- The rate of change has been phenomenal, often unmanageable, and unacceptable – “we don’t know which way is up”. There was a period in the 20th Century when there was only one primary act of education in 40 years; we now have a new act almost every year.
- The ability to measure or quantify an outcome doesn’t give it an elevated importance or value. Many things that can’t be measured are equally if not more valuable in educational terms.
- Robust and reliable accountability measures are required but we should allow for “eccentricity of mind” – for innovation, imagination, flair, risk-taking, flights of fancy, etc. There has also been a shrinking of intellectual apiration as well as “joie d’esprit”.
- Group testing and ollaborative exams should be considered, as they reflect real life working – “divide or fall by partnership”.
- We need to revitalise holistic education – “the curriculum should be a holistic entity”. Leading Chinese educators are also concerned that government constraints, exam pressures and league tables are forcing schools, teachers and pupils “towards the edge of a cliff”.
- “Skills for effective behaviour and attitudes in a globalised economy are not fuelled by purely academic excellence”. The qualities that once made mainstream English schools special in the eyes of the world are no longer universal or obvious.
- Teachers have a role to “unleash the qualities which are special” in a young person – and much of this takes place through empathetic relationships with young people and between young people outside the classroom. “There must be space for things to happen, and large amounts of time for other types of experience“
- Most young people learn more from one another and learn more outside the classroom than they do within it. There is a danger that technological advances might make some believe that teachers are increasingly irrelevant. Are we aware of how young people access and create knowledge? We need to think more openly and more creatively about how young people learn, and about how we might teach.
- “Get a grip on teacher training” – provision is patchy and there is no overarching organisation. We can’t develop great teachers by ‘osmosis’. Ongoing CPD and research is vital to being a good teacher (as seen in Finland, where research is carried out by all practicing teachers).
- Every teacher should be a researcher too.
- We always need to review how we teach. “Education is a collaborative exercise – we’re at our best when we share“
- We need to take more notice of neuroscience with its “growing evidence of how to connect with teenagers”. “How cackhanded are we with teenagers?” How little we allow for their quirks, oddities and difficulties.
- Let young people understand what is happening to them as they develop by exposing them to the insights of psychology & neuroscience. It’s empowering for them to be enabled to articulate and describe their own internal and external experiences.
- During a young person’s life in school, technological developments will increase tenfold. How have schools responded to this? Technology is important: do we see an increasing reliance on it as the first source of information?
- Teaching coding is important but so too is teaching about the consequences and outcomes of computers and technology.
- What happens in the classroom is “significantly down the list of importance”.
- Much of our children’s development is about relationships, and their ability to build resilience, empathy and collaboration skills. Schools must understand their key role in this learning.
- Diversity is vital.
- “Get alongside young people”. Do with them, not to them. “Keep this at the centre of all you do”.
- There are dangers in “rampant individualism”. We don’t want the next generation to be full of people with “sharp elbows”. The are huge dangers in being or becoming ‘disconnected‘ – “full of the dust and powder of individuality”. The world needs “social activists who also have a moral vision”.
- Young people need to consider “their social impact – challenged to the edge of competency”. They need to be assertive, but they need to “stand for something outside of themselves“. The best teachers are able to demonstrate “great moral purpose and social conscience” ( eg former head Robert Birley, willing and able to speak out against fascism and apartheid?)
- “There should be joy in teaching, which should be a truly collaborative experience.“
- Schools should undertake more collaboration – between independent and state schools, between schools both nationally and internationally. “This is how to achieve the best kind of social impact – both sides benefit.”
- “Schools need to have a culture that reaches out, with a sustained connection to others.”
- The relentless focus on measurable outcomes and exam pressures has seriously undermined what great education is all about.
- The teaching profession needs “more space, more light, more trust in its judgement”.
- The best way for parents to support their children is to give them every opportunity to love books and be able to read for pleasure by the time they start school.
In his summary, Tony Little said that there were three things that should be at the heart of a good education:
- Excitement at curriculum opportunities (for both teacher and pupil)
- Knowledge of adolescents
- Social Impact
He concluded with his thoughts about what he’d like a school leaver to look like.
“An entrepreneur, capable of creating employment for self and others; a social activist with a strong sense of history who can look back to move forwards”.
“Our present top-down structures are used to beat people into shape.” (A reflection on the centralisation of education’s management in England, and on the role of Ofsted?)
Some of the above might seem contentious and warrant further discussion. We think there’s plenty here that’s in line with what many of us think are the fundamental aims and purposes for education.
“The statistics are not the aim or the end of education.”
Returning to the bullet points, take a look and see how many are advocating a pupil-centred approach to learning. When Tony Little raises concerns about individualism, he’s referring to an “I’m alright Jack” attitude and not a concern about personalised learning.
Tony Little has previously said he believes GCSEs and 16+ exams are an anachronism and should be scrapped, but that doesn’t mean that he wants to encourage a free for all. He understands very well the importance of knowledge, and he said that if Eton didn’t feature in the top ten schools in the national league tables, then heads (or rather his head) would roll.
However, his key point throughout the evening was that we must all look carefully at every student as an individual, consider the learning opportunities that come from within and very often from outside of the classroom, and focus on the needs of the individual that go beyond the desire for attainment. Relationships are vital to living and learning.
We need unhurried, deliberate, in-depth learning; we need to understand young people and enable them to reach out and explore their interests for themselves – with guidance and facilitation by an expert teacher who’s also committed to his/her own professional learning (or researching).
To conclude, we reiterate one of Tony Little’s quotes of the evening.
“Come alongside young people. Keep this at the centre of all you do”.
And if anyone was wondering whether the head of Eton College cares about wellbeing, the development of ‘character’, creativity, personalised, social, emotional and spiritual learning – indeed he does.