Long before Barack Obama became US president, when he was still a fledgling small-town politician, he addressed a crowd of sceptical locals. He said: “Do we settle for the world as it is, or do we work for the world as it should be?”
Over the past long, wearying year, Covid has held a mirror up to our education system. It’s shown us the remarkable creativity and resilience of teachers, the extraordinary determination of school and college leaders, and the vital role education plays in holding our communities together.
It’s also shown us starkly the depths of disadvantage, the ravaging effects of poverty, the obsession we have with exams designed in and for a different era, the mixed picture of information technology provision, and the distracting irrelevance of so many of those old-fangled accountability metrics.
So now, with children and young people joyfully returning to their classrooms, do we default to the education system as it was, or do we try to build on what’s best, and create an education system as it could be?
In the summer, the Association of School and College Leaders will be producing a plan for change – we call it our blueprint for a fairer education system. But, in the meantime, here are some thoughts culled from the experience of the past year, taking an opportunity to reflect on where we go from here.
If we have learned anything from the past 12 months, it is surely that far too much emphasis is placed on the annual ritual of high-stress, high-stakes exams conducted on an epic scale each summer.
There is a particularly strong argument for a lighter touch approach at 16, with more emphasis on guiding young people to the right courses and pathways, and less on a hard filter that leaves too many students without the dignity of achievement.
Detached from school performance tables, and with an appropriate quality assurance system, centre-based assessment alongside a more proportionate amount of external assessment would be a better – and cheaper – stepping stone. This approach would also free up more teaching time, by removing the pressure to spend months preparing for exams.
For far too long, vocational subjects and qualifications have been perceived as having less worth than academic subjects. This will not change until they are universally seen as subjects that we would want our own children – not just other people’s children – to do.
To its credit, the government has sought to improve matters through the introduction of T levels. But its insistence on a largely academic diet pre-16 continues to send a mixed message.
Perceptions will only really change if academic, technical and vocational subjects and qualifications are interchangeable from the age of 14 onwards, with students choosing routes by interest and aspiration.
Further education colleges, sixth-form colleges and school sixth forms perform a hugely important role in preparing young people for apprenticeships, university and future careers. Yet the level of funding that is provided to them by the government for this purpose is completely inadequate.
The government has marketised the sector, with a focus on engendering competition rather than collaboration.
The currency of this competition is school performance tables and Ofsted judgements, which tend to penalise schools that face the greatest degree of challenge, and are often in the most disadvantaged communities. This stigmatises these schools, making it more difficult to attract staff and pupils, and placing them under still greater pressure.
These dynamics have to change. Ofsted must become more supportive, and less harsh. Performance tables must be redrawn to incorporate broader measures and encourage collaboration.
Many children thrive in our schools, but a significant proportion do less well – particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds in schools that face the greatest challenges.
Staff in these schools work tirelessly to support their pupils, but it is often difficult to recruit and retain teachers.
Working in these schools should be a badge of honour, a career aspiration. Consideration should be given to enhanced professional qualifications, salary bonuses, relocation expenses and less crushing accountability measures. If we are serious about closing the disadvantage gap, we must be bolder.
Our curriculum is complicated. It is shaped by the national curriculum, by academy freedoms, by statutory tests and exams. Its development has been guided by fierce and arcane debates over the value of knowledge versus skills, and an emphasis by the present government on traditional academic disciplines.
In recent times, there have been calls in various quarters for more emphasis on cultural diversity, climate change and green technology and financial education. There is, too, the question of how to prepare children for a world of rapidly changing technologies and automation.
The curriculum, therefore, needs to be looked at as a whole, with all these considerations in mind. New strands cannot be inserted without taking out something else. It must be balanced, focused on what is most important, and not overloaded.
Attached to the above is the place of the arts, sport and physical exercise in a school day that is under intense pressure.
Familiarity with the arts is part of a child’s cultural inheritance, and it is important to social mobility that those who attend state schools should have the same entitlement and access to these disciplines as those who attend private schools.
However, the government has over-emphasised a diet of traditional academic subjects, enforced through performance measures, driving the arts, sport and physical exercise to the fringes of the curriculum.
The learning of modern foreign languages is in decline, with a fall in GCSE and A-level numbers in French and German, which have not been matched by an increase in Spanish.
It is a downward spiral, with consequently fewer language graduates and, therefore, prospective teachers. Even if more compulsion were deemed to be the answer, there would not be enough teachers to deliver the requirement.
A national strategy should be launched, predicated on engendering a love of languages as one key element of being human.
Children’s mental health was a concern before the pandemic began, with evidence of increasing incidence and insufficient resources. The pressures of the past 12 months have made a worrying situation worse.
A recent report by the Education Policy Institute and the Prince’s Trust set out a plan which policymakers should seize upon. It identified factors such as the role played by poverty, the heavy use of social media and bullying in contributing to poor mental health.
What it showed is the need for a society-wide effort. This must start with tackling the inequalities that continue to blight the lives of far too many families. Joblessness, insecure employment, poor quality housing, lack of community facilities, poor and insufficient diet – all can and must be addressed.
The coronavirus pandemic has exposed the digital divide between rich and poor: those with access to dedicated laptops and connectivity, and those without.
The government was slow to respond, but eventually distributed more than a million laptops. Many schools also sourced additional laptops themselves. Education technology is therefore a great deal better resourced and advanced than it was 12 months ago.
Now is the time to build on this base, and fully realise the potential of digital resources. Every child should have a dedicated laptop they can use in the classroom, and sufficient connectivity at home to be able to complete assignments and access resources. In a digital age, they should be learning in a digital environment.
So, there’s my starting-point for how we take forward an education system that’s already pretty good for most young people.
We could, of course, settle for things as they are.
Or we could use this year of national crisis to shape a genuinely transformational Covid legacy in education: one aimed at every child and young person, irrespective of their background or postcode.
Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders