Saturday, 7 May 2016

It takes a village...

Toby Young has admitted that running a school was “harder than he thought” in a huge climbdown ahead of his departure as CEO of a flagship Free School. The Tory columnist and broadcaster said he had been “arrogant” to presume schools could improve just by having high expectations and said he regrets criticising teachers, state schools and local education authorities.

Predictably, teachers are viewing this as a vindication. I don't think it is. All it proves is that a bubble dwelling Toryboy hasn't got the stamina to apply himself to anything in the real world - which shouldn't come as any surprise to anybody. The principle of autonomous schools is still an entirely valid one and has more potential to give kids a real education rather than shunting them through a micromanaged box ticking cultural concentration camp administered by council pinheads.

I don't have that much sympathy for teachers either. They constantly complain of red tape and all the unpaid hours they put in, but like so many people they confuse activity with productivity.

So much of what I see given to children as education is pre-prepared coursework none of which makes any particular demands of children. Not being involved on a day to day level I can't say exactly what is wrong but I do see the finished product quite often and I am less than impressed.

I am often staggered by the inherent lack of curiosity in young adults. It's evidenced by the lazy complaints we hear that the government is not giving them the information they need to be able to make an informed choice. As a society we have somehow raised people to expect that it is the role of the government to provide them with everything even down to doing their thinking for them. Knowledge of civics is absolutely feeble. They have a head full of rights but no idea what their part of the bargain is.

It suggests to me that kids are spoonfed with what they need to pass an exam but not inspired to keep learning and lack the skills to learn. I'm often surprised how lacking people are in basic research skills. We have a population of intellectually incurious people.

In that regard, I think it's because we have failed to make real demands of children. Toby Young was right about that. Kids need to be drilled in the rituals of learning. Process and repetition. They also need to be given responsibilities of their own. It's not surprising we have adults now who cannot manage their own affairs.

How you reform the system is a different question though. The Free Schools idea is not a bad one, but it's the destination, not the solution. Simply starting up that kind of school is not going to work because there are key elements missing.

In some respects we place far too much emphasis on the schools. You can send your kid to a sinkhole and it won't matter if the parents do their job right. You can still produce an achieving and curious person if they are given the proper environment and the right discipline. In order to have schools that do their job you also need parents that do their job. And since the parents themselves are the product of this system that produces incurious idle zombies with no real lust for knowledge, you can't really make too many demands of schools.

First and foremost I would stop looking for the magic bullet. No single system is ever going to produce uniform results. Uniformly bad maybe, but there is no single solution. Moreover, teaching faces more challenges than ever before. We're dealing with a Netflix generation where attention spans are short. Kids are technology addled and massively overindulged. I can't say for certain what the solution is not that. That is for the teachers to work out. But I know it will take more than tinkering with the management model or the system of administration to get real results.

The schools are only one link in a long chain. I don't expect we will fix schools until we fix the adults. I suspect that we have failing schools because of a system wide failure to get citizens engaged and taking responsibility for governance. Schools are bad for the same reason people don't vote. Whatever the job is, people demand the right to delegate it to someone else.

The model of Free Schools, based on civic particpation can only work if you have civic minded people in the habit of contributing - and that is not going to work until we fix our democracy. Until we start seeing government as something we own and are responsible for rather than a service provider, we cannot expect anything to function well. A social contract only works if both parties do their bit.

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