Roots to the future

7th January 2005 at 00:00
Ray Barker warns that the vision of the school for the future is not as bold as it should be

There's a great piece of Pathe News film footage from 1969 that shows a brand-new comprehensive school - it is truly a school for the future. The pupils are all dressed nicely in uniform, are sitting in rows and their teacher is at the front pointing at a blackboard. The girls do needlework while the boys work at lathes. At one point, the commentator even talks about the girls being prepared for a life as a housewife. Now, fast forward to today and on the Prime Minister's website is a video of a refurbished "school for the future". The sexism has gone, the building looks futuristic, the typewriters have been replaced by computers, but much of what goes on in both schools is similar. What's the real difference 34 years later?

We are entering a new and much-needed phase of investment in secondary schools. Some pound;2.2 billion of capital investment is available in the first wave of the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) Programme in 2005-06. An extra Pounds 2.9 billion will be spent on schools' capital programmes not covered by BSF funding over 2005-06, meaning that capital spending will have increased from pound;700 million in 1997 to pound;5.1 billion in 2005-06. Now, all we need to do is create environments and resources that inspire and support teachers and pupils.

The problem is that we don't know what a school of the future will look like, as we are still too firmly entrenched in the education system of today. Teachers have to deal with a restrictive curriculum and a reliance on meeting targets in literacy and numeracy. Assessment rules the lives of many of these schools as this ultimately impacts on pupil numbers and therefore funding. The question is, how can we consider the needs of the 21st-century learner if we don't get beyond this? Our education system is based on a 19th-century factory model with the need for manual workers the primary motivation. It looks towards standardisation, a hierarchy of skills where literacy and numeracy are paramount, where deductive reasoning - and not divergent thinking - is king.

What we do know is that the future will need very different skills and competencies and ICT should be at the heart of these in any new school. Our mobile phones are now more powerful than the first computers. Talking furry-animal toys contain more computing power than the first moon vehicle.

The world is moving very fast and the expectations of a future citizen will be very different.

How do we change from a teacher-centred model to a learner-centred model? This is the real challenge of BSF. We are being told by the Government that we should be educating for a "knowledge economy", but what exactly does this mean for schools?

Schools of the future will have to be more learner-centred, where much of the knowledge is created by the learner and not handed down from above.

This model suggests that people are creators and that learning will be more about problem-solving. Learning is customised not only to ability but to interest and learning style. The focus is on effectiveness, rather than the efficiency, of the process. We will need original, flexible thinkers; creative people who are able to think differently.

So building fantastic new-age schools is to be celebrated, but the curriculum, the assessment system and the way in which we educate need to be radically re-considered. We obviously have to look closely at learning environments and how children will best learn. Do we need learning studios instead of traditional classrooms? Would project rooms and project-based learning be better than the model that we have now? We will probably need resources areas - but what will these look like? ICT and the internet will be the solution.

Children will need to be able to move around and use ICT in many places, including at home; wireless technology makes this possible. The biggest revolution will come through the internet, not only for information gathering and research, but through the growth of communities - portals on which material can be swapped and communication can become more effective.

Home-school learning will become a reality as teachers post work and support for their pupils and receive completed tasks online. Schools will become more like community centres.

To use a gardening analogy, we can only provide the conditions for a plant to grow. We cannot make it grow. The same applies to learning. ICT should be able to provide these conditions, but only if we think radically. We don't want to be looking back in 34 years time at what was a missed opportunity, both for schools and for society.

Ray Barker is director of the British Educational Suppliers Association. He was talking to George Cole

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