There is no better time for teachers to speak out than during a general election. We need to make the case for a radical new vision for education – an engaged, expansive education – that meets the needs of these extraordinary times.
We are living in an age of extraordinary new opportunities, an increasing number of perils, a bewildering amount of information and a series of troubling moral dilemmas.
While there is huge uncertainty about the future, the sorts of knowledge, skills and attributes that are going to be in ever greater demand are becoming clearer.
Literacy and numeracy will still underpin everything. Expertise in maths, science and computer science will be highly prized. Communication and interpersonal skills, problem-solving and ideas generation, collaboration and networking, analysis and synthesis, creativity and agility will matter to employers more than some of the more routine thinking skills tested in exams.
Perhaps most importantly, there will be a need for young people to emerge from school engaged in the world, having been taught how to question, challenge, make sense of what is real and what is fake – to have a moral compass in situations of greater complexity and ambiguity. In short, if the schools we run are based on compliance, then we might succeed in extracting some decent exam results out of young people, but we will have failed in a spectacular way to have prepared them for the modern world.
So what is the necessary response to these swirling forces in the UK?
Increased diversity, while not without its problems, has produced the potential (if not always the reality) for innovation, with a growing variety of schools able to address some of these big challenges.
But the predominant feature of the UK system is that it is too rigid. We seem to believe that more exams with even higher stakes is the route to a better education system. Of course, it is merely the route to getting better at taking exams. All incentives, time and energy are skewed into playing the exam game.
Growing 'the whole child'
Recent changes have meant that exams have, in some cases, almost double the amount of content to get through, in the same amount of time. The result is that there is only surface teaching, rather than in-depth understanding of key concepts.
There is now little or no room for a broader curriculum – in most schools the vital, non-examined, curriculum has been squeezed out. The curriculum is the exam syllabus. Ofsted, once vital in lifting the floor on school performance, has now become a constraining force on innovation, as schools, desperate to succeed, look over their shoulder at what they think Ofsted requires.
Essentially, we have a one-dimensional education system in a multi-dimensional world. We need to take a different course – to provide an education that supports the growth of the whole child: head, heart and hand.
We must deliver an academic education (the “head”) that gives people in-depth knowledge of key concepts and ways of thinking in maths, science and design, as well as history and culture. Knowledge that draws on “the best that has been thought and said” from the past, as Matthew Arnold, the cultural critic, advocated, but that, importantly, is shaped and applied to the needs of the present and future: empowering knowledge not just knowledge of the powerful.
We need a character education (the “heart”) that provides the experiences and situations for pupils to develop a set of ethical underpinnings, well-honed character traits of resilience, kindness and tolerance, and a subtle, open mind.
A can-do education (the “hand”) nurtures creativity and problem-solving, and gives young people the chance to respond to client briefs, to understand design thinking and to apply knowledge and conceptual understanding to new situations. It is about being able to make and produce work through craftsmanship that is of genuine value beyond the classroom.
To achieve this multi-dimensional education, it will require fundamental changes in the way schools are run: a revolution in curriculum planning, timetabling, the role of the teacher and, perhaps most of all, our attitude to young people. At School 21, a 4-18 school opened in East London in 2012, in one of the poorest areas of the country, we have embarked on this journey: trying to elevate speaking – oracy – to the same status as reading and writing, reinventing work experience so that pupils do meaningful assignments in organisations for half a day a week, crafting beautiful work that has value beyond the classroom, using subject knowledge to solve problems and, most recently, applying mathematical understanding to a campaign for local change – helping to stop a concrete factory being built.
Set our teachers free
None of the above is possible unless we think again about what it is to be a teacher in the 21st century. An education for head, heart and hand requires a different kind of teacher. Instead of teachers increasingly being reduced to stressed workers in the exam factory, we need a vision of teaching as the intellectual, layered, complex and varied profession that we know it can and should be. We don’t ask surgeons to carry out exactly the same operation on every patient if the diagnosis is different. We don’t ask hairdressers to perform the same hair cut on everyone’s head. But in the current debate, some influential voices are urging on us rigid, often dogmatic prescriptions, formulaic teaching, chunked-up lessons, no matter the subject discipline, situation or group of children.
These same people are shunning new technology because it has sometimes been introduced badly and they attack interdisciplinary work despite its growth and success in universities. This is the fastest way to deskill a profession. Great teachers, like great leaders, have a repertoire – a tool kit of approaches, from lectures to Socratic seminars, from philosophy sessions in the round to grammar instruction in rows; from maths mastery lessons to elaborate problem-solving workshops.
Teachers are leaving the profession in droves, their creativity having been sapped and their professionalism stifled, with little time and space to research, collaborate, and delve deeper into their practice. We need to create the structures for collaboration, a developmental feedback culture and an expansive, engaged view of education.
There’s no better time than during a general election to make the case for a more expansive, more engaged, less rigid education system – one where teachers feel they are trusted and where innovation is harnessed to meet the immense challenges of our age.
Peter Hyman is a headteacher and co-founder of School 21 in East London, and a former aide to Tony Blair. This is an edited version of his essay “Success in the 21st Century: the education of head, heart and hand”, which will form part of a forthcoming edited collection published by the IPPR thinktank