Tuesday 24 March 2015

An end to education for placid obedience

My father got cross with me when I was sixteen for insisting that I wanted to stick solidly to the arts subjects for my A Levels.  He insisted that my only chance of rescuing my renaissance future was to do an AO Level in Navigation - which I did and duly failed.

I'm not sure I could have survived a scientific A level, but I'm also pretty sure that I ought to have tried.  I'm almost sorry I didn't.

I have a great deal to thank the people who educated me for.  My grounding in literature, my fascination with ideas, their ability to let go and trust me sometimes to find my own way (though not my ability to speak a foreign language - how is it possible that I could have sat in classrooms for nearly a decade without being able to speak fluent French?).  But I was lucky.  I had the right teachers.

I was thinking of this when I was sent an article (thank you, Joe!) by the fabulous Gillian Tett about the decline of liberal arts in the USA, and why we need something of the kind over here.

She quotes Fareed Zakaria, the CNN host, in his new book In Defence of a Liberal Education:

"Thus, Zakaria reasons, what a country like America really needs to do is give students skills that robots cannot replicate (or not yet), namely the ability to think clearly and creatively..."

This seems to me to be spot on and some way in advance of most of our politicians.  The Lib Dems in government have an excellent record on vocational education, having finally eased the academic obsessives like Michael Gove out of office.  It wasn't good for the nation either that we were unable to provide people with the education that suited their talents, or the UK with the engineers it needs.  We've waited a long time for an effective intervention, and now we seem to be getting somewhere.

This is not a small achievement.  Nor are Vince Cable's apprenticeships.  But beyond them, the great mass of politicians have still not got beyond the rhetoric about the need for job-relevant skills and more programmers.

Joe Zammit-Lucia and I tried to see a bit further than that in our recent pamphlet A Radical Politics for Business.  Because what business actually needs, as opposed to what politicians so often say they need, is not so much programmers as programmers who can also solve problems.  They need creative people with a range of multi-disciplinary skills.  

Yes, they badly need engineers, but they also want problem-solvers and people who know things (I find people don't tend to these days, but I may be showing my age by saying so).

This kind of cross-disciplinary creative skill set is precisely the opposite of what the UK education system has been churning out so exhaustingly over the past few generations - academic specialists at one end; obedient machine-minders who can spell at the other.  

In fact, if Liberals can collect their thoughts about business together and sum it up, putting small enterprise at the heart of policy - as they should - it is kind of obvious what the implication of this is for education.  We need our schools and universities to knuckle down and start producing broad thinkers, creatives, problem-solvers and people who can, as Anita Roddick used to say, imagine the world differently.

In short, we need to be producing entrepreneurs - social entrepreneurs, entrepreneurial engineers, creative entrepreneurs.  

I hesitate to say it, because New Labour helped to turbo-charge the soulless utilitarianism that still besets some of the UK schools sector, but Tristram Hunt is right that we need to end the culture of 'exam factories', and - although he didn't say this - an end to anything else that educates for placid obedience. 

And while we're at it, let's redesign the curriculum so that we can have pupils speaking foreign languages quickly and easily by brief immersion, not by battering verbs into them slowly over a decade of wasted classroom time.  Or was it my fault I failed to learn?

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1 comment:

Hugh Barnard said...

Actually, what I'd also like to see, as in French secondary education, is philosophy, especially logic. This would give us citizens [rather than subjects] who would be able to evaluate politicians and pundits 'pronouncements', make critical judgments, object to stuff etc. etc.

Just the kind of citizenry that no-one currently in politics or government wants.