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  • Writer's pictureSarah Lustig

Rethinking Education: Event review

‘Don’t ask how intelligent a child is: ask rather, how is the child intelligent?’

Howard Gardner

How should the education system change? That is the question The Times Education Commission has been asking across the UK. Last week I attended their event, Rethinking Education, at Cheltenham Literature Festival.

Here I will give you the lowdown on what the Commission is aiming to do and the answers they have found so far to that all-important question.

The Commission and the panel

The Education Commission was set up in June 2021 to ‘address profound questions about the education system’. The Times has started this now because, they believe, ‘there is nothing more important than education’.

They have been collecting evidence on the major issues affecting education and they will publish an interim report of their findings in January 2022. The full report will be published in June 2022.

The event’s panel was made up of author and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Buckingham, Sir Anthony Seldon; Professor Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, Professor of Psychology at the University of Cambridge; and Sir Damon Buffini, who is a businessman, philanthropist and Chair of the National Theatre. Rachel Sylvester, columnist at The Times, chaired the event, as well as being Chair of the Commission itself.

The panel’s experiences in the education system

Sylvester opened the event by asking the panellists about their own experiences of the UK education system. Their answers illuminated some of the problems they would go on to discuss.

After passing the 11+ exam, Buffini attended the local grammar school in Leicester. Only 10% of students passed the exam, but interestingly (and worringly) only 30% of the students at the school stayed on long enough to take GCSEs. Buffini learned that there was no safety net for those who dropped out pre-GCSE.

Blakemore went to an academic girls school in Oxford. She wasn’t particularly interested in or successful at school, until A Levels and later university, when she became enthralled by learning. She believes some people are late developers and that she was one. But, she thinks, there are no second chances for most students in the education system.

For Seldon, school felt like a struggle. He thought everyone else was cleverer than him, although he went on to become a teacher himself. His experience has taught him that self-belief is critical to self-image and affects the way students perform. The education system tells one third of children that they’ve failed. And he worries they will believe that for the rest of their life.

Problems in the education system today

It was clear from the discussion that all the panellists felt there are problems in our current system.

1. Pressure to perform

Seldon pointed out that one third of young people arrive at university with mental health problems. There was agreement that unprecedented pressure to succeed is negatively impacting on young people’s mental health.

Scientists once believed that the brain was fully developed in teen years. But recent findings have shown that the brain continues to develop into early adulthood, Blakemore explained. High-level cognitive functions, such as planning, creativity and forming friendships, all continue to develop in our teen years.

During these years, neuroplasticity (the brain’s ability to change and adapt) is heightened. This creates both vulnerabilities (stress) and opportunities (learning). Teens are, therefore, very vulnerable to stress and mental health problems caused by academic pressure.

2. Predicting failure

Blakemore went on to explain that research has shown that students are also susceptible to stereotype threat. This means that performance is dependent on what students are told the outcome will be.

In one experiment, a group of students were told that girls would not perform as well as boys in their maths exams. This prediction came true in the students’ results. A control group was not given any directions about the possible exam outcomes. In this group there was relative parity in results between girls and boys.

For this reason, we must avoid telling students anything about how they might perform. Otherwise, the predictions are likely to become self-fulfilling prophecies. This could have wide-ranging impacts on the system of predicted grades currently used in the UK as a basis for students’ university applications.

3. An outdated system

The current education system in the UK is based on an IQ format. Seldon, a historian, outlined the beginnings of the system in France, in the early 1900s. The system is based on learning facts; it only tests one type of intelligence.

In the nineteenth century, the UK had a factory economy model and our education system was built to serve that. Buffini asserted that we are now in a knowledge economy, in which the workforce and young people are our natural resource. We must make the most of it, he argued, by cultivating and nurturing talent. We need to update the education system to better serve the modern economy.

Finally, the GCSE system was created in the 1980s and hasn’t fundamentally changed since. The new understandings gained from the psychological research that Blakemore outlined have not been utilised to inform change in the education system.

What might the future of education look like?

The panel hinted at certain possible changes for the future. Blakemore wondered why students are still learning so many facts, when so much information is now available online. Perhaps she believes that the system would be better geared towards teaching skills.

Other suggestions were stated explicitly. All of the panellists were in favour of decolonising the UK curriculum, as has been called for recently from several quarters.

1. Successful European models

The Commission has visited schools in Europe to find models that could provide answers for the UK education system. According to the OECD, Estonia has the best education system in Europe. At an Estonian school the Commission visited, they witnessed an emphasis on creativity in the classroom, as well as substantial use of technology.

At a school in the Netherlands, the Commission saw a system that no longer uses classrooms. Their students study in a holistic way, on particular projects that teach several subjects – such as science, maths and geography – at once.

2. Diversity of skills

The workplace needs diversity of skills, according to Buffini. Sylvester pointed out that students in the UK are forced to choose between arts and science subjects too early. Buffini argued that we actually need to foster diversity in schools.

Employers need teams of people who are each good at different things. The ability of the individuals in a team to work together – and communicate with one another – is what makes the team successful. Buffini believes that schools should be nurturing teamwork and communication skills as a priority.

3. Including young people in policy changes

Research has shown that interventions led by young people have more efficacy than those led by adults. Blakemore explained that teenagers are highly motivated by peer approval. They have the power to influence each other. For this reason, she argues that young people should be included in education policy changes.

Have your say

The Commission is taking evidence from across the country and they want to hear from you about your thoughts on this issue. If you would like to vote in one of their polls – on questions such as ‘Are exams at 16 still worth the effort?’ – go to their website.

If you would like to watch this event, a recording of it will be available on the CheltLitFest Player from 29 October 2021.


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