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Independent? Only just… October 7, 2010

Posted by Alex, Managing Director in Independent Education, Magazines.
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Peter Cantrell believes it is time to remind ourselves of what education is really about

Spring may have arrived, but the ‘green shoots of recovery’ cliché seems, mercifully, to have been expunged from the political lexicon – for the moment, at least. About education, however, there have been some welcome signs of fledgling vigour. There have been murmurings from an Education spokesman of a willingness to regenerate A levels by ending modular assessment, and Dr Anthony Seldon – author and Master of Wellington College – has recently criticised the rigidities of the National Curriculum, the influence of league tables and the failure of ‘teaching to the test’ to inspire pupils and teachers.

It has not always been thus. The private sector is guilty of having meekly acquiesced over the last 20 years in fostering a ‘culture’ within schools that is far from humane, liberal or holistic, and in doing so has acted against its deepest instincts and traditions. The term ‘independent’ is in danger of becoming a misnomer.

One particularly pernicious aspect of this anti-culture is the mania for monitoring and the ‘target-setting’ that is central to it, because it encourages the idea that learning is an inexorable as the crow flies forced route march towards a destination defined entirely in terms of grades. The route is without interesting deviation or diversion, and to accelerate the progress towards the targeted grade outcome, the exam Boards provide minutely prescriptive ‘specifications’ with detailed and explicit ‘assessment objectives’, adherence to which is the requirement for success.

Accompanying the student to ensure compliance with the approved direction of travel will be a carefully tailored Coursebook manual, obviating the need for further research, wider reading or personal engagement, while guaranteeing success for those who dutifully follow instructions rather than think for themselves or argue with others. It is all about arrival at the destination, not about the experience of the journey, a metaphor beloved of reality show contestants, but one that nonetheless enshrines a truth in relation to education.

Sophisticated school management software is increasingly used to allow the pupil’s line of progress towards the target to be monitored and for statistical data to be generated that will be scrutinised by the Inspectorate – whose job it is to police a system designed to produce ever improving grade outcomes.

Sadly, but predictably, the real result of such an approach to learning is a contraction of the minds of all involved: a sclerotic narrowing of the arteries that serve the imagination and the intellect. It is an approach that is profoundly at odds with the true ethos and humane underlying principles of independent education, which are essentially concerned with nurturing the growth of the whole sensibility.

Pupils themselves are dissatisfied and feeling short-changed. No wonder that a north London schoolboy complained to our political leaders in one of the televised General Election debates that he and his peers were ‘over-tested and under-taught’, wanting to know what remedies they proposed. The answers were vividly unmemorable. Yet, as Dr Seldon reminds us, ‘No area of public life is more important than education to prepare people to live meaningful, productive and valuable lives.’

So it is to be hoped that other leading voices from private schools will feel emboldened to challenge the orthodoxies that have prevailed for far too long, constraining creativity and stifling the spirit of learning itself.

What is needed is a radical change of heart whereby the government ceases to micro-manage schools, invests more trust in teachers and grants them greater freedom to use their intelligence, discretion and resourcefulness.

The national curriculum needs to be simplified and slimmed down, without coursework or ‘Controlled Assessment’ (coursework’s latest incarnation), without modules and oppressively prescriptive syllabuses and mark-schemes. The quango that is the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority should be abolished, and the whole inspectorate model subjected to rigorous re-examination to detoxify it of bureaucratic and political pathogens.

Then, it might just be worth talking once more about the ‘green shoots of recovery’ in the world of education. Or maybe not.

Peter Cantrell is head of English at Sherborne Girls. This article first appeared in the autumn 2010 issue of Conference and Common Room magazine.

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