Funny, isn’t it, how the juxtaposition of events can bring things into stark relief? Following hard on the heels of the recent exam results debacle, came news of the death of Sir Ken Robinson. And I couldn’t help but wonder whether, if we had listened to Robinson more attentively, we wouldn’t have ended in the mess we were.
It’s a hard one because Robinson’s view of education, of a challenge to the industrialised model and the place of creativity and ‘whole child’ education, speaks to my own and I fully appreciate that for others his views were anathema. Education debate is a difficult space to step into because it always seems polarised and I don’t think of myself as particularly polar! I get frustrated by all those traditionalist/progressive debates on Twitter because, essentially, I like to think that teaching is best when you take a bit of this and a bit of that and mix it to the best advantage of those you teach. But that does deny the tendencies I lean towards which means I do, indeed, prefer to think in terms of the whole child, to broad and balanced, to skills as much as knowledge.
But then, we’re the sum of our experiences, aren’t we? So, Robinson’s approach spoke to me with my arts-infused background and left-leaning socially minded attitude. But where did that come from?
I went to a comprehensive school in a city that had a grammar school system. Although that’s not quite right. The grammar school system existed across half the city; the other half had a first-middle-secondary system. So, of course, we didn’t get the option and went to the local comp, whilst those that could afford it bought houses in the grammar school catchment area and proceeded to look down on us in the supposedly dodgy comp where, apparently, teachers had to walk around in pairs for fear of the students. And at this ‘dangerous’ school I met a friend who introduced me to punk and punk introduced me to a social conscience, which was further shaped by three years away in Manchester as the first in my family to go to university.
When I decided to re-train to teach in the mid-90s, I did it because of my love of English and Drama and my desire to pass it on. There was nothing more lofty than that. And I look back on those first 10 years as halcyon days: I could broadly teach what I wanted, I created my own schemes of work, choose the texts and went off piste when I felt like it. Exams were important of course. But there was speaking and listening that actually mattered and counted towards final grades, and coursework, and media, and the kids I taught did well.
Of course, there was also government meddling. Anyone remember the three-part lesson and the literacy hour clock? I remember speaking to a group of Australian teachers visiting Plymouth in 2010 who were surprised by how worried it seemed teachers were about a potential change of government. It wasn’t about Labour vs Conservative so much as the sense that any change in leadership brought a wrenching change in educational policy, something the Aussies couldn’t get their heads around as their education policy, they said, was in the hands of educationalists back home and so such drastic ideological change was less likely.
Thinking back to that conversation, my response now is an even more emphatic ‘if only!’. Because of course, we did have a change of government in 2010 and what was put in motion then by He Who Shall Not Be Named, with his blob insults and narrow conception of what education should be, has had its direct consequence this summer.
Heightened accountability, narrowed curriculum, a focus on an academic core, terminal exams and the all-important imperative to avoid grade inflation have led inexorably to the mess of the past few weeks and its significant impact on individual young people. Whatever the mitigations of dealing with something as unprecedented as Covid, we should never have got to a point when all that hurt happened and such inequalities were laid bare.
That said, one positive is that it has shown the system up for what it is and has been for a long time because what lots of people don’t know is that the system has been rigged for years. An obsession with grade inflation means comparable outcomes rule and outcomes are adjusted accordingly to ensure one year’s results are never out of whack with previous years’. Think about that. Our exam system doesn’t present a high jump bar that rewards everyone who gets over it; it shifts the bar to ensure an appropriate proportion don’t.
Not that there’s any sign of change. Coming through the past few weeks you might expect some reappraisal of what comes next year and the years after, some sense of adjustment to future-proof against second (and third) waves and more lockdowns and new pandemics both in terms of education itself but also in preparing our young people for the working world of the future. Because, surely, we really do need to question the point and purpose of education in a world that has changed and shifted significantly in the last few months, and also one where children and young people seem to have been either forgotten or subject to a mix of torment and upheaval by algorithm and political whim.
Which brings me back to Robinson. In 2006 he delivered what has become the most viewed TED Talk of all time, with over 66 million views on the TED site alone. ‘Do Schools Kill Creativity?’ explored the system and purpose of education and suggested ‘all kids have tremendous talents, and we squander them, pretty ruthlessly’ that ‘we are educating people out of their creative capacities’ and that because of current education systems we have ‘many highly talented, brilliant, creative people think they’re not, because the thing they were good at at school wasn’t valued, or was actually stigmatised’.
And he framed this in terms of preparations for the future:
‘It's education that's meant to take us into this future that we can't grasp. If you think of it, children starting school this year will be retiring in 2065. Nobody has a clue, despite all the expertise that's been on parade for the past four days, what the world will look like in five years' time. And yet, we're meant to be educating them for it.’
That future thinking is important. It’s why the Shift Happens video was so in vogue in schools back in the day. Because it made people stop and think about what education was for, what it was doing, how it was preparing young people for what is to come rather than what has been.
The trouble is - despite all those views of Robinson’s TED Talk, his others (check the RSA Animate from 2010) and the various iterations of Shift Happens, which speak to and evidence what most of us actually want deep down from education (for ourselves when younger, and for our own children, and including those who work in the system too) - political ideology keeps getting in the way. So, at present, knowledge is in vogue; meanwhile, skills are out of fashion even though, according to LinkedIn, the top in-demand soft skill is creativity.
Now, I’m not one who believes that education is solely about getting a job (I’ll leave that to Gavin Williamson) but even if it was, why the seeming wilful refusal to prepare young people for, at the very least, the world of work out there now never mind in 10 years’ time?
That’s why the education work we do at Real Ideas matters. Because it recognises the gaps and the difference and supports educators to help young people to find their way, most often alongside – but sometimes despite – formal structures. That means creating communities of practice around the 4Cs (creativity, community, culture, connection) in the curriculum, delivering creative ‘take over’ days and Future Make workshops, or working one-to-one with young people through the GameChanger programme to support their progressions into work, training or further education. We are, if you like, passionately but pragmatically setting about doing education differently, working with those who are, well, when you really think about it, a bit more Ken.
To my mind this is crucial, because as I said at the outset, perhaps with a little more listening to Ken Robinson all those years ago - and more importantly, some actual systemic change to turn that vision and aspiration into real pragmatic action - we might not have ended up where we were this summer.