It is disadvantaged children who suffer most from the failures of our education systems.
If you are from a relatively wealthy family then you have the resources to make-up for any deficiencies in your schooling. In many independent schools, academic performance is a basic assumption to the point where it may even be deemphasised. We can all find examples of such schools advertising their ‘mindfulness’ interventions or emphasising inquiry learning, field trips and community work. The message is clear: Don’t worry, we’re not just about exams.
When translated to state schools in areas of deprivation, however, these approaches cannot draw upon a solid academic base. Look at the example of Knowsley with its hi-tech, open plan learning spaces. Despite open-plan learning having a long, tragic history of failure, the well-intentioned folk who designed it in to a new generation of schools really thought that they were touching the future. This is where the rhetoric gets ahead of the reality. State school officials listen to the heads of top boarding schools – amongst others – talk about the latest educational fad or fashion and they think ‘we’ll have some of that.’
E D Hirsch reminds us that many of the most disadvantaged students tend to move school frequently as their parents seek work. This is part of the rationale for the common curriculum that he proposes: If a student leaves at the end of term 1 in one school, she may pick up where she left off at the start of term 2 in her new school. Unfortunately, school systems have no such coherence, even in countries that notionally have a common curriculum. Too much is left to interpretation. This is one of the reasons that students who move schools frequently do not achieve as well in national tests.
When we talk about education, we need to focus on the needs of those who lack the most. Many innovations make a nice-looking decoration to add to the top of a solid, academic education but they cannot substitute for it. It is a sad misdirection to think otherwise. If we want to improve school systems then we need to focus first on ensuring that classrooms are orderly and safe environments and that all students are taught how to read.