How will schools look in the future?

05 Aug 2008 BBC News Online

What is the future for schools?

By Mike Baker
Mike Baker

The 20th anniversary of the far-reaching 1988 Education Reform Act, which was commemorated this week, seems an appropriate moment for a pause for reflection on where we should be heading with schooling.

The Act, which introduced the national curriculum and its associated school tests in England and Wales, was a pivotal moment. Central government took unprecedented powers to decide what and how children should learn.

Ever since getting their hands on the levers of control, successive governments have never relaxed their grip.

But do we still need a national curriculum? And why are schools still based on a 19th century model when we are now several years into the 21st century?

As it happens, these were also the questions aired at a gathering of education experts I attended recently in the unlikely setting of the north tower of London's Tower Bridge.

The event was part of Horizontal - it stands for 'horizon scanning: technology and learning' - a futurology project funded by the Department for Children Schools and Families and organised by Professor Stephen Heppell.

Bridge to the future

The issues it set out to address - what shape education should take in the future - are as relevant to England and Wales, and the rest of the UK, as they are to both advanced and developing nations around the world.

There was a time when every country aspired to have a national airline in much the same way as they felt the need for a national curriculum

The setting was inspirational and apt. We were inside Tower Bridge, high above the river Thames at the heart of London, with road and river traffic teeming far below.

It was inspirational because it offered new perspectives on familiar and traditional objects.

It was apt because when Tower Bridge was designed it was an example of an innovative solution to a long-term problem: how to keep London's increasingly busy road traffic moving without disrupting a busy river port.

The experts came from all over the world. They were educators and economists, teachers and administrators, bankers and entrepreneurs. Some inhabited the world of centralised, tax-funded government provision. Others belonged to the voluntary sector. Yet others were active in the for-profit world of private enterprise.

Discussion focussed around why schooling had failed to change radically when so many other spheres of life had been transformed.

As Professor Heppell noted there was a time when every country aspired to have a national airline in much the same way as they felt the need for a national curriculum.


Now most have accepted there is no need for a government-owned, nationally branded airline. Why then do we still feel the need for our own distinctive national curriculum rather than taking a 'pick 'n mix' selection from the best bits of curricula around the world?

As Professor Heppell noted, modern economies do not try to do everything any more. There are just a handful of countries that continue with car-making, or try to excel at film-making. The rest import cars and films from those places acknowledged as the world's best.

So why don't we do the same in education. If a country, Finland for example, has found a schooling model that consistently leads the world, why don't we import it either wholesale or at least in parts?

Or, more radically, if a private school chain from Sweden or the USA has developed an effective model why don't governments hire them rather than persisting with their own failing models?

Is providing charitable donations of second-hand computers to schools in the developing world really the best way to stimulate education reform? Or should governments offer contracts to the private sector to make investments in the country's educational infrastructure in return for a long-term payback as a more educated and prosperous nation starts to buy its products?

These are, of course, controversial questions. They raise ethical issues. They rarely prompt easy answers. But it does seem right to be asking them.

User-generated learning

As Professor Heppell pointed out other sectors have been transformed by technological change. Take broadcasting, for example.

Two decades ago, or even less, it was nice and simple: the broadcasters made programmes for the audience. No one strayed much over the dividing line.

Now not only do the established broadcasters appeal for, and broadcast, 'user generated content', but they are losing out to the likes of You Tube where users provide their own material.

Or, closer to the world of learning, look at what has happened with encyclopaedias. Once families saved up to fill a whole shelf at home with several volumes. Then these were condensed onto a single CD-Rom for a smaller price. Now it is all free online and - with Wikipedia - you can even add your own entries.

So why has this not happened with schools? Why, despite the rhetoric about personalised learning, do we still have national curricula and national testing?

Why, for that matter, are schoolrooms still much the same in terms of size, shape and focus as they were 150 years ago when mass education began in Britain and learning methods were so different?

Political grip

One answer to emerge from the event was that, unlike many industries, education is still firmly in the grip of governments.

The consensus was that governments are generally not very good at innovation or risk-taking. Nor do they tend to take the long view (the sponsoring of this event by the DCSF being a notable exception) as they work to four or five year cycles.

Where new technologies have been used they tend to reinforce existing teaching and learning methods rather than taking us off in new directions.

The model for schooling still very often involves gathering large numbers of children together into a single building, dividing them into groups by age, and placing an adult with some textbooks in front of them.

Yet the evidence around us shows that young people, and increasingly adults too, learn from their peers. If they want to find something out they go on the web, searching for a user group or search engine, rather than asking a nearby figure of authority.

Of course, there are problems with this. You can get the wrong, or false, answers. You can fail to understand the information or its context. But shouldn't we take more note of how young people learn? When they get a new mobile phone or computer, they never read the manual. They learn by doing or by asking their peers in online communities.

This may not work for all young people but it can be great for those who find conventional schooling unbearable.

Take the 'Not School' initiative that has had great success with pupils who have been excluded from school. Instead of putting them all together in a special unit, it created a virtual school, where pupils learned from home, interacting over the Internet.

So, 20 years on, is the Education Reform Act still the right approach? Or is it time we broke out of a 19th century model of the teacher at the front of each class, delivering a prescribed curriculum, and constrained by regular pencil and paper national tests?

I don't know the answers to these questions, but I'd be interested to hear yours. It's something to contemplate over the summer school holidays.

User Comments

David Lucas - 05 Aug 2008

Golden Age

Dear Mike,

I read with great interest your article (‘Was there ever a golden age?) mainly because I get very exasperated with people who keep on about the so-called ‘Golden Age’ of education in the 1950s. I was born in 1942 and so I think that I can call myself a genuine child of the Welfare State who benefited from not only the National Health Service and all that entails but also from the 1944 Education Act, whose provisions cast a positive shadow over my education.

At primary school we were in classes of 44-45. I, like thousands of others, took and failed the 11+ and went to the local secondary modern school, because in our part of England there were places for only about 10% of the school population. This figure I learned much later was not common, for in other places 20-25% of children could get a grammar school place. Even here we had classes of 40 or so (I still have my school reports). I was put into the top class of the secondary modern and the following year the Head entered me and several others for the 12+. This time I passed but was refused a place at the local grammar school because no places were available. I took the examination the following year at 13+, passed again and still a place was refused. The answer came back that I would be better off in the top class of the secondary modern rather than struggle in the lower forms of the Grammar School. The Head was furious. As the secondary modern did not enter pupils for ‘O’ Levels examinations at that time he suggested to my parents that I take the examination for the local Technical School where pupils were entered for ‘O’ Levels.

I passed the examination to the ‘Tech’ and passed the 5 ‘O’ Levels that were a requirement at the time for university entrance and various professions and from there went into the 6th Form of the local grammar school. Quite a few primary school friends were there. It was suggested that I try for university. This I did and gained entrance to one of our top institutions of higher education and gained a good degree. (Because of our family circumstances I had a very generous grant which allowed me to buy all the books required for my studies and also to save quite a lot as well. The grant was £150 per term – digs in St. John’s Wood were 3 guineas a weeks plus £1.50 for meals which, for a 12 week term, came to £60, leaving £90 left for everything else. Modern students seem to be paupers by comparison.)

Looking at an old photograph of my final class at primary school only 2 of us out of 44 went on to higher education. Even at the grammar school the numbers that went on to university were not great, probably only about a quarter of us, if that. A larger number went to teacher training college because the entry requirements were less rigorous.

I had always had the desire to teach and put back into the system what I had been fortunate enough to get out of it. After training at the Institute of Education in London I began teaching in Swindon in 1965. You may recall that Swindon was one of the first LEAs to go comprehensive. I had heard Anthony Crossland talk about the benefits of comprehensive education which convinced me that this would get rid of the inequalities that had dogged my own education. After 4 years I became Head of Department in a well-sized comprehensive school and remained there until I retired in 2002. For a number of years the system seemed to be successful. There was streaming which, on the whole, worked well. The less-able were given remedial teaching to improve literacy and numeracy and were only integrated once it was felt they could cope with main stream schooling. A small minority never moved from that group. The brightest pupils did well, most of them taking full advantage of the increase in university provision during the 1970s. The large middle group of children also seemed to fulfil their potential, the majority of whom found worthwhile employment.

But then we were hit by the concept of mixed ability teaching and this is where I and many other colleagues felt that the system began to fail. The less-able children were now in main stream schooling and many found it difficult to cope, often using poor behaviour as an expression of their frustration. The bright children, however well one prepared differentiated material for lessons, were never really stretched and they too, unless well occupied could cause problems, while the broad middle range of children were stuck in the middle. One Deputy Head did admit to me once that mixed-ability classes did make time-tabling much easier while streaming was a nightmare in that respect. And that is how it remained up to the time I retired. Over a period of 15 years before I retired the behaviour of children slowly deteriorated. Our school, under pressure to improve examination results, did reintroduce an element of setting in Maths and some other subjects, improving behaviour standards but many subjects still had to struggle with the demands of mixed-ability teaching.

The National Curriculum hasn’t really helped. It has never allowed schools to design curricula to suit the children that are in their schools. There is too much political tinkering around with the examination system. Nobody wants to return to the days when only 10-20% took ‘O’ Levels, 40% took CSE, and the rest did nothing. The current thinking regarding reform of ‘A’ Levels and the introduction of vocational diplomas seems to be muddying the waters and introducing a general air of confusion. I get the impression that things are introduced without being properly thought through and giving teachers adequate time to prepare.

Have things improved since my days at school? Yes and no. Certainly there far more opportunities for the children of today, with a wide range of subjects on offer which did not exist in the 1950s. They can take examinations and gain worthwhile qualifications and benefit from the opportunities of higher and further education. Are too many going on to university? Probably. I often think that we should take a closer look at some of our continental neighbours where after 14 or 15 the academic children will go the Lycée or Gymnasium prior to university while others will go to a technical school to learn important vocational skills before, perhaps, moving on to a technical university.

Although I thoroughly enjoyed my teaching career over 37 years I have always had a sneaking suspicion that the political establishment in this country, over many generations, has never really valued and never seen education as a major priority, with the consequence that funding has always been well below what it should have been (hence the small number of old/ancient universities in the UK compared with our continental neighbours in Germay, Italy, Spain, and in even the US). Too many of them pack their own children off to independent schools. Even after Tony Blair’s mantra of ‘Education, education, education’, our school, while nominally a foundation school was continually under-funded and we always felt frustrated that we could never do the things that would really benefit all of our children. During the last few years of teaching I had a feeling that many children no longer liked school. This was particularly noticeable amongst those in coming into Year 7. Perhaps a strict regime of numeracy and literacy hours, preparing for SATs, along with the neglect of those activities which engender enthusiasm among younger children in the primary school and make it fun had taken the edge off of their eagerness to learn. The sense of wonder on joining a new school for many was gone.

While many still yearn for the glory days of the old grammar schools they fail to remember that they were only for the few. Some people had to take scholarships to get there. The 11+ examination was notoriously fickle in choosing the right students, as I found out. There were some good grammar schools but there were also some very bad ones as well, where the quality of teaching would not stand up to the requirements expected today in the majority of decently run comprehensive schools. There were some good secondary modern schools but there were also many dreadful secondary modern schools in the 1950s that would make some of today’s inner city comprehensives look like places of peace and tranquillity. Whatever some may say, there were many children in 50s who had major problems with literacy, for example. I can remember children, friends of mine at the secondary modern, who found reading a problem and as they probably left school at 14 it was something that they never improved upon, which ties in with your information from the 1958 cohort.

I hope that this hasn’t seemed like a requiem for past days. I generally felt quite excited by some of the new innovations that were being introduced into my own subject and in some ways was sad to leave them. Your article is an excellent introduction to a vast subject and I am sure that many of the things you discuss will be argued about for many years to come.

As for me, well, I seem to have fulfilled the requirements of the 1944 Education Act as ‘Rab’ Butler intended. Primary school, Secondary Modern, Technical School, Grammar School, and University; I took my Masters degree in 1990 and successfully completed my doctorate last year. Have I missed anything? Perhaps I was one of the lucky ones.

Yours sincerely,

David Lucas

John Morrison - 28 Nov 2008

What is the future for schools?

The trouble with viewing technology as the solution to schooling, is that it just doesn't capture and never can the richness of the teacher-student interaction in prmary and secondary education. Students aren't just being taught english and math, they are being socialized into our modern world and socialized to get along effectively with others. Not geting along with others is a major cause of getting fired! I don't think computers will ever deal well with a hormone ravaged teenager, but a skillful teacher can.

While I think this argument is a challenge with schools, it is more possible with higher education. Higher education, large universities in particular, aren't really concerned with teaching anymore. The center has shifted towards the higher status function of research over the last decade or so. Good teaching in universities, even faculties of education, isn't common anymore. So with more independent students and with subjects which students are largely learning on their own already, a leap to technology isn't a big leap for higher education.

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