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'Education is at its heart about preparation for life. But not just a life of work'

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“Schools should be a place where horizons are extended and eyes opened. The greatest artists and thinkers are great precisely because their insights and achievements have the capacity to move, and influence, us all.”

These were the words of one Michael Gove in 2009, after two years in opposition, on a huge question: what is education for?

As we bid farewell to an administration in which he was instrumental, and as we catch our collective breath and wait to see what a new one will bring, it may be a good time – before the legislators get busy once more – to ask that question again.

For Sir Ken Robinson, the answer lies in a revolution of how we think of schools, not only reimagining how they work but also “trusting a different story about education” (see pages 20-21 of this week’s TES).

And it is a story that teachers need to write. As headteacher Geoff Barton has pointed out, if they can decide for themselves what they believe education is for, defining their own purpose and claiming that debate, then it makes it harder for politicians to meddle.

Nearly everything about our school system was developed to support the ideals of the industrial workplace. What it required was standardisation; to be trained to perform a task as efficiently as possible. It was an exercise in hierarchy, in managerialism. What it did not require was individuals who could think for themselves.

It was not always so. In pre-Victorian times, the three Rs, the heart of all educational policy, were, as Alistair McConville tells us, not reading, writing and arithmetic but reading, wroughting and arithmetic (see pages 24-28 of this week’s TES). “In other words,” he says, “crafting things as well as developing literacy and numeracy.” But the value of art, craft and creativity was diminished in favour of developing bureaucracies around mechanised processes.

Today we live in a very different world, one that has been changed beyond all recognition by the internet.
It is a world that requires people who can think for themselves, who can be innovative, experimental, who can disrupt. What we must do, according to education professors Guy Claxton and Bill Lucas, is abolish the divide between traditionalists and progressives and embrace the “seven Cs”: confidence, curiosity, collaboration, communication, creativity, commitment and craftsmanship (see pages 16-17 of this week’s TES).

Education is at its heart about preparation for life. But not just a life of work, as it has become. It is about a life of appreciation, of enjoyment, of understanding and of feeling. Schools should not be about churning out a production line of workers to meet the current needs of the economy – even employers’ organisation the CBI doesn’t want that – but about releasing fully fledged human beings into a world of endless opportunity.

Unfortunately the curriculum has shifted to focus on a narrow core that is, as teacher-blogger Martin Robinson so succinctly puts it, “all Stem, no flower”.

Science is important. It explains what we are – but it does not define who we are or what we may become. Human life may depend on science but it is the arts that make it worth living.

For more articles from TES, get the 8 May edition on your tablet or phone or by downloading the TES Reader app for Android or iOS. Or pick it up at all good newsagents.

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