Imagine if, instead of exams and grades, educational institutions made learning their mission. Gasp! No exams? How would we know how good people were? How would we know that people were actually learning anything?
Keep that shocked expression. What if, instead of having a fixed school day, the learner decided what they were going to concentrate on each day? I can hear the eyebrows rising. This would surely be chaos? Nobody would ever learn anything.
Let me make a proposal. It is quite radical. At the moment our education system is arranged for the benefit of educators, politicians and, in the case of under-18s, parents. Classrooms and lecture halls are, with a few exceptions, arranged for the benefit of educational professionals. It is their workplace, after all, and, as a socialist, surely I am in favour of workers’ control of their workplace?
Well, yes, I am, but not to the detriment of those we share the workplaces with, especially when those we share with are vulnerable and, in the main, powerless. Let me digress slightly.
When I was a teenager I grew to despise school. I left at 16 and had a succession of poorly paid and low status jobs. I was reintroduced to education through adult education, initially at a brilliant residential college for labour movement activists called Coleg Harlech. Here, education inspired me as we were taught things I was interested in by tutors who treated us as responsible adults. Without this experience, I would never have gone to university or become a lecturer myself. This brings me back to the earlier proposals.
As radical as Coleg Harlech was, (which was in reality not very radical), it still organised education as if they (the tutors) had knowledge and we (the students) were there to have that knowledge poured into us. In some cases that was true. In mine, when I started studying economics, I knew very little, and so much of it was new.
But here’s the rub: Had anybody asked me what I wanted to know, I would have said, “How does the economy work?” After studying economics for two years, I realised that I was no closer to knowing the answer to that question, because the one thing that was not acknowledged was that the models on which neoliberal economics depend are, in many respects, a fantasy. There were lovely diagrams to explain how the economy should work but none that could explain how it actually worked.
The point here is not whether classical economics can explain boom and bust or not? It can’t.
The issue is who decides what should be on the curriculum? I definitely did not. It was the so-called experts. They had studied these canonical texts, in some cases had written them, and were convinced that the next generation of students should study the same, or essentially updated versions of the same texts. There simply was no room for radical diversions from the canon.
If that is the case in economics, it is even more the case in English where the texts to be studied are chosen according to tradition, (Shakespeare, Dickens, TS Eliot) and the momentarily popular (The Hunger Games, Harry Potter).
The 6 texts to be studied collectively in class included JK Rowling, Roald Dahl, and David Walliams. These writers have expressed prejudiced and at times obnoxious views. Are they the ideal role models for our young people? What they are, clearly, are establishment-loved figures.
I was recently introduced to a school called Agora. It is based in Roermond, Netherlands, and was established in 2014. Its philosophy of education is to “redefine the idea of school in the traditional sense, by providing students with the freedom to explore their own passions and provide personalised coaching to help students throughout their learning journey.” There is no set curriculum, there are no regular tests, although in order to maintain their state funding there are end of year exams. There are no teachers, but rather learning coaches, and the learners are given the opportunity to learn at their own pace. The strange thing is: it works.
There is no evidence that young people, when given this freedom, abuse it. The learning coaches have regular meetings to offer guidance, but children essentially devise their own learning journey. The historian Rutger Bregman is a huge fan and says the “.. question is not ‘can our kids handle the freedom?’ The question is ‘do we have the courage to give it to them?’”
The truth is that it is not about courage or the lack of courage, it is that education does not exist in a social vacuum. Education is not, nor has it ever been, primarily about personal development. Its function is to ensure that employers have a pool of people to draw upon who have the skills necessary for their industry.
Does anybody ask school students what they think about school? The largest survey I could find was the Parent, Pupil and Learner Panel which was last published in June 2022. Just over 2,000 students were recruited. The interesting thing is that they were asked how happy they felt generally, but not how they felt about school. An American survey did ask about how ‘High School’ pupils felt about school. In a nationwide survey of 21,678 US high school students, Yale researchers found that most of their days are spent “tired,” “stressed,” and “bored.” It would be nice to believe that those British students with a happiness score of 6.4/10 (on average) were engaged and suffering very little anxiety or stress. Almost one in eight students in the UK survey reported that they were suffering with anxiety or mental health problems. Boredom is a problem for school and university students. It is not just this, but it is partly this, that leads to the high levels of anxiety felt by young people.
The most common reason given to explain these feelings has been Covid and the experience of lockdown. But in 2019 (a year before we had even heard of Covid) MIND reported a survey of over 12,000 young people where three in five young people have either experienced a mental health problem themselves, or are close to someone who has. Almost two in five (38 per cent) said they wouldn’t know where to go to access support and over half (52 per cent) said they would not feel confident approaching teachers for help.
Not everything here is related to the way school life is structured. But bored and anxious young students are clearly not producing their best whilst in school or university. Perhaps the problem is not the educational institution but the system in which that education system sits.
Education remains politically charged because employers and governments want it to serve their needs. And, further to this, employers, politicians and parents agree that, in order to assess how successful education is, constant testing is required.
Education researcher Megan Mansworth has written a successful book ‘Teaching To The Top’ where she makes the following point:
“If we stand in front of our classes and tell our children that they belong to different categories of achievement, that they all have different targets and should be working at different levels, we entrench the idea of pre-conceived ability.”
But whilst Mansworth is sincere in her desire to treat all children the same, the fact is that we live in a competitive system that thrives on creating a few winners and a lot of losers. Kids have been graded long before they enter the classroom. We are not born equal, we are born into different class positions. Those class divisions decide what resources are available to support your education. And that is before we examine the pervasive nature of gender and ethnic divisions.
In such a system good educators will argue for reform. But most educators, most politicians and a fair few parents want to know not just how one individual is doing but how they are doing in relation to others. In essence the answer to my question about whether we could replace exams and grading is “not within a system that has to prepare the vast majority of its citizens for failure”.
The Agora system is successful at flipping the classroom (a phrase popular with educators who rarely see it as anything more than providing video resources). The objection to such a system being more widely implemented is that in a school containing up to 2000 students it would be impractical.
Of course, it might well be, but this is a flavour of a different type of educational experience for the many young people bored rigid by the exam-based system we have now. The problem is that in all honesty we probably need a revolution to change the system to make it function for learners and, even then, educators would no doubt disagree.
Socialist of many years. Former Labour member. Currently presenter of The Socialist Hour.