Free up education system

16th March 2007 at 00:00
Robin Jackson is an educational consultant

It is recognised that this country's future depends on developing young people capable of original, innovative and creative thinking. But what is ignored is the fact that the current, heavily utilitarian emphasis in education stifles imagination, inventiveness and enterprise.

There may, however, be glimmers of hope. There have been discussions south of the border concerning the possible entry of Steiner schools into the state sector. The idea arises from a wish to develop an educational system characterised by greater diversity and inter-school collaboration.

It is expected that schools with markedly different philosophies and cultures will learn from each other. A recent study of Steiner schools, commissioned by the Department for Education and Skills, concluded that they have much to offer mainstream schools: in particular, the holistic approach to child development, the importance attached to spiritual values and the collegial style of management.

The first state-funded school to follow the educational principles of Rudolf Steiner is to be set up in Herefordshire, while approval has been given for a primary in a deprived inner-city area of Liverpool to become a Montessori school.

These represent significant turning points in educational policy. They suggest that the state school sector will become more varied, with an increasing range of schools different in structure, ideology and operation.

They represent the demise of the comprehensive school vision, in which all children attend a common school; now a variety of schools, such as parent-run schools and faith schools, are encouraged to exist.

Opening up the educational system in this way is believed to hold a number of advantages. If parents are offered a better choice of schools, then they are more likely to find something that reflects their own views. Also, such schools may be able to recruit more highly motivated, committed and, therefore, more effective teachers.

There has been a growing recognition that the world's most successful education systems tend to occur in countries where social competencies are developed before academic ones. This is in marked contrast to the UK. It is appreciated that the lifelong learning agenda requires skills not dissimilar to those promoted and valued in progressive schools - self-direction, self-motivation and the capacity to work and learn on one's own.

Industry and commerce have constantly harangued schools and governments for not delivering people who can work collaboratively, and who have well-developed social and interpersonal skills - competencies espoused by progressive educators. Is the failure to reach performance targets not unconnected to social factors, which are imposing limits on what young people can do? Action to improve social competencies is the way to deliver the academic ones.

There is increasing interest in the professional training model adopted in countries such as Denmark, Germany and Holland, which recognises that learning, care and upbringing are inseparable and inter-connected. In this holistic model the child is seen as a social being, connected to others and, at the same time, with his or her own distinctive experiences and knowledge.

With the approach of the Scottish parliamentary elections, political parties should be encouraged to debate the opening up of the state school sector to permit a transfusion of new blood and professional freedom into a tired and sclerotic system.

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