I've looked back, but I hope I've not seen the future

24th June 2011 at 01:00

I was recently asked to give a talk on "Learning in the 21st century". I am probably the world's worst person to do that kind of future-gazing stuff. Orwell did not manage to get 1984 right, and Kubrick did even worse on 2001, so what chance Pope on 2090? Still, with 11 years of the century already gone, at least I only had 89 per cent left to guess.

The problem with this sort of talk is that the audience knows the answer before you start. They have seen just as many of those "Shift Happens"-type YouTube videos as I have, full of PowerPoint slides morphing into one another with dreamy backdrops. We all know we are preparing kids for jobs that do not even exist yet. And we know it's not about Latin but all about portfolio-working, adaptability, teamworking, and of course more IT. And even more IT.

So just as the Mail on Sunday tries to shock its readers with ever-more outlandish celebrity revelations (no, I do not buy it: it's all there is to read at my mother-in-law's, OK?), so future thinkers have to come up with increasingly mind-boggling statistics. China will overtake the US as the world's biggest economy. There are more people in the top 25th IQ percentile in India than the entire population of the US. No, than have lived in the US - ever.

In 2050 we will produce a computer one hundredth the size of a Weetabix that is more powerful than Stephen Fry's brain. And it will be able to calculate the number of angels you can fit on a pinhead faster than an abacus the size of the entire landmass of India and China put together. And there will be no oil. Or Liberal Democrats. Although Alex Ferguson will still be manager of Manchester United.

I thought a good way of looking forward a century was to look back 100 years and see just how much change happened in schools over that period. After all, the 20th century was pretty momentous itself - two world wars, universal suffrage, concrete, moon-landings, mobile phones, pot noodles - so how did the schools of 1911 prepare their pupils for what was to come?

The logbook for our predecessor, Kingsbridge Grammar School, gives us an insight into schools of that time. The leather-bound book has been scrupulously completed by the headmaster in a leisurely copper-plate hand which is eons away from the frenetic existence of a modern head. And the school has a more leisurely existence, too.

It was visited by an HMI in 1906, whose main comment was on "the imperfect ventilation of the classrooms, the defective drainage of the playground, and the obsolete and clumsy character of the majority of the desks". On 8 September 1908, we learn that "Mr Tucker has been granted leave by me to absent himself until the arrival of the first train at 10am", and on the 23rd the school was closed "on account of the agricultural show".

On 22 May 1909, it was Empire Day. "In history and geography lessons I gave lessons on the Empire and showed our responsibilities." How Mr Gove would have loved this school - his Government is trying to regain this curriculum of 100 years ago. Then comes this striking entry: "Two of my best and cleverest boys leave today, being 14 years of age. Both boys are inmates of the workhouse, and consequently are sent to farms to work. I have endeavoured to interest some of the wealthier people in Elliot, a particularly talented boy, but without success. It is a pity that the child has no chance of taking a position for which his abilities suit him."

Take note, Mr Big Society Cameron: leave the life chances of kids to the charitable whims of the rich and many will miss out. After 100 years of progress, you can fit the number of children on free school meals who make it each year to Oxbridge on our angels' pinhead: 45, to be precise.

Watching our young teachers at work, I see the way classrooms have changed during the last century. I marvel at the skill with which the best use IT to give pace and variety to their lessons, the way they chunk learning and structure collaborative tasks so that students are engaged and interested. That's the way forward, not a future where they sit in front of computer screens all day, so that they can go home and sit in front of computer screens all night, too.

Yet after 100 years of progress our boy Elliot would not be in the workhouse, but he would be more likely to be on the dole than at Oxford. The educational priority for the 21st century is nothing to do with megagigaterabytes of microprocessor power. It's still to give everyone in society the same chance to succeed. Do that, and the economy will look after itself.

Roger Pope is principal of Kingsbridge Community College in Devon.

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