6 June 2023

Spare us Bear Grylls and his self-serving nonsense about schools


Another day, another celebrity accusing schools and teachers of failing the children they teach.

The latest in a long line of B-list celebs to show, once again, that a lack of experience and evidence should never stop you sharing your ideas with others, is Bear Grylls. Grylls, who somehow manages to combine being an adventurer, a chief scout and a leading educationalist, tells us that modern education is ‘boring’ and (inevitably) does not prepare our young people for ‘the real battles in life’. For his latest documentary, Grylls has bravely brought together other leading educationalists such as Courteney Cox, Julia Roberts and Roger Federer to show all those students currently taking their GCSEs and A levels of just how pointless their years of work has been.

Instead of learning to read, write, do maths, learn a language, study science, draw, play music or play a team sport, these students would have been better prepared for that niche existence beyond Hollywood and elite tennis by learning what Grylls calls the ‘sort of skills that really matter in life…attitudes, relationships, and skills’. His answer to the failings of national school systems is to get people to watch more of his ‘inspirational films’. No vested interest there and, yes, Bear, more screen time is exactly what’s missing in most teenagers’ lives.

Ever since I started teaching over 20 years ago teachers have been told they are about to become redundant, that what they teach is archaic, their methods utilitarian, the skills they try to develop in their students outdated and no longer suited for the modern age. Whether it was Ken Robinson arguing that dance should feature as much as maths in the school day, or Sugatra Mitra arguing, in all seriousness, that all a child needs to learn is a laptop with a reliable WiFi connection to forge ahead in their education. Or more recently, Luis von Ahn, the founder of Duolingo (who may also have a vested interest) predicting that AI will, eventually, replace teachers altogether.

For decades the same predictions of doom, of analogue skills being taught for a digital future. And yet, here we are, and the children I taught Dickens and Shakespeare are now working in AI, or in law, medicine, marketing, academia, and even in journalism…old school skills somehow, magically, proving no hindrance to today’s (and tomorrow’s) economy.

And all the time you have endless newspaper columnists, from both the left and the right, basically recycling the same arguments over and over again: namely, that our schools are exam factories, run along Gradgrindian lines, producing unthinking automata, taught by inadequate, unimaginative teachers who either deliberately, or unknowingly, ensure that those they teach are sent into the world completely unprepared for the challenges ahead. As Daisy Christodoulou has shown in her consistently brilliant analyses of schools today, every cliché that supports the specious claims made by self-appointed experts is outdated at best and fallacious at worst.

Stop for a moment and consider a common thread running through the arguments made by Grylls and others. Not only are they consistent (they rarely have the imagination to think of new ideas, beyond attaching to them a new fad like ChatGPT), but they are also persistent: they survive like an intellectual infestation, resisting all evidence-based attempts to disinfect them from the debate about the future of education.

Fundamentally, these positions have in them a deep-seated dislike not just of schools, but also of teachers.  And yet, like Grylls, and those who echo his ‘disruptive’, ‘progressive’ or ‘child-centred’ views, they know that to accuse teachers, outright, of being culpable in this failing system would lose them a few thousand followers on Twitter and perhaps another op-ed piece in The Guardian. If only Grylls was really brave: if only he could speak with the courage of his convictions, because you can’t say that everything about a system, or an organisation, is failing while keeping in place the people who run them.

We need to stop school shaming: we need to see that in education, perhaps more than in many walks of life, evidence – knowing what works and why – is fundamental to teaching. Children only get one shot of school. Nothing is more high stakes than that, not even wrestling with crocodiles in southern Africa.

Teaching is a difficult job that would be impossible if we actually gave credence to the snake oil salesman (and women) from Palo Alto and Hollywood who seek to re-shape education based on nothing more than their own prejudices and unfounded ideas. The next time you hear someone saying that our schools are exam factories and our children lack the skills for the 21st century ask them, simply, this: name the school that does this, and show me the child you are talking about. You will be met with the silence of the unmasked charlatan.

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David James is Deputy Head of an independent school.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.