26 January 2022

The error of a Commission: ‘Learning for the Future’ is the product of an educational echo chamber

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To those of us who work in schools and get excited by such things as the publication of PISA scores, today was a small milestone.

After acres of coverage, online and in print, with endless talking heads telling each other where things have gone so catastrophically wrong in education today, the grandly named Times Education Commission published its interim report, ‘Learning for the Future’.

It has been slow progress so far. The Commission was set up in June 2021 to evaluate, among other things, the impact of the pandemic on young people, as well as (rather more surprisingly) some ‘new understandings of the brain and learning’ that appear to have slipped past most news organisations. This ‘taster’ precedes the final report, which will be published this summer. 

Much of it is predictable stuff. The issues the Commission identifies as problems, and the solutions it offers, are familiar to anyone who has been involved in schools over the last ten years. Granted, there are some new names to consider: Estonia, with its commitment to every child learning robotics, seems to be the new Finland for all those who continue to search for an educational nirvana.

Perhaps we should not be surprised that this interim report fails to provide anything really new or substantial. The Commission’s brief is, well, not really that brief: its chairwoman, Times journalist Rachel Sylvester, admits rather boldly that it is ‘the broadest inquiry into education ever held in Britain’.

And this is part of the problem: any investigation that seeks to evaluate everything from early years education to ‘lifelong learning’ (whatever that is) will be at best unfocused. At worst it will announce new ‘findings’ which apply only to specific contexts (such as Estonia) but are touted as potentially useful for wide, and unsuitable, new contexts (such as the UK).

It is understandable, but not always useful, to pick a school or a school system and say that ‘lessons must be learned’ from it. The silent corridors and ‘warm but strict’ rules in Bedford Free School (established by Mark Lehain, now the Secretary of State’s special advisor) may work there, but may not work in a school next door. The Dutch Agora School is its opposite, emphasising freedom of expression and believing that ‘if a child is happy at school that means they will open up for learning’. But there is no evidence to show this, nor any proof that either school model works. So what do we learn? Nothing.

The inclusion of Agora is telling, however, because if there is a subtext running through the Commission’s report, it is that fashionable new ideas are better than fusty old ones. Cliches abound in service of this idea. We read that the curriculum is ‘outdated’ and our exam system ‘discredited’; we have created ‘an exam sausage machine’ that fails to assess such things as collaborative learning; GCSEs are ‘a relic’ and employers have, apparently, lost faith in exams. Inevitably, the Commission also finds that British students are among the unhappiest in the world (without challenging the OECD’s criteria for measuring such things), and of course, we are stuck in an ‘analogue system during a digital age’.

It’s a theme that is wearyingly familiar to those who have defended the need for a knowledge-rich curriculum underpinned by rigorous testing. It also reads as if the chaos of the last two years, when many of the ‘relics’ were abandoned, never happened. But if Covid has taught us anything, it’s that exams are a much fairer and more reliable than continuous assessment or teacher-assessed grades. 

Familiar names are wheeled out to attack the same old targets: here’s Robert Halfon, Chairman of the Commons Education Committee, rather eccentrically claiming that ‘this is a time for radical thinking, we need to say goodbye to Mr Chips and Tom Brown’s Schooldays and hello to James Dyson’. Dame Alison Peacock, head of the irrelevant Royal College of Teachers, has a go at Ofsted, while other former (or never-been) teachers happily condemn thousands of schools by arguing that everything they do is, ultimately, a failure.

Where’s the evidence, we ask? Well, look at Estonia they reply.

It is an extraordinary achievement to travel for seven months and end up in the same place you set out from, but this is what the Commission seems to have done. Perhaps its Commissioners, very few of whom now work in schools, are not the best guides. Like signposts stuck in the soil they have flourished in, they will point in the same directions they have always urged us to travel: away from knowing ‘stuff’, and on towards learning ‘skills’. These self-proclaimed disruptors almost invariably have received expensive and very conservative educations, and have benefited accordingly. But it is they who argue, endlessly, that schools need to be creative places, without for a moment accepting that our schools already are.

There are still some months to go before the final Times Commission Report is published. Its scope is ambitious and the future of schools and (more intangibly) learning does need to be debated. But essential to learning is having biases and preconceptions challenged. One thing we’ve learned from this brave new world we live in today is that echo chambers are not conducive to self-awareness and objectivity. Hopefully the  Commission will listen to the many voices currently working in schools who don’t believe that ‘progress’ means discrediting the past and rejecting the present. To only see merit in the future means making yourself unqualified to teach the young what they need to learn. Perhaps that’s why commissions write reports and schools teach.

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David James is deputy head of a London independent school.

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