21st century think-in;Platform;Opinion

23rd April 1999 at 01:00
Tony Breslin argues that a National Day for Education will help put teachers back at the centre of policy-making for the new millennium

TODAY, the Future Education Network, a group of more than 100 teachers, lecturers, policy-makers and academics, launches its campaign to have January 4 2000 declared a National Day for Education.

The network is committed to four key objectives:

* raising awareness about the nature, purpose and value of teaching, schooling and lifelong learning;

* initiating a debate about the nature of formal education and the value of other forms of learning as we move into the new millennium;

* asserting the key role of educators alongside learners and others at the centre of this debate;

* questioning how formal educational provision can generate an appetite for and love of learning.

Starting the new millennium with a National Day for Education is a means of securing these objectives. The project has already attracted the support of the Campaign for Learning, the Citizenship Foundation, Professional Unity 2000, schools, colleges and local education authorities, a host of practising teachers and a number of leading academics.

Professors Peter Mortimore, Stephen Ball and Robert Burgess sit on a planning group that includes classroom teachers, heads and those involved with organisations as diverse as the unions, the youth service and the Confederation of British Industry.

Why, though, should the initiative get such support? The profession is already having to cope with an unprecedented number of initiatives: target-setting, numeracy and literacy strategies, action zones, performance-related pay, to name just a few. Do we really want another?

The simple answer is yes. Currently, the vast majority of teachers and lecturers feel excluded from a top-down process of reform punctuated only by increasingly shorter consultation exercises. They are also frustrated by the fact that their expertise appears to be ignored in the creation of policies.

This initiative is different because it is based on the principle of drawing together teachers, managers and administrators, researchers, learners and policy-makers to generate change from the ground up.

If it is to succeed, educational policy needs to be informed by, and embraced by, the teaching profession. Moreover, the greater the need for change and the faster its pace, the more that change has to be built upon the reflective practice of working teachers.

January 4, 2000, is the day on which most schools and colleges will open after the millennium celebrations. We are proposing that every school and college should consider granting at least a part of this day, whether as a staff training session, or a classroom exercise with students, to a consideration of the challenges that we face as we enter the 21st century.

Other organisations with an interest in learning, ranging from parents to large employers, are invited to undertake a similar exercise. The suggestion is that each group should identify three ways in which it proposes to change its approach to teaching andor learning in the first decade of the new millennium.

Some examples might be helpful:

* the staff of a group of primary schools might develop ideas around how to include parents inlearning;

* individual secondary schools may choose to assess how the revised national curriculum meets the needs of a particular group of students;

* clusters of special schools and pupil referral units might work together to develop strategies for intervention and re-inclusion and to clarify their respective roles in a particular geographical area;

* an FE college might appraise its strategy for dealing with the learning needs of women returners.

There are plenty of other ideas. Local and national media coverage together with the Internet and the National Grid for Learning open up the possibility of participating groups being able to share their challenges and proposals so that ideas are exchanged, priorities identified and further work facilitated.

The Internet, in particular, will allow the "community of practitioners'' (in Professor Frank Coffield's phrase) to talk to each other. The result could be the greatest educational "think-in'' this country has witnessed.

And such a think-in is needed. This is not just about the need to involve teachers and learners in the policy process, critical though that is. Starting the new millennium with a National Day for Education is a recognition that education is our number one national priority and that a change in our approach to learning in the broadest sense is necessary.

In many respects, the nature of our educational institutions, in structure and role, has remained remarkably constant throughout this century: a subject-based timetable marked out by bells and room changes; a significant measure of age-related disaffection; and a formal leaving age. Moreover, the FE sector often models itself on a similar organisational and qualifications framework. As one workshop leader at a recent adult learning conference commented"...most colleges still have a long, long way to go before they understand how to make life easy for people who work, who want to have a family, who need to do other things''.

In an age of lifelong learning, the need is surely to review, as a profession, how schooling and the initial stages of further education serve to generate a genuine pro-education love of learning that can underpin a real learning age. The task is not simply to manage learning but to create a zest for it such that all who leave formal education do so with a desire and an ability to come back for more whenever they wish.

This won't be achieved on one January day, but at least we will have made some millennium resolutions worth sticking to. Furthermore, in playing the key role in the UK's first National Day for Education, teachers and lecturers may just begin to take their rightful place at the centre of the policy process.

Tony Breslin is general adviser (14-19) in the north London borough of Enfield. He is co-ordinator of the Further Education Network and chair of the Association for the Teaching of the Social Sciences.

The network was established at a seminar entitled The Future of Schooling, held late last year at the University of London's Institute of Education and chaired by Professor Denis Lawton. For more information visit FEN's website at www.fen.co.uk

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