Are our schools missing the point?

The trials and tribulations of the two senior years in secondary school (aged 16-18) are vital and challenging.

They are quite a ride, as everyone with first-hand experience of managing the curriculum, teaching or studying in these years will testify. However, and sadly in my opinion, there are pressures that tend to well-up even earlier during the process of subject choices.

Put simply, the UK has a very odd system of education.

Looking at it from inside, this might seem a strange comment. However, working with colleagues with broader sets of qualifications from Ireland and the Netherlands and knowing of many who work in multi-lingual, multi-cultural offices up and down the country it could be that more people are realising how out of line we are. This system is a great benefit to some and that is very good. No one should try to argue that we don’t need superb mathematics specialists, for example. But, I would argue, it is increasingly questionable as to whether it is of great benefit to the majority.

‘Back in my day’ the route through O Levels (somewhere around 8 to 11 of those) to A Levels (almost certainly 3 of those and 4 in exceptional circumstances) was the standard.

Everyone felt comfortable, or approximately so, about focusing their future on just 3 academic areas from the age of 16. But then, in the world of the late 1980s, things were a bit different. The internet existed, but few knew anything about it. Even when I was working for a London financial company after graduation, computers were shared one between two. The skill sets required seemed to be relatively known – they were the skill sets that the previous generation had had. What a ride the last twenty-five years have been in terms of challenging what was thought to be secure and known!

The world is now looking rather different through the eyes of our 14 and 15 year-olds.

It’s not a brand-new phenomenon but it is, perhaps, more overt now. This is now a world of inter-disciplinary skills and diverse and inter-connected opportunities. This is true for university disciplines where subjects are tied into research groups and subsequent career routes are far more diverse. Even if you have maintained the same job title since the 1990s, the chances are that what you actually have to do in the course of your day is now vastly different and changing so much more rapidly. The case for ‘generalism’ in education (as opposed to ‘specialism’) is probably stronger than ever, as pointed out by Carl Gombrich .

It is in this context that the UK education system sits – strangely and uneasily but still an amazing source of expertise and inspiration through the dedication of the school leaders and teachers and largely despite the rigidity and reforms of the educational overlords.

However, it is still a system that asks strong questions to 14 year olds about ‘what they want to be’ as if the answer ‘train driver’ or ‘doctor’ will still be on their lips.

It may be, of course, which is fine. But even with these seemingly known entities the diversity of routes that are possible and likely to be necessary is now much greater. When I meet families from outside the UK, bringing their children to study in our system, they are often amazed that this narrowing is on the agenda.

So, the call to arms is to encourage students to maintain an open mind and to maintain breadth where they can into their senior school years. I am hopeful that the reformed UK A Level will help with this because it will be a two-year qualification rather than 2 x 1 year qualifications. Two years will allow the space to learn to think rather than learn to do an examination. However, it will continue to bother many students that they will have little choice but to narrow to only a few subjects.

The IB approach (even if not the IB curriculum)

The IB Diploma already tackles this issue well, allowing students, in fact requiring them, to maintain breadth and allowing them time to think and to form connections between their subjects. Time will tell whether the UK system will regret missing the baccalaureate-boat in its reform. Perhaps it was too expensive? Probably there are just not enough teachers of subjects such as mathematics and modern languages to cover the requirements. The Stephen Perse Foundation experience of this is that it is excellent. I have, invariably, heard from IB students now at university saying that it is the qualification and approach of the IB taught them how to think for themselves, how to work to deadlines and how not to pigeon-hole their knowledge into subject-shaped boxes.

Therefore, let us encourage all our students to take a leaf from this IB approach, even if they do not choose the IB qualification route. We can all learn from an approach that promotes strong connections between subjects and demands rigorous thought.

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