Schools Failing

Current schooling systems across the developed world are characterised by a lack of ambition. We know that it is possible in some circumstances for young people to learn remarkably quickly and to achieve understanding that far surpasses expectations of parents and teachers. This is true not just for very capable students but for students of all abilities. Examples of rapid learning here.

Political pressure, internally within countries and internationally through PISA and similar cross-country comparisons, has caused pressure to be applied to schools to force them to raise pupils’ achievement. Over the last two decades this has had considerable success but improvements have plateaued. Capable students are not extending their achievements to higher levels and there is a tail of under-achievement that is proving resistant to the methods being applied – though a few schools are succeeding in raising the achievement of the vast majority of their pupils and closing the gap between higher achievers and lower achievers.

This lack of ambition is focused on the accountability measures by which schools are judged. There are many aspects of education outside of this, called for by many voices, that most schools address badly, though vanguard schools often see these as a priority that they pursue more despite the education system in their country than because of it.

There are a number of symptoms of this malaise, which point to the ways in which schooling needs to be radically rethought.

Developed-world school curricula are too full, and getting fuller. The time that children spend in school is insufficient for the established mode of teaching to create the knowledge and understanding that the curricula profess to require. The response of education systems is to run qualification regimes that give exam passes on the basis of knowledge and understanding that is far from mastery. When attempts are made to assess mastery the decline in pupils’ scores rapidly becomes politically unacceptable and qualification  standards are adjusted to keep overall levels of achievement apparently comparable to that of previous cohorts. (Example computer science)

The policy makers setting school curricula face regular demands that schools should extend the curriculum taught to include areas where society sees them as deficient. Examples are citizenship, awareness of radicalisation, sex and personal relationships, computer science, tackling obesity and so on. As nothing is removed from the curriculum, and indeed existing subjects often have their requirements increased in the name of rigour or academic excellence, schools are given an impossible task. As their accountability systems focus on core subjects such as literacy and numeracy, the result is school curricula that omit or marginalise vitally important topics such as esafety, sexual health and relationships education, entrepreneurship and soft-skills.

Allied to this issue of the school curricula being too full is the fixed model of teaching that essentially puts a teacher in front of a class of usually 30 pupils for a specific time. The central paradigm of these education systems is that they focus on employing teachers to teach, not on how best to enable children to learn. There are powerful forces such as the relationship between politicians and teacher unions that maintain this, combined with the shibboleth of class sizes and parents’ fear of large classes.

A symptom of this focus on teaching not learning is the failure of most developed-world schools to embrace the connected-world revolution. Despite very many young people having smartphones and tablets schools often ban their use, though the vanguard schools embrace their use in and out of school. Even schools that become highly digitally evolved can revert to very poor use of digital and the connected-world if too many visionary staff who have led the digital evolution leave.

Another symptom is the failure of the majority of schools to notice, let alone acknowledge, the education young people are gaining independently and through their families. A prime example of this is digital education happening amongst the young and digitally connected families.

Many developed-world schools are places of high stress. This emanates from school principals who respond to accountability measures by imposing stressful approaches on teachers and through them on pupils. The education systems too contribute to the stress directly on pupils through standardised testing with little relevance to real life and high accountability stakes. These can be made relatively stress-free for pupils if the school principals and teachers develop a school culture that treats them as useful indicators but not indicators of failure, but only a few schools do this well.

A symptom of the levels of stress in schools is the staggeringly high number of teachers trying to quit the classroom, the job has become too hard. Schools are achieving the results they do far too often through extrinsic pressure applied to children rather than through intrinsic desire to learn. To many school principals do not believe that if they get the curriculum right and ensure good engaging teaching that the pupils will achieve to the best of their ability through intrinsic pressure they apply to themselves, leaving extrinsic pressure to be applied with care if it will help individual children.

The curriculum is also a cause of stress in schools. This is less to do with what is in the curriculum than with how it is taught. Many children are turned off education and see at least some of the areas of the curriculum as lacking in relevance, and a drudge not enjoyable things to learn. Teaching that failed to engage and stimulate individuals to take on challenging task can also lack the pace and excitement that motivates learning.

Taking an historical perspective reveals that schools in developed countries, partially at the behest of government and partially through their own actions, have over the last century changed societal views on where and how learning should happen. From their beginnings as organisations that enabled learning of what parents could not, primarily ‘the 3 Rs’, schools have gradually taken the role of being the primary sources of education. They have up until relatively recently marginalised parents as educators by adopting a ‘school knows best’ attitude. They have also marginalised things children have themselves desired to learn, forcing a focus on the school curriculum.

Having cast their role as the prime providers of education schools now face demands from politicians and all sorts of interest groups to educate children on all sorts of things that are not part of academic study.  They now find they have taken on an impossible task. Their responses vary, some schools attempting to resist the wider brief and to retreat into a focus on the academic disciplines while others realise that if children are to be educated about matters important for modern society that go beyond the academic, this can only be achieved by the school engaging with parents and educating them so that they take some of the load of educating their children. E-safety and obesity are particularly relevant current examples.

While developed world education struggles with this some developing world education systems are being created in ways that acknowledge the importance of the broader curriculum and the great diversity of knowledge while balancing the roles schools are expected to adopt with much greater clarity of the roles of the family, communities and young people as independent learners.