Opinion - Talks

Reimagining schools at the Battle of Ideas

I spoke on the Reimagining schools panel at the Battle of Ideas festival, which took place in Westminster on Saturday 9th and Sunday 10th October. My introductory comments are reproduced below:

Pandemic or no pandemic, I think it’s always worth asking could schools be done differently? Could be they be done better? There’s still plenty of scope to experiment – we’ve hardly exhausted all the possibilities.

But the sorts of schools we imagine will be shaped by our answer to the question – what do we think schools are for?

And people have been grappling with that question ever since education came into being, ever since civilisations evolved beyond the struggle for mere survival and people had choice about what to teach. One answer has been what the Ancient Greeks called a liberal education – which has taken many forms over the centuries but in essence involves passing on what we know about the world – the best that has been thought and known, no less. Or, perhaps, a ‘broad and balanced curriculum’, to coin a phrase.

Why? Because such knowledge is interesting in its own right, it enriches our lives, helps us get a better purchase on the world.

But, you might object – learning stuff for the sake of it is a luxury, an indulgence. Why should schools teach children stuff they don’t need to know? And that’s true – that’s what makes a ‘liberal education’ liberal, it’s what we learn in our free time, in the broadest sense of the phrase. The free time for children to be educated, as opposed to working up a chimney for a living. This idea is actually encoded rather beautifully in the word ‘school’ – which derives from the Ancient Greek word for ‘leisure’.

But this leisure, this unnecessary aspect of education is more than an indulgence, it’s what creates possibilities, it’s what enables us to see beyond the immediate. It’s what has made space for the intellectual and material breakthroughs that have moved society forward and created more freedom and free time for us all.

But this liberating potential of education is also unnerving. We don’t know where it will take us. It comes with no guarantees. It’s a leap of faith, in people and what they will do with knowledge. Do we have that faith? Those who don’t, inevitably try to control and direct education.

Knowledge liberates

To give a historical example which has some bearing on the present – in the 18th century, thousands of charity schools were set up by church leaders and businessmen who were worried about the lax morals of the poor. These schools had deliberately limited aims – teach the 3Rs for Bible reading, and no more – in order to prepare children to take up their predetermined role in life with cheerfulness and humility, blissfully ignorant of what was denied to them. ‘Know your place’. Social mobility – not wanted, thank you very much.

But even that was too liberal for some – who thought that children were being taught useless and dangerous knowledge. What was needed instead were workplace skills – sound familiar? So, workhouse schools were set up where children would learn skills like gardening, carpentry, cobbling, spinning, and sewing. No reading or writing. And the results of their labours could be sold for profit. Everybody’s happy.

Yet – it turned out there was no demand for the output the children produced, and the schools were a failure. The demand was actually for the children who had been taught those supposedly useless 3Rs in the charity schools, to help with bookkeeping and commerce, and this enabled some of them to make the leap to the middle classes. A salutary lesson – our convictions about what society needs are limited by our imagination and they’re often wrong.

And that was only the beginning of the profound changes in society the charity schools and later, full blown liberal education, inadvertently set in motion. You can read in my article on Frances Mary Buss about the role those played in transforming education for girls and opening up career routes for women that were previously thought off limits.

An illiberal education

Now, we’ve come a long way since then – but the desire to direct education to narrow ends is still with us today. People may not say ‘know your place’ any more, but instead we have the mantra of Diversity keeping people in their boxes.

And while there’s no doubt that society faces urgent and serious problems that need addressing – teaching children to become climate activists or anti-racists or whatever other cause you might favour is using them for political ends. However well intentioned, it’s not education.

And yes we have a skills crisis, but the answer is not to teach children shallow vocational skills which will be redundant by the time they try to find a job.

The irony is the more we focus on the skills and knowledge we think young people need, the more we narrow the possibilities. That’s an illiberal education.

And that’s what many of the calls to reimagine schools amount to. When actually what we could do with is a more open-ended and imaginative attitude towards the future – and more schools that embrace the liberating power of education.

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