What's it all for?

Valerie Bayliss is puzzled by the persistent failure of curriculum reforms to address the demands of the rapidly-changing workforce

DO YOU know what all the change in education is for? In struggling to cope with the avalanche of reform, practitioners can lose sight of the big picture. But even saying that presupposes that there is a big picture to forget. I wonder.

Despite the flood of actual and proposed reforms of recent years, most people - inside and outside education - would probably find it difficult to say what vision or strategy underpinned them. In very British style, we take a pragmatic line, articulating relatively short-term aims and programmes.

Politicians' speeches on education policy, regardless of party, genuflect towards changes in the labour market, the need for flexibility, the imperative of competitiveness, and probably the millennium. Everyone accepts that people will need more and better education in future if they are to survive and succeed.

So far, so good. But it's not enough. Sometimes we need vision - to inspire, when the road to improvement is hard and long; to make sense of a patchwork of initiatives; as a guide through uncharted waters.

We need a vision now for all these reasons. The reforms (regardless of government) are certainly demanding. Too often, they look like a patchwork and we are in a period when the pace of change is becoming faster, and the nature of change more intense, than ever before. This may make it harder to understand where we should be taking our education system, but doesn't remove the responsibility to have a view on where we are going.

Developments in the economy, technology, and society create an imperative to articulate a clear sense of purpose and function. The economy is changing hugely the demands on individuals. We accept that people will experience more fragmented working lives, bear more of the risks associated with employment and take more responsibility for their own security.

Is curriculum reform seriously addressing this? Have we the knowledge and understanding to allow us to do this properly? Where is the research on how the competence requirements for life, not just work, are changing? Employment demands ever-rising achievement in basic competences, and new ones besides. The emphasis on standards is correct, but is there a long-term strategy that goes beyond current targets?

Economic pressures force governments as well as businesses to look constantly at how to get more for less. Yet at the level of schools, at least, the physical plant remains closed for most of the time and we are locked in to a model of education which largely equates it with being in front of a teacher with conventional working hours.

Technology matters because it has become so powerful that we need to rethink from scratch its place in education. So far it has just been bolted on to the education model we inherited from the last century.

Yet both as a source of information, and as a means of opening up new teaching and learning styles, it has huge potential - so much so that we need to rethink the purpose of the curriculum. And where is the serious work on what developing technology will enable us to do to improve the efficiency and accessibility of education? Can we make progress on this if we are not prepared to think radically about different models of schooling?

Developments in society matter because attitudinal changes are placing a huge strain on traditional views of education in general and teachers in particular. Schools are places which, to young people, look less and less like the rest of life. Teachers are no longer accorded automatic respect and we haven't worked out a way of regaining respect for them. Would developing the perceived relevance of schooling to everyday life be one way to start on that?

It would be naive to expect consensus on a vision for education. That might not matter, if competing visions were clear, and capable of informing policy choices. And vision is not a neat blueprint, rather a broad understanding of the aims we want the system to achieve, and why.

My vision would include:

* an education philosophy, structures and curriculum which respect the different ways people learn; * a commitment to using the best available tools and technologies to meet individual needs; * recognition - in practical not just rhetorical terms - that education is an investment; * developing teaching as a research-based profession; * reprofessionalising teaching, with the improvements in skills, pay and status that goes with it.

The fact that current reforms are not, as yet, on the implementation path to any of these tells me that some other vision is leading change. I wish I knew what it was.

Valerie Bayliss is director of the Royal Society of Arts' Redefining Schooling Project

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