Clearing the road to the learning society

David Hargreaves has a bleak vision of the future of schools. He explained it to Jack Kenny

Home learning, according to Professor David Hargreaves of Cambridge University in his paper "A Road to the Learning Society", will have an increasing and significant role over the next 25 years. Information technology, he argues, will play a crucial part in those developments.

When he presented his ideas 18 months ago a number of people commented on the bleakness of his vision, especially when they heard his description of custodial schools. Hargreaves describes a 25-year scenario where the schooling of the future divides into four main types - private, specialist, custodial and home - with technology playing a different role in each case. All this will be acted out against a background where we have to compete against countries where the proportion of gross domestic product devoted to public expenditure is, for instance, 18 per cent in Korea against 43 per cent in the UK.

Many schools will develop into what Hargreaves calls "custodial schools" characterised by demotivated students, high levels of unemployment and lack of support from parents. He believes the development of IT and independent learning is inhibited in such schools because of the high level of control that teachers have to exercise. "Since some students cannot afford the essential equipment at home, teachers, in the interest of equity, behave as if no student has access outside school to information technologies. However, the use of video films for passive consumption by students increases as happens also in prison.

"The new technology is the vehicle of containment, not education. Computer games can be dangerously compulsive. They could be the electronic equivalent of a more sophisticated colouring book."

Home schooling, according to Har-greaves, will increase, as in the United States. He feels the reasons that parents will choose this path are: the inability of schools to motivate students, unsuitable peer groups, exposure to drugs, sex, violence and casual criminality.

"Teachers were once needed in part because they knew more than the parents and what they knew was not readily available from an alternative source. Neither condition now applies for many homes. The technology gives easy access to all the information that the home-based student needs and parents are so much better educated that they know both what their children need (informed by the national curriculum programmes of study and exam- ination syllabuses) and how to access it (through the Internet and it successors)."

The distinctive contribution that specialist schools can make will be to forge a link between teacher and student. Har-greaves argues that such schools are well placed to innovate and take advantage of new technologies. Students require reduced levels of teacher monitoring and control, classrooms are displaced by learning centres and the division of the day into specific lessons is replaced by courses constructed in larger and more flexible chunks. Various forms of independent learning by students are devised, supported by the independent technologies.

The private school will change little and will be "slow to innovate because their place in the market is secure".

These views are bleak for those who see education as a way of creating social cohesion. In recent years, however, social cohesion has not been a widely-shared aim in Britain. Hargreaves sees the fissures widening. He argues that our present system must be replaced by a system of multiple forms of teaching and learning. Institutional diversity is here to stay.

Although the essay was written before the present Government took power, Hargreaves sees no reason to alter his views. His scenario was for 25 years. Under the Labour party he believes that we could get there in 15. "At present Labour is very conventional. It took the Tories nine years of power before they nerved themselves up to bring in the national curriculum. The present Government has set difficult targets. If they don't achieve them in two terms, then we could see something radical and spectacular in the third term."

Ivan Illich, author of Deschooling Society in the early Seventies, describes "learning webs". What he was doing was outlining the mechanisms of the World Wide Web quite a few years before it was in usable form. He describes a society where people could go to those who are most suitable to give information when the time is most appropriate. Hargreaves feels that Illich might have been right in principle but wrong in his time-scale: "Illich underestimated the power of institutions to persist."

Hargreaves points out that governments always look for big ideas. He instinctively distrusts sloganising. "The University of Industry, the National Grid for Learning, what do they mean? Has anyone asked teachers if they want these things? It sounds vague to me. Bottom up is always better than top down in education. Records of achievement came from teachers - as soon as they were adopted by the bureaucracy, the whole scheme fell to bits."

The Henley Centre forecasts rapid growth in people working at home. "It will not be long before many of these people will want to have the children there, especially when they realise that their home is a richer environment than any classroom."

Hargreaves, as a thinker and writer, has a complex balance of common sense and hard-headed visions. He works from evidence rather than ideology. He argues that traditional education must be replaced by a system that will provide "an infinite variety of multiple forms of teaching and learning". "Future generations will look back on our current sharp disjunction between life and education and our confusion of education with schooling as a barrier blocking a (perhaps the) road to the learning society".

He says: "I taught a student recently from Singapore. She felt that it was odd that schooling should be free. She valued it because she paid for it. This is not a party political point; it is about people, their psychology. Many of the people in our schools place a low value on free schooling. We have to place a high value on learning. We need some way to get back to that spirit. Maybe the recent moves with university fees will be the thin end of the wedge."

Hargreaves' views about technology are encapsulated in a quote from Professor Larry Cuban of Stanford University, California, which should be pinned over the desks of all politicians, headteachers and IT co-ordinators: "New technologies do not change schools: schools have to change before they can make effective use of the new technologies."

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