Saturday 1 May 2021 9:40 am

Post-pandemic, our education system needs a serious re-think

Leon Hady is a former headteacher and founder of Guide Education

The pandemic has thrown schools into a state of flux for over a year. Instead of rushing to return to a normal that was failing thousands of children, we should ask the most fundamental questions about what we want from our schools, and what a school actually should look like.

We can begin to solve the educational crisis by building inclusive learning centres with flexible systems which eschew a Victorian era educational approach. By doing this, we can make education budgets stretch further by allowing children to self-guide their learning where appropriate.

This kind of approach will create “pandemic-proof” schooling for the future.

The coronavirus crisis has brought home just how out of touch our current education is. Over the last year 25,000 children have left schooling, often without explanation, in the last year. It’s time we put an end to the educational battery farming that is our schooling system. Instead, our schools should gear our students for life in society, not the exam hall. 

Change is overdue: The schooling system has upgraded very little over the past 40 years. The GCSE system has remained unchanged since 1988, the year before the fall of the Berlin wall, and approximately a decade before the advent of social media. 

The school schedule also remains largely the same, with 35 hours of instructional time a week, for 180 days a year. The same homework is still issued, yet the current homework system has been proven to be ineffectual, or at worse, counter-productive. 

The average school day is marked by a disruption every 45 minutes, where students march in age-stratified groups, from one narrowly demarcated subject matter to another. We have to ask ourselves, is this really preparing our children for their futures in modern society? 

To group children based on age, not ability, temperament or interest, is illogical at best, harmful at worst. In your social and working life, you generally are assorted with people with similar skills or interests, and never strictly by age. 

Similarly, no problem an adult faces is strictly categorised in one subject. Every modern task, work, tax, relationships, you name it, is a complex interplay of several disciplines. Our current schooling system does not reflect that. 

Whilst development and cognitive sciences have made tremendous breakthroughs in learning theory, the education system has sometimes had its head buried in the sand. 

We know now that learning through play is one of the most effective ways to improve knowledge retention and flexible cognition. Play is still allocated to an hour a day, and it is strictly regulated. The Finnish education system, which constantly ranks in the top of the international league tables, emphasises the ‘learning-through-play’ model. There is no clear break between the playground and classroom – we should embrace that.

The way school is set up today is more of an exam preparation mill than a hub of development and learning. We are breeding a generation of students who know how to memorise facts and dates for a one-off, two hour examination session, yet know very little about life in a community or in society.  There is very little evidence to suggest that exams support learning; Finland has no compulsory, standardized tests, and that should be instructive. These examination results are used to assess teachers and schools, yet they tell us very little about the emotional and intellectual development of our pupils. 

Of course, Finland has a very different culture and population to the UK. Despite that, we need to dare to imagine something better. The last year has shown us that the impossible is possible – where there is the political will. 

Schools should model themselves on communities. The Institute for Positive Education at Geelong Grammar in Australia has a school made up of a gym, a GP’s service, a shop and a dentist. Living in this sort of hub environment does a much better job of imitating society. It also helps students to conceptualise what society is, and what role they play within it. 

Lessons should also be geared up to helping students to experience subjects, and not just learn them. Lessons should be interdisciplinary and collaborative. 

Finally, exams, in their current form, need to be abolished. Students should be assessed on an ongoing basis, and their evaluation should be based on teacher assessment, self-evaluation and performance in broad, interdisciplinary assessments. Students should have access to the tools they have in the real world like laptops and smartphones. The current memory test format is simply not fit for purpose. 

All this can be delivered through learning centres, where the teacher-pupil ratio is higher, and technology is a key part of learning – just as it is in adult working life. 

We should be braver when imagining what the ‘new normal’ could be in our schools. If for no other reason that tens of thousands of children have slipped through the net in the past year, and we need them to have something to look forward to coming back to.

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

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