Schools don’t prepare children for life. Here’s the education they really need


It's only after you have left school and, in adulthood, gained a bit of distance, that you can be fully aware of the gaps in your education. History is a prime example. A group of British people together around a pub table and can probably weave together some kind of cohesive narrative across the centuries. In isolation, however, what you discover is that one person did the Romans, another the second world war, and a third spent two years on medieval crop rotation. Meaning that as a school leaver, you’ll have a vague idea about how it all fits together, but whole epochs remain shrouded in mystery.

In an ideal world the education system would be radically overhauled, to deliver a truly national curriculum; where a child in one county has as much right to learn Spanish as a child in another. Options would not be closed off simply because of the catchment area. Furthermore an interest in, say, drama, would not preclude a pupil from also studying geography. A greater portfolio of core subjects would not only be available, but would also prevent pupils from being forced to narrow down their options at an age when they don’t yet know who they really are.

I would introduce a mandatory reading scheme, where older children spend time each week reading with the 11-year-olds who have just started secondary education. We did this at my school in an attempt to improve literacy and it was a great initiative, helping children grow in confidence. I would also reintroduce the books Gove dispensed with, such as To Kill a Mockingbird and Of Mice and Men – books that teach the importance of kindness and tolerance. English would have more of an emphasis on diverse voices and more modern literature.

In science, there would be more practical work (a 2017 Wellcome Trust report found that pupils in deprived areas were much less likely to report having designed and carried out their own experiments), more trips to science museums, and a thorough teaching of evolution. Girls would be encouraged to pursue Stem (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects. Maths would have more of a practical focus on practical applications, such as interest rates on credit cards. Adult skills, as part of an improved personal, social, health and economic (PSHE) curriculum, would teach the ins and outs of a consumer credit agreement, how to do a tax return without having a nervous breakdown, and the implications of credit card debt.

The focus of any curriculum should not simply be on attainment and “resilience” – the current buzzword – but on producing confident, well-rounded citizens who feel as though they belong and have value in society. As in France, students would study philosophy, allowing them to enter work or higher education (if they chose to do so) with the ability to construct an argument logically, and critically examine the media that they are presented with (so that attempts to manipulate voters – on the basis of fear of immigration, say – will fall flat).

As this is a utopia, I’d also ensure that those on free school meals don’t have to use a separate canteen, as happened at my school, thus marking them out as the poor kids. I’d bring back the education maintenance allowance in England. And I’d have teachers addressed by their first names. But most important, continuous assessment, practicals and oral exams would measure achievement, along with written papers. No one would be made to feel that they had been written off or that they were a failure because of their inability to retain and regurgitate facts.


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