ON A recent school visit I witnessed a presentation by a 14-year-old. Sasha talked about a summer school she had attended. She spoke about how she had turned her weakest subject - maths - into one of her strongest, and how she had emerged with renewed confidence and improved school grades.
Initially, I assumed Sasha was one of those high achievers. As I learned more, however, it emerged that she was anything but. Her parents had split up, she had been in care since she was seven. In spite of her manifest intelligence, she had actually been excluded from school more than once. Shocked, I wondered what sort of indifferent educational system could manage to dull a diamond like Sasha.
Education, education, education. Never has the subject been more under public scrutiny, never has the concern of politicians and parents been more passionate. Yet for all the anxiety, talk of hit squads, greater choice and rooting out bad apples, one word sums up our education system: complacent.
It isn't just the Sashas of this world whom our current educational system fails. For the majority, schools are little more than children factories where kids are processed through an outmoded system which too often leaves them feeling disaffected and alienated. Calls to go back to the basics are all very well but "basic" can too easily mean rudimentary. The repeated calls to boost "standards" are symptomatic of panic by parents at the perceived degeneration of society. League tables, which grade schools according to the number of pupils achieving A-C grades, do nothing to modernise or upgrade our educational system but merely unleash a dog-eat-dog struggle for survival.
The future demands flexible, skilled workforces. The most desired qualities are increasingly likely to be creativity, entrepreneurialism and inter-personal relations. Nothing less than a complete overhaul will be required to unchain the next generation from our hidebound educational system and realise the skills they will need in tomorrow's world.
It's happening already. At Grove primary in Birmingham, they have ignored traditional and secondary school expectations and successfully taught GCSE maths to 10-year-olds. The University of the First Age has been using outdoor and activity-based methods to boost confidence and raise achievement.
Both Grove school and UFA manage to inspire and enthuse young people. Their secret is an approach to learning which is far broader than the institutionalised reliance on linguistic modes of instruction and assessment.
The current system relies on an assumption that students learn in similar ways. Fine for those whose background and learning styles are compatible with the teaching styles or who can learn in the traditional ways using textbooks. It won't do for the majority of us and it won't do for the future.
There is strong evidence from people such as Professor Howard Gardner that intelligence does not develop uniformly in each individual. Every person has at least seven ways of knowing the world. We are most familiar with language and mathematical skills. In addition, there are proficiencies in spatial representation, musical thinking and physical ability. Professor Gardner also identifies two types of intelligence, one in understanding other people and the other in awareness of the self. Individuals differ in the strength of these.
Different teaching styles should be used to bring out the full range of intelligences and raise overall achievement levels. The styles which can be used involve narrational or story-telling, quantitative, philosophical, aesthetic and experiential methods. Most educational establishments use only one or two of these options. Schemes like the UFA open up all five doors to learning.
Different schools could begin to specialise in dominant learning such as in languages, maths, sports and sciences. Pupils would then select schools according to their aptitudes and the teaching would be tailored to use the strongest minds to develop the others. Age grading would not then necessarily be the defining factor of our education system. We could see different lessons organised for mixed-age pupils. Why not have one diverse but learning-based set of schooling experiences up to 14 then break out into specialised academic vocational or aesthetic-based schooling beyond that? We could foresee the bulk of the secondary school system as we know it becoming quite obsolete.
All of this might sound unfeasibly way-out. University of the First Age is a monicker which in itself might prompt some to scoff. But it was the UFA which saved Sasha from heaven knows what fate at the hands of our "normal" system. The reforms I outline here aren't trendy options - in a fast-changing world, we need to change fast. They're becoming imperatives.
Sukhvinder Stubbs is chief executive of the Runnymede Trust and chair of the Birmingham secondary education commission.