The crisis of the last 6 months has exposed 5 damaging myths in education

Now is the time to shape a more expansive vision for our schools

Co-Director, Big Education

One of the effects of the tumultuous events of the last six months is that some of the orthodoxies in education in England have been challenged in profound ways.The settlement of the last 10 to 15 years is beginning to breakdown, and something more expansive and exciting is beginning to emerge as leaders and teachers feel emboldened to think afresh.

These are five of the myths of the current edifice that are crumbling before our eyes.

1. Myth 1: We have a rigorous and fair exam system

The shambles of exams this year has shone a light on something that most who are close to education already knew – our exams system is not fit for purpose. It skews priorities, produces a lot of stress for pupils and teachers, results in a third of pupils being labelled failures and does not satisfy universities, colleges or employers, all of whom think it is not measuring the stuff that really matters. That is why there is a growing movement for change – from MPs from all parties, employers, parents, students, school leaders, child development experts – and is one attempt to provide the arguments and workable solutions to the thorny issue of how we create an assessment system that truly values the strengths of every child. 

2. Myth 2: We are closing the gap between the richest and poorest students

Lockdown has revealed the work that still has to be done to deal with glaring inequalities that still mean that equality of opportunity is a long way off. A report just out from the Education Policy Institute shows clearly that the poorest students suffered the most during lockdown. Evidence seems to suggest that nearly a million children were without proper access to the internet and devices to learn on. The failure to sort out free school meals at the start produced real hardships for thousands of families. Teachers got a glimpse into the home life of many of their students for the first time through on-line learning and check in calls. The exams fiasco penalised the poorest students the most. This cannot and must not continue. Whatever the solutions to disrupted learning this year, and school reform in future years, those who face the most challenges must be given the most support. 

3. Myth 3: Compliance cultures and tough behaviour regimes work

Trends in education often begin in the States and come over here. Some of the big school  chains in this country were directly influenced by the American Charter schools including KIPP and Uncommon Schools. Their philosophy was one of ‘zero tolerance’, rigid behaviour policies, famously silent corridors and a massive focus on the basics. Groups of schools, and a whole suite of programmes in England drew from that philosophy.  Few would dispute the service these organisations have provided in putting the attainment gap between rich and poor students so strongly on the map as well as the need for relentlessly ‘high expectations’ and a focus on the basics of literacy and numeracy. These programmes and schools have also succeeded in attracting high quality teachers to the toughest areas to make a real difference, letting no child fall through the net. But for many of us, there was also an unease about some of the methods, in particular compliance cultures which suppressed the voices of students. Underneath it all was an uncomfortable feeling that this was about ‘civilising the poor’ and often these were Black voices being stifled. KIPP stands for the Knowledge is Power Program but knowledge is not power in itself, applying knowledge, using knowledge to shape your life, now that is power. That is why KIPP, as part of their reflections during the intense Black Lives Matter debates, are dropping their slogan: ‘Work Hard, Be Nice’ and have put out a bold statement saying they do not believe their approach has done enough to help every child find their voice. As one of their students put it eloquently: “Asking us to ‘be nice’ puts the onus on kids to be quiet, be compliant, be controlled. It doesn’t actively challenge us to disrupt the systems that are trying to control us.”  This will give renewed impetus in this country, I believe, to balancing sensible and necessary behaviour policies, with the need to do more to help students develop their voice. Voice 21 is a leading player in helping schools on this journey. For many students, school life feels too often like a monologue, it needs to become a dialogue. 

4. Myth 4. A knowledge curriculum is sufficient to prepare young people for life

I have yet to meet a single teacher who does not believe that subject knowledge is important. It’s just many believe that focusing on this for the vast majority of school time, narrows the education young people receive, and excludes the richness of other types of learning and other vital skills. Covid has brought this sharply to life. For both parents and teachers, lockdown has amplified the point that young people need more than the next school worksheet. Well-being matters just as much, as does creating, doing, making, undertaking physical activity. All of these things go into the development of a human being – a breadth recognised in the early years of school but then slowly but surely removed as children get older. More than that, it is students who have been taught powerful learning habits that have done the best during lockdown. Those who could think for themselves, know what to do when stuck, organise their own time – in other words those who were not  ‘spoon fed’ – were least fazed by not being in the classroom. This renewed emphasis on what we, at Big Education, call a balance of hand, heart and hand, will, I believe continue post lockdown. 

5. Myth 5. Technology is a hindrance to learning in the classroom

Before Covid, I was told that there were six, yes six, civil servants in the Department for Education who were in charge of all things digital. That’s out of nearly 7,000 civil servants. So, in contrast to almost all the big organisations in the country, which over the last decade have focused time and energy understanding the implications of technology for their sector, politicians, and some supporters within the education sector, often for ideological reasons, have deemed this unnecessary. This folly has been upended by Covid. We have seen 

Technology was never going to be a panacea, never going to replace a teacher, but what it could do and this has been highlighted during lockdown is become a way of a) providing learning opportunities in a range of settings with a variety of approaches b) creating communities of practitioners c) curating powerful resources d) giving students the chance to shape their own learning e) making the running of school systems including data handling more effective f) unlocking thorny issues including better forms of assessment. For all these reasons there is a hope that technology can finally now form an important part of any future education strategy – being harnessed to support teachers and students in their quest for great learning. 

There will be some who cling to the old orthodoxies, that is of course why they have become orthodoxies. But there are powerful coalitions of people wanting to use this important moment to rethink how schools are run and start to provide something more empowering for both the students we serve and for the teachers who are engaging once more with the higher purposes of the profession. 

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