Get real to avoid repetition of 1968

13th November 1998 at 00:00
THE front-page photograph depicting a young protester under the jackboot of a Paris policeman (TES, October 23) reawakened for me memories of the 1968 university student riots in that city. As replicated both here and in the United States, undergraduates challenged institutionalised, and personal, authority, in ways which had not been much experienced in Britain for more than a century.

French students' actions this autumn have only reinforced my conviction that we are in the death throes of secondary schools as we know them. There is a poverty in the vision of our present education provision, which the young will not tolerate for ever. We must, as they often say - "get real!".

One has only to scrape below the surface of our current conventional schooling to find evidence of our turbulent times. The complex effects of a fast-evolving technological and social revolution bring into sharp relief the anachronism of our school system's superficial and cosy realities. This is the school system in which my fellow heads and I have leadership roles; the system which the affluent parents of 10 per cent of the student population purchase, because they seek to shore up the past, rather than face the future.

In education we are not alone in needing to address revolutionary and complex structural change, although many believe we are lagging way behind what has been happening, in business, government and other significant areas of society.

There have been many areas of radical change in the world since the 1968 Paris student uprisings. However, for those of us who have been working in secondary education throughout these past 30 years, the changes have been merely mechanistic and relatively superficial. Nothing radical has happened.

Compare this with the impact of technology in the world of business and finance and the consequent effects on the style and structure of people's working lives. The 1893 founding head of Banbury School would recognise much, were he to revisit today's average British school.

Those many thousands of us who daily manage the student body in schools experience the increasingly fine line between the calmly purposeful and the potentially explosive amongst the young.

The recently-created education action zones offer exciting opportunities for change. But it seems that almost all the first-round submissions were cautious and fairly unimaginative - clinging to the current model of the teachers' working contractual year and to the style and structure of schools as we know them.

The unrealistic timescale set by the Department for Education and Employment for submissions has lost opportunities. How many of those who wrote the submissions were able to thrash out with young people of all ages what their serious perception of what places for learning might be like, or to debate them with those who contribute to developing the local community?

We must determine what we can influence and change, and do it. Then we can select future options more confidently, because we have tested out our options with courage, based on an intellectually rigorous and well-informed analysis of what we experience daily.

Business, government, society complain. The teachers' unions advise irrelevant and inappropriate industrial action. Never before has society been faced with such rapid change, such intense competition, such uncertainty and so many risks. We must leave the secure comfort of working in a bygone world and find the courage to remove the shackles of our outdated structures, so that we can design future learning systems which will make sense to the young, who need not follow their French fellows to the streets as they did in 1968 - to precipitate the necessary action for their own and society's entry into the future.

Anita Higham is principal of Banbury School in Oxfordshire

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