Dear Mr Michael Gove,
I am writing to add my name to the 23,000 other UK citizens who have already asked you to re-examine your proposal for a move from the current UK GCSE and A-Level examination and curriculum system to a new Ebacc system.
A system that chooses to examine only stem subjects – maths, sciences, languages and humanities. Ignoring, demoting and in time, due to the current teach-to-test and league-table centred culture, eroding the teaching of other subjects such as sport, technology and the arts. In-turn creating less opportunity for students to engage in and excel at these subjects (for which the UK is known and respected), and creating second-class identities for those who excel at such subjects.
A system that wishes to return to final examination testing, ignoring the vocational and modular forms of assessment that enable those with a more practical leaning, less keen memory skills, or learning difficulties (or as I prefer, learning differences) a more equal chance of competing. Such assessment changes can not fail to add to the teach-to-test culture and spoon-feeding methods that are creating a swathe of school-leavers less able to think for themselves, work as part of a team, and lacking in social skills and common sense.
A system that would re-introduce bell-curve marking to remove the ‘problem’ of grade inflation, causing tensions, dissuading collaboration and removing the hope and motivation that excellence is possible for all with hard work and persistence.
A system that reverts to the sink or swim, wheat or chaff, left over right brain, and academic over other forms of intelligence biases of the past.
Having raised the above concerns with the proposed new system. I do, however, see merit in the idea of pairing contrasting but complementary humanities with sciences or mathematics subjects for study at A-Level standard. As education history; current successful multidisciplinary courses like the Stanford d-School; and trends such as biomimicry (the appliance of nature observed solutions to design and manufacturing) illustrate; the convergence of disciplines and skills allows for the cross-pollination of ideas, creating enhanced solutions to problems and developing industry fit ‘T-shaped’ personalities with an in-depth skills plus a breadth of knowledge.
However, I strongly believe that ignoring and eroding the arts in this balance both at A-level and GCSE level shows a lack of understanding of the value and need for creativity in industry fit education leavers. So, let me outline some of the merits of these excluded subjects:
Firstly, creative analytical and problem-solving skills (the ability to probe a brief and identify the right question to answer; to constantly ask how we might do something differently; to look at problems, systems and organisations in isolation and as part of a system; and to continually observe human behaviour to find and meet unmet needs) are extremely valuable in industry. Needed for innovation and resilience, they can be used by all professionals to, create competitive advantage for their organisations, enhance strategic decision-making and to tackle growing societal and environmental challenges in many fields.
Secondly, creative pursuits lead to improved soft skills, a skill-set that many organisations find lacking in education leavers and current employees. In increasingly complex times the ability to listen, to communicate well, to analyse, to see things differently and through the eyes of others, to question, to be self-confident and motivated, and to generate novel and useful solutions to problems are valuable for the workforce and for enlightened and active members of the community.
And, thirdly, the curiosity driven and autonomy fuelled pursuit of sports, technology and the arts give individuals the confidence and ability to question and challenge the status quo, and the belief that they can make an impact and create change in the world around them, allowing them to be a part of the solution.
In conclusion, as Sir Ken Robinson stresses, the UK has moved on from a manufacturing economy to a knowledge economy – an economy whose businesses require the additional skills of innovation and creativity. However, our education system has failed to move-on too.
In this time of continual change, of low-job security, rapid technology innovation, booming populations, reduced resources, financial crisis, global tensions, and increasing social and environmental problems; we must find a way to produce education leavers fit for purpose. We need individuals who can enter our workforce able to adapt to change, to fail fast and bounce back even faster, to empathise and collaborate, to seek out challenges and needs, to problem-solve, to challenge the status-quo, and to imagine a strive for a better tomorrow.
Is the suggested education reform going to produce such individuals? To me the answer is no.
So, Mr Gove, I implore you to re-think this new system. And, if all else fails to read Sir Ken Robinson’s 1999 white paper ‘All Our Futures: Creativity, Culture and Education’. A paper commissioned by the UK government, which highlighted the need for creativity in the education system for our future economic (and I would add societal and environmental) prosperity.
Hannah, I agree that Mr Gove’s plans for our education system are regressive, but I also believe that some things were done better in the past. The current teaching (or rather non-teaching) of history, for instance, is deplorable, whilst standards in spelling, punctuation and grammar are undeniably worse in today’s school leavers than in the 1970s’ equivalent class. I also personally think that giving GCSE students multiple choice questions is a mistake, as it is far less challenging (and therefore teaches them less) than having to formulate and write a coherent answer for themselves! That being said, I entirely agree with your points about the need to encourage empathy and critical thinking in school-age children and to foster creativity and innovation. Business is certainly in need of those abilities, as is society… but could the lack of these skills have more to do with our consumer culture of have-it-now, pay-for-it-later than with the education system? Buying more stuff for ‘me’ can’t do much for empathic development, and it is often in times of dearth rather than times of plenty that people are most resourceful and creative. ‘Necessity is the mother of invention’, they say, and I have to agree. Be very interested to hear more from you on the subject though!
What’s the use of education? If we believe that its purpose is to train people to contribute to economic growth then the pursuit of STEM teaching is, at first blush, a good strategy. That sort of growth is rhetorically predicated on the idea of technological innovation and technological innovation is, of course, a logical consequence of teaching STEM, so teaching STEM results in economic growth. Education of this type is a type of bondage in that it forces the individual to do the will of the state, with no recourse to alternatives that may be more pleasing or useful to the individual.
In contrast a liberal education, or education for its own sake, works to emancipate the individual by allowing him or her to grow and develop in a way that is most fit for them, whether or not this is aligned with the will of the state. These personal interests may well be in opposition to those of the state, causing no end of problems, or so it may seem, in any society that is not fully open and tolerant.
Of course, these extremes are caricatures, but serve to emphasise the point that dogmatically adhering to a pedagogy that either a dictatorial or a truly democratic society would demand can lead to ludicrous consequences: slaves to the state, or down with the state.
A ‘T-shaped’ education, as you note, is a good compromise: deep expertise in a subject with a sensitivity to context. But it has to go further. The stem of a productive STEM education is imagination and imagination is cultivated by exposing the individual to diverse things, from the beauty of nature to the horror of war to the technological and ethic progress of Star Trek to the warmth of friendship or the loneliness of bereavement.
There is no excuse for teaching STEM or arts on their own. We cannot describe the world in the richness it deserves by telling a portion of the story. Teach everything.
from today’s Guardian: interview with Eton headmaster Tony Little: