The Big Debate

How do we make our schools fit to face the 21st century?
Five experts explore the future of British education in this round-table discussion, as the government initiative for free schools is launched

The panel: Guy Claxton, Sue Street, Melissa Benn, Rachel Wolf and Peter Hyman. Photograph: Antonio Olmos For The Observer/ Antonio Olmos
The Observer panel, chaired by Yvonne Roberts: Guy Claxton, professor of learning sciences; Sue Street, inner city school teacher; Melissa Benn, journalist and campaigner; Rachel Wolf, education adviser; Peter Hyman, teacher and former political strategist.

What is education for in the 21st century?

Rachel Wolf The best thing that schools can do now is make sure people have the core of knowledge and skills and ability to decide what they want to do with their lives.

Guy Claxton Education means learning to think for yourself, learning to make and repair friendships, learning to see other people’s points of view, learning not to be frightened of uncertainty or difficulty. Unfortunately the system, whether it be in a free school, an academy or a comprehensive school, seems to comprehensively neglect the development of those qualities in the obsession with exam results.

Melissa Benn There’s something more to education, which is about learning how to live in society, learning how to be a citizen, learning how to be self-reliant and all those kinds of skills. It’s a bigger task than just exams.

Peter Hyman I think we’re preparing children for the middle of the 20th century and not for the 21st. And by that I mean we are not equipping them with the skills and the attributes and the competencies that they need. And I think that’s partly an obsession with a certain type of rigid exam. And there’s no assessment of all those other qualities which we all know that children need out there in the real world. The main graduate website lists all the qualities that employers are looking for, like problem-solving, like initiative, like teamwork, like very good spoken communication. We’ve got to totally revamp what we’re teaching.

So in a way we’re talking about a difference between learning and schooling. Schooling for exams is very different from an appetite for learning.

Guy Claxton Absolutely. The most important thing is not what we’re teaching, it’s how we’re teaching. This business about teaching harder subjects is a complete irrelevance. You can teach Latin or maths in a way that is inspiring and mind-opening and challenging, or you can teach it in a way that is mind-numbing. There is a real concern that many young people at the top end of the examination pile are thrown by being asked questions at their Oxbridge entrance exams which they haven’t prepared for, and they think it’s deeply unfair if they’re asked to think on their feet. Well, what kind of an education is that? So it’s not just the Neets [Neet is a government acronym for people “not in education, employment, or training”] or the kind of excluded middle. It’s even the high-achieving students who’ve been deprived of the opportunity to develop curious minds by teachers who’ve been able to spoonfeed them to their grades.

Melissa Benn I really wanted to question the assumption that our school system is in crisis. First, our economy’s in crisis and we don’t have enough jobs for young people. Second, we have always failed to educate lower-income, poorer children, so in a way you can say this is just a continuing problem rather than a new problem. And third, there are some fantastic schools, wonderfully vibrant things going on. So I don’t like all this sort of doom and gloom talk, which I think the coalition really used last year to lay the ground for their changes.

Peter Hyman I totally agree. There are some incredible head teachers out there and some of the schools that I’ve visited, and worked in, regular comprehensive schools, are incredibly innovative.

I take Melissa’s point that there’s always been an education crisis for the bottom 25%. But other people would argue that grammar schools gave some of those young people an opportunity.

Melissa Benn Grammar schools may have educated some people well, they may have produced a generation of people – Alan Bennett and so on – people from lower middle-class homes who did well, but then 80% were written off under the system. I just don’t think it’s a system that can be justified. We’re all talking about non-selective, all-ability schools. We’re all comprehensive supporters now.

Peter Hyman I agree. On the free schools, the school I’m trying to set up is a comprehensive school. It’s going to be completely comprehensive in its intake. It’s not going to be selective in any way. It’s going to be whoever lives closest to the school.

Rachel Wolf The question is: are we letting down a very large percentage of pupils? I think unquestionably. We have got to change things, because otherwise we are going to continue to have a significant proportion of society who are simply not getting the chance. That’s not only bad for the economy – it’s unjust. One of the important things about free schools is they are going to be directly accountable to parents and those parents want something a lot more holistic than central government.

How do you define holistic?

Rachel Wolf Well, it ranges from everything, from the ethos of the school, the environment, the extra curricular things that are being taught, the skills for life that are being taught, all of the things any of us would want for our children which go beyond simple results but don’t exclude simple results.

Guy Claxton One of the bugbears of the debate at the moment is this assumption that it’s either/or, that it’s kind of this dreadful polarisation between traditional and progressive, and that if you’re hardnosed you’re all for league tables and levering up standards, and if you’re for the other stuff, that’s wishy washy and is going to put those standards at risk. I think all of us round this table agree that the holy grail of what we’re looking for is a way of organising schools which does both, which gets as many kids as possible the results that will increase their life chances, but which does that in a way that builds their independence, their curiosity, their ability to collaborate well. The inconvenient truth from research is that it’s what teachers are doing in the middle of their lessons, how they’re talking, what they’re noticing or not noticing, that makes the difference as to whether kids are going to come out with good qualifications and with those life skills.

Melissa Benn I think we have to be really careful about saying this is all about what goes on in the classroom. I just want to make the obvious point, we have an incredible hierarchy in our education system which is shaped either by money or by the academic selection. If you have a lot of children in a class who’ve been selected out of other schools, it can make it much more difficult.

Peter Hyman There’s more variation, the data shows, within schools than between schools. You can have one history teacher and make two years’ progress or one English teacher who makes half a year’s progress within the same school. So whilst you’re completely right about the hierarchy, the thing that matters most in terms of school improvement is the quality of the leader and the quality of the teaching.

Melissa Benn Except there are other issues. We have 150 grammars; most in the independent sector have degrees of academic selection. If you don’t take on that battle, you end up with counties like Kent where at the age of 11 [pupils] are sent to a school which is mainly full of middle-class children, very well resourced, have a wonderful education, or you’re in a school that is battling with all sorts of problems and far more children with special needs.

You’ve all been talking about very bold, imaginative, innovative demands on education, but teacher training still seems quite resistant.

Guy Claxton Yes, initial teacher training, I think, is still unfortunately quite resistant. Teachers need encouragement, support, ideas, in order to be able to advance their practice. And schools need cultures of inquisitiveness and experimentation among the staff so that that drift happens faster.

Sue Street And time. That’s the other thing that needs to be built in. The best schools, no matter what breed they are, build in the time in their staff’s continuing professional development and they acknowledge that the best heads out there make time for their own personal development. And that is a common feature across any good school, no matter what country you’re in. In one school where I work, over 50% of pupils have English as a second language. In that circumstance [you] have to have a much more agile teacher in pedagogic practice than you would, bluntly, in an independent school where you’ve got some very, very bright students and maybe some middle-of-the-road students. It’s a completely different teaching ball game, and we do not address that [the necessary time] as a profession.

Peter Hyman I think within our system we’ve got to test effectiveness. It was this combination of things that some people have resisted for too long in schools which is, in a sense, basic managerial professionalism: data tracking. We are now tracking our students infinitely better. We know who’s slipping behind. We’ve got an intervention strategy. We’ve got a study club after school, we’ve got more than a hundred students who come in there because they haven’t got a home environment where they can work.

How would a teacher in your classroom behave differently now compared with 10 years ago?

Peter Hyman Let me tell you how in the school that I want to set up. I think it is potty that a classroom now in most schools [is] the same as 100 years ago. Now some schools are saying that’s both tedious for the teacher and tedious for the student. So why not break up the school day into some one-to-one sessions where you’re being guided by a coach, some small group sessions, a bit like a seminar. So why not go to a lesson of that sort, again tailored to the learning you want out of that lesson? Why not go to a lecture theatre then, and have a really exciting lecture with 50 students? Think of how exciting the learning will be. And that requires something very different, going back to teacher training . Teachers can’t, under this model, be purely subject specialists. They’ve got to be something far: coach, mentor, project facilitator, lecturer. It’s asking a lot, but I think we can get teachers who are willing to do it. Now that’s a learning revolution.

Melissa Benn How many of the things that you want to do could you do within your current school? Why do you have to set up a school that actually then is going to create disadvantages for other schools in your area?

Peter Hyman I’ve been asked it a lot of times. I am not one of those people who is setting up a free school in order to rubbish anything going on in the current system. I’m committed to comprehensive schools. But if I’ve got lots of ideas and I want to put them together in a particular way, am I better becoming a headteacher of an existing school where inevitably you’re taking over an existing culture? Or am I better off putting them together as a whole and starting up a new school?

In order for more schools to be imaginative, teachers have to be liberated. So the first challenge is how. Guy, you’ve tried very hard to change. What was the key?

Guy Claxton The key is to move in very small steps. You don’t come in with some brand-new structure and suddenly we’re going to have a five-term year and we’re all going to buy in this glossy package from the States. You start with a conversation that builds a very clear vision which sits the development of life skills right at the centre of every conversation in the school, and then you knit that in lots of little ways.

Sue Street What we’re actually talking about is, as secondary teachers, learning lessons from our primary cousins. One of the areas where often our weaker students suffer when they transition from primary to secondary is the absolute culture shock of suddenly having eight different teachers in a day who all teach in a slightly different way. Looking at the international perspective, where you’ve got the highest succeeding countries, they do exactly what Peter and Guy are saying, but up to an older age. Current research from Birkbeck University is showing the development of the brain. The learning work between a student and a teacher can’t actually happen unless you’ve done all of the stuff in a nice supported environment which often includes just one teacher for predominantly most of the day up until about the age of 13 to 14.

Melissa Benn I think primary schools are more imaginative, often. They’re more concerned with the learning rather than defining the learner. Children go in at age 11 and take what is, in effect, an IQ test. Those numbers follow them all the way through their school career. And I have mixed feelings about it because in one way I think it helps teachers to see what people know in a very limited way and how they can help them. In another, I think it’s a horribly constraining way of looking at pupils.

So much international research now shows that if a pupil has application and determination he or she can outdo a child with [a higher] IQ who’s got no determination and motivation. Are we asking too much of schools if they’ve got to compensate for some children with very limited skills?

Guy Claxton There’s a kind of shift in the core metaphor: the idea is that the brain is like a muscle, or lots of different muscles, and they strengthen through exercise. And some kids come into school with bits of their brain musculature not very well developed for all kinds of reasons. But that doesn’t mean they’re then consigned for life to a bottom stream or, in the old days, a secondary modern school. As a teacher it means you have to see yourself almost like a fitness trainer, that you’re in the business of helping some kids who have got very good skills to get even better and other kids who maybe haven’t got very good skills at all to build them up from the bottom, just as when you go to a gym there’s a whole range of people working at their own level of fitness to get better. Every classroom should be seen like that, rather than kids being clumped into the bright ones and the average ones and the weak ones. That’s pernicious.

Rachel Wolf One of the top-down things that we’ve got to get a lot better at is understanding the importance of general education rather than allowing people to get so specialised about vocational education. We should not be allowing people to specialise so early. It is harder when you’re an adult to go back and learn these things if you haven’t got those basics. I think it’s a really big problem.

But doesn’t this also mean tackling some teachers’ expectations? Their expectations of some working-class children are very low.

Guy Claxton Part of the problem is that vocational education gets associated with lack of “academic ability”. That association between brain work equals intelligence and hand work equals unintelligent really needs to be peeled apart.

Melissa Benn I think there’s a real emerging contradiction in this discussion between these really imaginative, cutting-edge ideas, and the agenda which is this very 1950s, sitting in rows, Latin mottos and all the rest.

Peter Hyman I think education must be the only industry where people think it’s good to go back to 50 or 60 years ago. I mean, can you imagine it in medicine if people said, “Well, actually, I want the treatments of the 1950s: that’s going to solve all our modern problems?”

While we’re all talking about a bold view of education, at the same time we’re having cuts to educational maintenance allowance, cuts to the enrichment fund, cuts to all sorts of facilities. How does that square up?

Guy Claxton Of course, if you take resources away it’s going to make innovation more difficult. But the real ingredients that will shift schools is not lots of money or changing structures, it’s trying to fire the imagination,

Melissa Benn In my own children’s school they have lost thousands and thousands of pounds in funding. You have a comprehensive that has improved enormously and is very imaginative in all sorts of things being thrown back, not quite to square one, but having a more difficult time. So I think there’s again a political problem there.

Rachel Wolf I don’t think money is the answer. There’s been enormous extra investment in schools over the last decade. Now some of it has helped. But actually I think it has diverted attention from what does transform learning, which is great teachers.

Melissa Benn Well, I think money would help.

Sue Street Partly you’re right but I also think money needs to be targeted a little bit more at the wrap round services.

Meaning, for example, after-school homework clubs, provision of extra activities, life-changing activities. I took a group of army cadets out into the middle of West Sussex from central London on a Duke of Edinburgh expedition and it was the first time they had really seen a cow and had to cross a field with a cow [in it]. That is an experience that is actually going to stay with them for life. But boy, did they learn how to be resilient and resourceful, especially when cooking in the rain and those sorts of things. A school can’t afford that. Where also the money needs to be targeted is work with social services in our most vulnerable learners, because trying to get action at a rate that is actually going to do something for that child is virtually impossible. The next thing is we have got generational educational failure. We have got parents who didn’t do very well at school who are actually scared to walk through the door of a school. That is where it becomes so difficult for schools to engage those parents to support their child.

Melissa Benn I think a lot of what you’re saying needs to be done is done in good comprehensives, in good community schools.

But you can’t have schools where only 30% of the pupils are getting five GCSEs A* to C. It’s a signal that something isn’t right.

Melissa Benn Nobody is saying that there aren’t areas where there needs to be improvement. It’s how you improve it. Do you improve it by putting government resources and political energy into setting up new schools outside the maintained sector or do you perhaps find ways where you make the improvements? But you don’t do it outside the common weal.

Local authorities are a very useful central resource for all sorts of things for schools. Is that still going to exist in terms of free schools and academies or is that going to become more and more undermined?

Rachel Wolf I just wanted to raise a couple of things that I’ve come across in the States which I think are very interesting on the teacher effectiveness point. One is around charter schools, which are the model for free schools. The biggest group behind charter schools has been groups of teachers and people in education who have felt often that the public schools in very deprived areas haven’t been approaching things in the right way. These schools are now basically taking over teacher training. And they have incredibly intense feedback groups between schools, videoing principals across schools. They are doing a lot of work analysing their pupil populations and how teaching works best with them. And I think one of the reasons that’s happening is because you have given teachers more freedom to go and set up their schools and do things differently. The other interesting thing is they’ve started trying to measure individual teacher effectiveness. In fact, the LA Times tried to print a list of all of the teachers in the area and how much value-add they were creating. Now there are all sorts of problems with that.

Melissa Benn I think that’s appalling, publishing the names of teachers. I was talking to someone who teaches year six, the Sats year in primary school, and he was saying, “This year I will be deemed a failure as a teacher because I have a completely different class to the one I had last year, which was full of bright, motivated [children from] a more socially mixed class.” So I really think that we have to keep in mind that schools are connected to community and what’s going on in society, and we can’t put it all on the teacher.

Peter Hyman The model that I think will be moved to because they have to, and it may work and may not, is a sort of New York model, where you’ve got a powerful commissioning authority with someone who is genuinely willing to hold the schools to account.

How do we ensure resources are equitable, we’re all measuring the same things and best practice is acknowledged and replicated?

Guy Claxton Teachers as we know from many decades are past masters and mistresses at subverting things that they are told to do, but they don’t buy. You have to get that buy-in. And I think if we get 10, 15 or 20% buy-in in the schools, getting the results by building students who are independent, imaginative and resourceful, then plodding along behind will be central government and policymakers who will design a policy to support it.

Sue Street [We also need] the guarantee that that is not going to change every two years, because that’s another huge thing. It takes two years to even start to embed practice and learning. Because we’re all human. It takes five years in a school to see the results. And if you’re changing every two to three years there is an amount of goodwill that is lost every time something changes. It’d be great if we could get all political parties to agree exactly what we’ve been doing round the table. What are the important things? Let’s write a schemer. Standardisation is what is needed.

Melissa Benn It’s a very interesting idea to draw up common objectives and a broad curriculum. The centralised curriculum was introduced by a Tory government in the late eighties and that was very prescriptive. I would like to see actually a government that was less partisan and less determined just to see its particular project succeed and was more concerned with the whole education. You feel that behind the scenes they just want these 24 schools to succeed. And all governments have done this. From the 1980s onwards they’ve had their particular school that they … you know, the CTCs with the Tories, the city academies, they’ve all had good elements in them, but they’ve been set up against the maintained stock. I’d like to see a national conversation about exciting changes in all schools rather than those of us who are not part of this project being told – look, this is where the future is.

Peter Hyman The two big challenges? One we’ve talked quite a lot about is the curriculum and how we prepare students for the21st century. There’s a big curriculum review going on. And I think everyone who believes in what we’ve said today about skills and attributes has got to get involved because otherwise by default we will potentially go back to a sort of 1950s education, which we don’t want. And the second big challenge is, the bottom 30% of schools. Having worked in a very challenging school, I think few people out there realise quite what a different world it is being in a school in the bottom 10% with the most challenges and the most difficult students, just teaching in a classroom like that where you’ve got up to half the children who either don’t want to be there or can’t sit in one place for more than five minutes. The amount of resources and quality of teaching and leadership required in those schools to lift them up is huge.

Rachel Wolf I think we shouldn’t underestimate the parents. There’s sort of an unpleasant assumption sometimes that “poor” means “disengaged”, and I don’t think it’s true. Over 95% of parents from the poorest backgrounds want their children to be able to go into higher education and yet half of them don’t even get the basic five good GCSEs. That’s a big gap that is not about disengagement. Allowing more diversity provision to find out what works is incredibly important.

Finally, what is the best asset with which to come out of school?

Guy Claxton Open mind and inquisitiveness.

Sue Street Knowing that they don’t know everything but knowing how to find it.

Melissa Benn Informed curiosity.

Peter Hyman The ability to think.

Rachel Wolf Adaptability.

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