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Is it time to reset the education system?

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I’ve seen them all week, between 8am and 9am. Congregating in groups. Groping their way through conversations because many have forgotten how to converse with other adults. Slightly bewildered and unsure what to do with themselves. Drunk on freedom, like lifers unexpectedly acquitted. 

For parents, this week has been a dizzying deliverance from the shackles of homeschooling. It has been the first indication for all of us that life might just be getting back to something like it used to be. 

Schools have done an amazing job. They have implemented monumental changes in protocol to safely get pupils back in the classroom. And they’ve proved they can adapt, what with bubbles, testing, hygiene and distancing. They’ve shown there is flexibility for change in education.

So why aren’t we using this opportunity to reset the outdated curriculum and exam system too?

An outdated education system

Last summer it became glaringly obvious that parts of the education system were not fit for purpose. Schools had little guidance from the Department of Education, which as far as I could tell, suffered several months of paralysis. The exam system showed a complete failure to adapt. Even though the situation was unprecedented, the inflexibility was a national embarrassment. The result was a poorly conceived algorithm that disenfranchised thousands of students and caused more problems than it solved.

At the time, and as a result, a debate started about whether exams held any value in the modern world. Did they equip young people with the right skills for the 21st Century workplace, or did they encourage learning by rote and regurgitation of facts and figures? For a while, it appeared that we were on the cusp of real change.

This year’s exam cohorts will not be required to sit traditional GCSEs and A Levels. Instead, they will be graded by teachers on coursework, performance and mini-exams. But something tells me that as school life normalises, the old regime will slowly creep back into place and all talk of educational transformation will quietly die down. A missed opportunity.

And then there is the other issue facing the education system: the inequality in attainment levels a year of intermittent learning will have created. This will become evident over the following months.

A necessary balance

Schoolchildren with parents who could spare the required time and resources, and who had access to screens, space and reliable Wi-Fi, will have managed to tread water. Others will not have been so lucky. The Department of Education is playing catch up again, frantically trying to work out how to level things up. Proposals include an elongated school day, shorter holidays and summer camps.

Give the poor kids a break. They’ve just been locked away for the best part of a year, unable to mix with their friends, trapped in an eternal loop of TikTok and home baking. Is it fair to pile more pressure on them? 

Comedian, Romesh Ranganathan, a former teacher, recently suggested that we should just leave them be and accept that in ten years there will be a cohort of workers in staff canteens – the class of 2020 - making soup in kettles. 

Changing perspective

I think we’re looking at the issue from the wrong perspective. We’re trying to get everyone up to a certain standard, but haven’t considered whether that standard is fit for purpose. 

Business has been vocal for years about the gap between what is taught in schools and what is required in workplaces. The ability to communicate effectively and to problem solve is arguably more important to the workplace than an understanding of how igneous rocks are formed - unless, of course, you plan to be a geologist. Yet these ‘personal skills’ are not taught as part of the curriculum and, if we further curtail social interaction with evening classes of learning by rote, will become even harder to attain. 

Furthermore, the curriculum is largely based on the dissemination and absorption of knowledge. But knowledge is easy to come by. It’s everywhere. The real trick nowadays is having the skills to know what the right knowledge is and, once you’ve identified that, to be able to understand it in context and apply it in the real world.

Currently we have a real chance to reset the system and shape it for the modern world. Let’s not waste it.

Stephanie Davies

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