Don't be ashamed to live the dream

To love learning is to champion the rights of all children to prosper at school, says Graham Hills

* his book The Prince, Machiavelli lists the obstacles that confront those who seek to change society. People always prefer the present, warts and all. It took William Wilberforce more than 40 years to persuade Britain that slavery should be abolished. Throughout, he was sustained by his ideals. Without ideals, all is lost.

Those who cheerfully champion the continued reform of education therefore don't mind being called idealists. They believe that, although all children are different, they deserve the same chance to succeed. The aim of all teachers is therefore to bring out the best in the pupils in their care, whatever kind of best it is. Some will find academic studies easy. The present system of secondary education was designed for them.

Others will see better prospects in other kinds of studies, such as music, handicrafts, sport, computer modelling and the broader spectrum of arts and science. There is no right or wrong in these matters. It is just essential to discover what interests the young in our charge. They are our customers.

We are not their customers.

The comment was once made - if education is good for you, why is it compulsory? There were good reasons for freeing small boys from sweeping chimneys so that they could learn, but those arguments no longer obtain.

Education for everybody is now best served by making sure everybody is interested in what they are doing. If, as a nation, we fail to accomplish that, the level of pupils' interests will spiral downwards to a lack of motivation, performance and good behaviour, and thus to the lack of success of any kind which presages the onset of that vicious cycle of failure leading to more failure.

The failing secondary school is epitomised in the brief fictional account of Jamie, a bright boy from a housing estate of a big city anywhere. He had thrived in the secure circumstances of his primary school but failed to succeed in the transition to his nearest secondary. The academic nature of the new experience did not appeal to this working class boy and he began to fail tests and examinations. He was not an academic. He knew that and he knew that his teachers knew that.

In his second or third year, out of boredom he began to misbehave. There was no parental guidance, perhaps only one parent. He played truant and excelled as a serious mischief-maker. He now gave up trying to be anything else and eventually joined a gang of fellow delinquents, there to begin his adult life, his only life, as an unemployed and unemployable petty thief.

One does not have to be an idealist to ask the question - did the boy fail the system or did the system fail the boy?

Whatever the answer, such a byproduct of secondary education will be a burden on society for years, perhaps for his whole life. The direct cost of looking after him, of repairing the damage he will do and of the cascading spiral of deprivation that he will bequeath is unknowable but large. The indirect costs will include those of an ailing society in which too many of the potential workforce have opted out to live on social security and to become the potential nucleus of social disruption on an unimagined scale.

This boy, but it is not always a boy, is the single greatest threat to our society. He will eventually mature but, en route, he will be a danger to himself and to others. The good citizen he might have become will be eclipsed by the uncaring person he will have grown into. But none of this need happen, provided the education system is allowed to change.

It is not too difficult to argue that secondary education has always been justified by the need for many to fail. A rough guess of the fraction who do is one-third. If, probing deeper, we seek the proportion of those who will end up as square pegs in round holes, it is two-thirds. This pervasive failure is not just wasteful of human resources but saps the confidence of those who not only do not succeed but now believe that they are failures.

This is why Britain is at the bottom of the league tables of industrial productivity and why we are short of skilled personnel.

The idealists, easily derided, are those who believe that no young person should leave school as a failure. Their levels and range of success may vary widely, but we know from experience that all pupils have the capacity to do well in the subjects of their choice. It was Winston Churchill, probably Britain's most celebrated failure, who bemoaned the fact that his examiners never asked him questions about the things that he knew. They only ever asked him questions about things he didn't know. Good teachers know that their prime objective is to discover what each pupil is interested in. Every success is then an investment repaid. Every failure is an investment down the drain.

The idealists know that we can improve on this by ways that pay for themselves. The idealists also know that they can never win the argument with words. Only seeing is believing. Only by showcasing a successful school based on the new learning procedures will the doubting Thomases be convinced. The intellectual aim of the idealists is student-centred learning. This makes the new knowledge formats and their supportive skills possible and affordable. Gone is the teacher as the sage on the stage. Gone is rote learning and its feats of memory. Gone are the endless examinations.

Quality cannot be measured, it can only be encouraged.

We idealists believe that there will have to be a new dawning, a golden hello to a new generation of pupils, skilled and confident. A S Neill's Summerhill is not the best example. The film Dead Poets Society is better.

Those who love learning are not ashamed of being called idealists.

Sir Graham Hills is former principal of Strathclyde University and a founder of the University of the Highlands and Islands.

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