Reflect and refocus

This article originally appeared in Leader magazine
Issue 116 | Autumn Term 2 2020

The pandemic has enabled us to reflect on our current education system and strive to make it fairer and more equitable for the future. Here, Geoff Barton says we need to seize that opportunity once and for all.

There will come a day when, if we have to mention Covid-19 at all, it will be with a nostalgic glint in our eyes. 

We’ll talk to children and grandchildren using sentences that begin: “Yes, I remember the great Covid crisis of 2020 …” And as we speak, music will swell like that Dvorak backdrop to the Hovis advert and we’ll share stories and memories, and the children before us will politely and almost imperceptibly glaze over. All of this will be in an increasingly distant past. 

Yes, that day will come. But, no, we aren’t there yet. 

Instead, writing this as more local lockdowns, firebreaks and restrictions are being announced, I’m clear that we’re in for a long, tough winter. Your days of grappling with so many logistical issues and trying to manage so many emotional responses from pupils, staff and parents aren’t over yet. 

But from the outset we said that this year would help us all to reflect on our education system as it is now, and to consider how it might be. It would provide us with a mirror and a telescope. And so it has been.

On reflection

We saw the way leaders so quickly closed their schools and colleges. How you prioritised learning from home for as many young people as possible. How you communicated calmly and reassuringly with parents. How – in the spirit of Kipling’s poem ‘If’ – you endeavoured “not to lose your head when all about you were losing theirs”. 

You showed resilience. You exuded leadership. 

And the public side of this was often done with a beating heart of anxiety beneath the public front, as you knew you wanted to demonstrate confidence to your various communities while, underneath, you felt anything but confident. 

This, in truth, is the genuine face of leadership. And in an absence of much leadership at a national political level, you showed it, remorselessly and inspiringly, in your school, your college, your pupil referral unit (PRU), the patch of the world where you reside. 

Meanwhile, we also had that mirror and that telescope. And the mirror has shown us an education system with many strengths but also some critical weaknesses. I suspect it was the results fiasco of the summer that brought the weaknesses into sharpest and most public focus. 

Because suddenly education was in the news in a way that caught the nation’s attention. And, of course, across the UK, the immediate concern was around the perceived unfairness created by a failure to regulate grades, and the direct consequences for young people who were aiming to go to university or into employment. 

For the most part, it was a period of shabby indecisiveness, underpinned by a culture of scapegoating. We also saw how much – apart from in Scotland – we have lost in terms of trusting teachers in something as fundamental as assessing children and young people. 

But the fiasco exposed some other interesting issues that may now continue to reverberate across different social groups. 

Why, for example, do we place so much emphasis on the GCSE qualification? Designed in and for a different era, the General Certificate of Secondary Education was just that – a universal qualification, quite groundbreaking in its time. No longer did your teacher have to wonder whether you were an O level or CSE pupil: the exam would decide. 

It was a genuinely democratising examination. But now its creator, Education Secretary Kenneth Baker, now Lord Baker, is saying it’s time to kill his own baby. He argues that a qualification designed for a 5–16 era now needs to change, given that no young person will any longer be leaving school straight into employment aged 16. 

This is extraordinary boldness. And the summer’s fiasco, and this autumn series of so-called resits, also exposed our obsession with high-stakes written exams. Why do we expect the average 16 year-old to sit 15 or more actual papers, taken in an examination hall, given that so many other forms of assessment are available? 

Which brings us to the bigger issue. Why our deeper obsession, also quietly exposed by the summer’s fiasco, with a form of learning that results in such a narrow form of assessment? 

In his new book Head, Hand, Heart, David Goodhart talks about a “ cognitive elite” – people who have themselves been educated in a particular way and who value therefore a certain brand of education. He writes: 

“All too often, cognitive ability and meritocratic achievement is confused with moral worth … In the language of political cliché, the brightest and the best today trump the decent and hardworking.

”Goodhart makes a compelling case for why we need to get away from the toxic division of young people into academic or vocational. He argues for a curriculum that gives dignity to making things and to caring for people. He argues for a re-alignment that is about measuring what we value rather than valuing merely what we can measure. 

I suspect many ASCL members will agree wholeheartedly. We wouldn’t want our own children reduced to a grade that has been defined by an algorithm. 

Goodhart’s book is therefore an example of the mirror – showing us what we are now. But he also provides a telescope to an education system that doesn’t narrow a young person’s capabilities, doesn’t define them through the eyes of the cognitive elite. There is another way.

Future focus 

And that’s why ASCL, with its blueprint for an education system that works for all young people, including ‘the forgotten third’, is proud to be involved in various strands of work that use the Covid-19 crisis to look at ourselves now and to look at how our education system might be. 

At the moment, our education system over-emphasises ‘head’. Yet Covid has shown how much our society values ‘hand’ and ‘heart’ – people who make things, people who care for others. 

There’s an opportunity here. Let’s seize it. Otherwise, we’ll look into our grandchildren’s eyes feeling we missed the opportunity to make a fairer and more equitable education system that Covid-19 demands of us.

You showed resilience. You exuded leadership. And the public side of this was often done with a beating heart of anxiety beneath the public front, as you knew you wanted to demonstrate confidence to your various communities whilst, underneath, you felt anything but confident.

Geoff Barton
ASCL General Secretary

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