When James Callaghan, then prime minister, launched his great debate on education at Ruskin College Oxford in 1976, the content and role of education became a hotly contested subject. Schools today, however, are now less concerned with education, and more with how social engineering can achieve a variety of external goals external. The legacy of New Labour, in particular, is that schools have become the focus for resolving all “social ills”, from obesity to radicalisation.
The call for school well-being league tables along with an obsession with character, self-esteem, and happiness is the most recent expression of this social engineering. So in this new year, enough is enough – it’s time to take education back to basics, with my seven suggestions for 2017.
1. Put subjects at the heart of the curriculum
In the current climate, the true meaning of education has been lost. In its purest form, education is the simple means of passing knowledge and understanding on to a new generation. But the number of debates, enquiries and books with titles such as “What is education for?” or “What are schools for?” is indicative of a crisis of meaning.
Despite the Association of Teachers and Lecturer’s views that “subjects” are old-fashioned, elitist and inappropriate for today, school subjects actually provide the best access to powerful knowledge based upon the consensus in the academic disciplines, rather than just the arbitrary whims of teachers.
The way I see it is simple: teach a knowledge-based curriculum and “character” and the rest will take care of itself. But teach character, and you will be denying pupils an education.
2. Stop reducing education to ‘skills’ and ‘learning objectives’
Education is different from skills-based training, and all the talk of “learning objectives” means that education is now something with specific and determined ends – making it no longer differentiated from training.
Even at doctoral level students are now expected to set out their “aims” and “objectives”. But just because it is so familiar and rarely challenged doesn’t mean that it isn’t an error. Schools may, and do, waste children’s time by offering various bits of training – but that is schooling not education.
3. Take things back to basics
Education is something we should value for its own sake, not for another purpose – it is an end in itself not a means.
Almost every teacher and teacher trainer now believe that the instrumental purpose of education is to promote social justice, which embodies a rather patronising view of ordinary people as “vulnerable victims”, or the poor and “needy”. But if you actually educate children and young people properly they will learn to think for themselves rather than just being indoctrinated – which is what “education for social justice” actually means.
4. Recognise that education is for all
Education begins with the premise that all children can be educated in all subjects to the highest level possible. But today’s error is that some children are thought to require a different sort of education. Or it is believed that certain children can’t do certain subjects such as mathematics, physics, or languages. Or that some pupils – most recently white working class boys – can only reach a low level in a subject.
If you think any of this you can’t teach and should not be in a classroom.
5. Get rid of the obsession with pedagogy
In 1981 Brian Simon wrote his seminal paper: “Why no pedagogy in England?” Today if he was alive and writing it might be titled “Too much pedagogy in England”.
Pedagogy isn’t just a pretentious term for “teaching”, but an attack on subject-based education, which it tries to replace with technological know-how or some “transformative” activity that encourages critical reflection on pupils’ beliefs and knowledge – which they barely have. Or it offers them some “therapeutic” activity such as mindfulness.
6. Trust teachers to teach
Traditionally, education was based on a commitment to knowledge and understanding and the need to find ways of teaching subjects to children. And it was a messy business that teachers had to work out through experience – which meant a lifetime spent in the classroom.
There’s simply no sense in seeking what we might call an evidence-based moral purpose.
This needs to change. We need our teachers to be confident in their abilities to teach their subject.
7. So that there will be more real teachers
There are few educators today and there are too many trainers and facilitators concerned with soft skills. This has produced what has been lampooned as the “snowflake” generation of students who can’t cope with difficult subjects and ideas. This is an indictment of a whole generation of educators and their antipathy to knowledge.
We need to grow more teachers committed to Matthew Arnold’s vision of getting children to learn “the best that is known and thought in the world” – as the inspector of schools and English poet famously said. That is the noble task of a noble profession and we need to rebuild it.