Great expectations of raising standards

29th August 1997 at 01:00
The Government policy document acknowledges the key importance of realising young people's potential, says Ken Robinson

Excellence in Schools tackles in our national context issues which are perplexing education systems throughout the world. I am currently directing a project for the Council of Europe on culture, creativity and the young. This project came out of research on education systems in Europe which I undertook for the United Nations children's organisation on culture and development.

In most countries the pattern is similar. Governments recognise that education is faced with an urgent and complex agenda arising from the interplay of economic, social and cultural change. National policies emphasise the need to develop the human resources and creative potential that young people need for the next century.

But the dominant emphasis of the school curriculum remains on a small core of academic subjects, especially sciences, mathematics and languages. Almost everywhere, the arts and humanities are pushed to the margins.

There are two reasons for this. First the main drive everywhere is to make education more relevant to national economic competitiveness. Second young people's potential is too often seen only in terms of academic ability. The arts and humanities are seen as marginal. The result can be education which restricts achievement and stifles potential often at the expense of young people's best talents - in the sciences, as well as in the arts and humanities.

Excellence in Schools rightly sees education as a crucial "investment in human capital" for the 21st century. It stresses the pressing need "to unlock the potential of every young person" and argues that "Britain's economic prosperity and social cohesion both depend on achieving that goal".

Predictably, the main focus of the White Paper is on raising standards in literacy and numeracy, but it recognises that these alone will not be enough to meet the fundamental challenges that face education. "If we are to prepare successfully for the 21st century," it says, "we shall have to do more than just improve literacy and numeracy skills. We need a broad, flexible and motivating education that recognises the different talents of all children and delivers excellence for everyone."

The White Paper is concerned with standards rather than structures. But there are important structural issues to be faced if standards of achievement are to improve: in the structure of the curriculum and in the conceptions of standards which it promotes.

If we are to realise young people's potential we have to realise what their potential is. The problem in schools is not only that general standards of achievement are too low but that the dominant definitions of ability are too narrow. For the past 20 years, the national debate on education has conflated academic standards with educational achievement. Academic education emphasises verbal and mathematical intelligence and the importance of logical reasoning.

These are important for all children. But children's intelligence is richer and more sophisticated than the conventional academic curriculum recognises. The richness of human intelligence is evident in the complexity of human culture: in science, technology, music, architecture, religion, business, industry, engineering, fashion, art, theatre, dance, politics and human affairs.

None of these, not even science and mathematics, relies only on verbal and mathematical skills, and many draw on other types of intellectual skill altogether.

Business leaders do want to see higher academic standards, but they also emphasise the crucial need in the new world economies for creativity, adaptability and better communication skills. These will be increasingly significant in the new societies and economies of the 21st century.

Other countries have recognised this need already and are beginning to move ahead quickly. The Tiger economies of the Pacific Rim, for example, are now realising that their own high-pressure academic systems are simply not equipping young people with the powers of innovation they need, and they are looking for ways to promote these powers through formal education.

Our present concern is that we are lagging behind such countries in core academic skills. The current drive to catch up in these areas is based on the assumption that this will level the economic ground. The risk is that in doing so, we may fall behind in others where these countries are forging a new advantage.

Creative abilities are needed in all areas of social and economic development. They are also at the centre of some of the most dynamic areas of the world economies. In Europe and America, the so-called cultural industries are growing faster than any other area of the economy. In the United States the intellectual property industries, are now the most powerful element in the entire US economy - more valuable than automobiles, agriculture or aerospace. Formal education has still to recognise this.

Inside schools, arts and sciences are divided because the processes involved have become stereotyped - science as dealing only with facts, observation and statistics; the arts as free forms of creative expression.

In truth, there is a considerable art in science and science in the arts. Scientists can be highly creative and intuitive; artists' work involves rigorous discipline and objectivity in shaping the work.

Tragically, children are still asked to choose between the arts and sciences in school. It is a division that would have baffled the masters of the Renaissance, and which is increasingly out of step with developments in our own age.

The economic and cultural revolutions taking place everywhere are being driven through innovations in multimedia and information technology where the old distinctions between arts, sciences and technology are blurred. In promoting creative development the arts, sciences and humanities should work together.

The White Paper rightly argues that one of the problems in education has been low expectations of young people's abilities - there is a need now to raise morale, motivation and self-esteem. A powerful way to motivate children and raise confidence is to find out and value what they are good at. Currently, children tend to be divided into the academic and non-academic, or the able and less able. But many "less able" children may have significant intellectual abilities in areas which are overlooked by schools. This can be a powerful cause of disaffection and underachievement.

Many successful people left school as failures only to discover their real abilities once they were free of education. How many more never know their real abilities? How many young people opt out of school because they don't feel they fit there? How many academic high-fliers never discover their real abilities? All young people have a wide range of intellectual, creative and social abilities; and they are all different. The danger in the drive to raise standards is that we judge them all by a single standard.

At the same time as raising standards in literacy, we should be providing opportunities for achievement in other equally important areas. The alternative is that some young people never find out what their real abilities are, and all young people never discover some of them.

If education is to meet the challenges of the 21st century, it must be as dynamic and complex as the world we have created, scientifically, culturally and artistically, and as dynamic and creative as the minds of young people themselves.

Ken Robinson is professor of education at the University of Warwick

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