Where do we go from here?

It's time to decide what's really important, says Diane Hofkins

As another school year draws to a close, how are you feeling? Are your principles in harmony with what's been required of you? Has your energy gone into what's best for the children or into form-filling? Do you feel pulled in so many directions it's hard to figure out what really matters?

During the past year, primary education has become more complex than ever before. There's the extended day, a new inspection system, the expectations of the Every Child Matters agenda, the looming requirement to teach a foreign language - and then there's ever more evidence emerging from brain research about how learning takes place.

Doesn't primary education need a good, hard look? The last time we had a comprehensive inquiry into schooling for under-11s was 40 years ago, when the Plowden committee spent several years asking the questions that were important at that time: should there be selection at 11? Should children learn by being told or finding out for themselves? What about nursery education? JThey concluded that "at the heart of the educational process lies the child", the Sixties' version of "individualised learning".

When The TES asked the question "What is education for?" last year, we came up with four 16-page specials on the theme. No one made the argument that, at its heart, education was "for" delivering the national curriculum or comparing schools through league tables. The big themes had to do with helping children to become their best selves and grow up to be creative, compassionate participants in the wider world.

The commentator Anne Atkins believed education should develop "inner resources and independence of thought", while veteran Labour politician Tony Benn felt children should learn "the danger of hate and the power of love". In today's jargon, we would call that personal skills.

Ted Wragg, the wise and much-missed TES columnist, thought the "personalised learning" methods of the Ancient Greeks, which prepared students to speak in public and think logically, had a lot to teach us.

"Consider the 21st-century society in which today's children will live," he wrote. "Most will work with their fellow human beings, rather than alongside a noisy machine. For the majority, knowledge, skill and the ability to communicate will be far more important than either muscles or knowledge on its own."

But what will the adults of the 21st century talk about?

For the past few centuries, school has been the main means of handing down national culture to the next generation. Through history, literature, geography, children learned what it meant to be British, American, or Russian. School showed them who they were. The people they mixed with in later life had the same background knowledge; had read the same books and grew up to listen to the same radio and television programmes. Now they create their own "personalised learning" on the internet, choosing what they want to look at, not what someone else gives them.

Our pundits said one of education's purposes was to pass on the best of what has been thought and said. But in today's confusing, globalised world, there is less certainty about what constitutes the "best". Our horizons have to be wider than they used to be.

The Government, meanwhile, wants teachers to do it all. They remain wedded to the nine primary school subjects plus religious education, with tests and league tables. But ministers have added citizenship and personal and social education; they are encouraging thinking skills, learning to learn, education for sustainability and assessment for learning. But the core of inspection is still academic "standards".

They want personalised learning and whole-class teaching; to label children as "able" or "less able", but still to help them "reach their full potential." They want children at the centre; they want standards to come first. Schools should be innovative, but ministers know best.

The policy-makers recognise there's an overwhelmingly complex world out there, yet they think education can be solved by better phonics teaching.

But where do we go from here? We can't carry on like this. We need to discover what we really believe is most important.

The children of the 21st century will need to develop the talents and clarity of thought to become leaders and problem-solvers in a world we cannot imagine. The least we can do is construct an education system that prepares them as well as it possibly can.

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