Secondaries need work to lift the gloom

12th August 2005 at 01:00
It a conference organised by Children in Scotland, Keir Bloomer, chief executive of Clackmannanshire Council (and formerly director of education), expressed the view that secondary schools, in their present form, are "terminally dysfunctional institutions". He suggested that the curriculum contained "acres of dull routine", that the learning experienced by pupils was often impoverished and narrow, and that there was an urgent need for "more exciting and transformative educational opportunities".

Interestingly, his analysis included the observation that western societies are uncomfortable with the energy and what some regard as the dangers of adolescence.

I have argued in previous articles that we need to be more imaginative in envisioning schools of the future, if we are to avoid an increase in disaffection and, more positively, to respond effectively to the reasonable expectations of young people in the light of wider changes in society.

There are several dimensions to this.

First, the custodial function of schooling may be justifiable in relation to youngsters under 16 on the grounds that they need to be in a safe environment (though, for some, school is not a particularly safe place), but for older students the case is much weaker. Outside school the latter enjoy many of the freedoms of adulthood, often linked to a degree of financial independence (through earnings from part-time employment). Some will also be involved in adult relationships with members of the opposite (or the same) sex.

Against this background, the disciplinary regime of school is likely to seem irksome at best and intolerable at worst. Unless there is some cultural and structural change in the way schools deal with older adolescents, the problem of alienation will intensify. Mature youngsters who want to learn will find alternative routes, perhaps through further education colleges, a trend that is already strongly evident in England.

The less mature may simply drop out of formal learning altogether.

Then there is the matter of what is taught in schools. Despite the reforms of McCrone, subject divisions remain powerful, determining the form and content of what is learned. If we are genuine in our attempt to provide a more individualised approach, there has to be a move from a subject-centred and teacher-centred curriculum to one that is much more learner-centred.

This will involve challenging traditional notions of what counts as worthwhile knowledge and will reduce the authority of teachers as gatekeepers to learning. There are now many agencies of learning outside schools and the sooner we come to terms with this, and redefine the particular role of teachers, in association with other professionals, the better.

The implications for teacher education are substantial. In some countries, such as Denmark, there has been a move away from specialised courses for teachers alone towards integrated training in pedagogy for all those working with young people. The focus is on how to help youngsters to become more confident and autonomous, how to promote their sense of well-being, and how to help them to learn in an enjoyable way - thus bringing care, health and educational objectives into alignment. Integrated community schools represent a very modest step in this direction.

Even if we don't go as far as Denmark, we do need to re-examine the pattern of training for subject specialism in the secondary school. This will not be easy, as teachers' organisations and the General Teaching Council have so far been resistant to attempts to question the value of an approach that places a premium on specialist knowledge and undervalues generalist understanding of the learning process. Unless we begin to think seriously about this, however, Mr Bloomer's gloomy prediction - made in June - may become reality sooner rather than later.

Walter Humes is professor of education at the University of Aberdeen.

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