Covid has shown that England's schools are desperate for reform | Simon Jenkins

Exams have been cancelled again, and if Gavin Williamson had any sense he wouldn’t bring them back

England’s health service apparently needs a “radical overhaul” due to Covid. That may be so, but then what about England’s education service? If the NHS has a structural cough, secondary schools have the plague. Yet nothing seems to shift them from a structure and a content barely altered in a hundred years. Even now as Whitehall’s cult of only-exams-matter collapses for a second year running, the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, shows no sign of changing it.

If schooling were about children’s health, its practices would be subject to ruthless research inquiry. There is none. The academic bias of the curriculum, the prejudice against vocational study, the priority given to favoured subjects, school timetabling and the dominance of testing are passed down from generation to generation like the Ten Commandments. I used to work at London’s Institute of Education, and never recall any of this being challenged. English education is a citadel of blind reaction.

Despite Scotland and Wales having cancelled this year’s school exams last autumn, Williamson did so only last month, leaving headteachers floundering with exam withdrawal symptoms. Ministers seemed aghast at the thought that teachers might find better – perhaps even fairer – ways of assessing a young person’s future than their own charts, algorithms and league tables. Officials seem lost without 4.7m GCSE exam results and £300m from the schools budget to play with.

Not a week now passes without a politician or teacher pleading for primary school SATs, GCSEs and A-levels to be abolished. The Commons education committee chairman, Robert Halfon, last month called for a commission to seek a root-and-branch reform of post-16 education. The vice-chancellor of Birmingham University, Sir David Eastwood, wants university admission exams to replace A-levels. Exams apparently now absorb half of all schooling time and have become a teaching and assessing tool, not an education. I know of no academic study that proves that the relentless testing of factual “subject” inputs is of any use in later life. If the school curriculum were a medical cure, it would fail its first peer review. Employers seek qualities of personality, presentation and general knowledge, which governments never teach or test.

Almost all education’s reformers down the ages – Friedrich Froebel, Charlotte Mason, John Dewey, Maria Montessori, Rudolf Steiner – advocated practical, creative and collaborative learning rather than learning through top-down national curriculums. The Steiner Waldorf schools – individual-oriented and screen-free learning - are currently the rage among hi-tech parents in California’s Silicon Valley. Yet ever since Margaret Thatcher began nationalising local schools in the 1980s, England went in a different direction, that bequeathed by the psychologist Sir Cyril Burt and his theories of intelligence testing and classification. Measuring became a craze and what could easily be measured was most readily taught. Unquantifiable creativity, music, sport and arts were shuffled out of sight. Thatcher’s cabinet allegedly spent more time arguing about the curriculum than national defence. The consensus was no change, but a bit more measurable maths and science.

There was no research into the validity of this policy. Today the US and Britain persistently rate poorly in world Pisa maths tests – classics of making the quantifiable matter – yet they persistently carry off the most Nobel science prizes. British science has long suffered unpopularity in schools and colleges, yet its specialists star on the world stage. Likewise education ministers long to copy China’s rote maths teaching, while Chinese parents queue to get their children educated abroad.

Children leave England’s schools deficient in such essentials of modern life as a knowledge of the law, money, health, politics, the environment, music or human relationships. Few schools educate as even the Athenians did in public speaking and civic duty.

How this might change is not easy to see. Clearly it must start with treating schools as autonomous institutions, as more than just agencies of central government. As in Germany and other European countries, teachers properly qualified and assisted must know better than distant examiners the potential of their pupils – or they should not be teaching.

Until online learning recently arrived of necessity, the structure of school life also remained as in Victoria’s reign. Pupils sits in rows facing a blackboard for one-hour periods – despite Mason’s discovery a century ago that 20 minutes is far more effective. They break for Christian festivals and the autumn harvest, without asking whether this makes educational sense. They forget what they have learned and then waste weeks stressfully revising it, before forgetting again. This is a preparation not for life but for obedient monasticism, from which much of school life still derives.

Unlike politics or economics, education policy does not do radical. But I like to think that many of the young people who will have spent two years out of school will look back with some pride on how they handled it. Freed from the tyranny of the exam, they will have spent more time with their parents, family and neighbours. They will have learned new personal, domestic and practical skills. With the easing of lockdown, they will hopefully have experienced more of life in the street or countryside, with a new sense of exploration and risk. Just perhaps they may turn out better adjusted to life as a result – even if no one is around to measure it.

  • Simon Jenkins is a Guardian columnist


Simon Jenkins

The GuardianTramp

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