Sarah Fletcher: our education system is ‘not fit for purpose’

by Chris Jackson

Sarah Fletcher

I would like to conjure two images for you.  The first is of an imaginary workplace of the future:  there is space for quiet working and areas for meetings and collaboration too. There are powerful computers that drive new technologies and leverage augmented reality. Technology to break down geographical divisions is on display, with digital, connected whiteboards to share ideas simply and effectively.

Teams of people, diverse in background and skills, are working together both in person and virtually.  Refreshment is readily available to break up routines, inspire impromptu conversation, seed fresh thoughts, and allow tired brains a rest. There are deadlines to work to, but it is accepted that new ideas can be messy and that there will be risk. It is better to try something and fail early than not to try it at all is the mantra; it helps to avoid unnecessary time waste and cost. There are other rooms too – places of equal importance. They are for those with the technical, computational, or practical expertise to translate ideas into practice, to prototype, and make, iterate and refine. Entrepreneurship is encouraged and valued. Respect is the overriding concern, respect for those you work with and for the wider audience you wish to reach, respect for the environment and for society too. These are the spaces in which problems will be dissected, analysed, and solved and in which the future will be created – where head, hand and heart meet.  

Now we see an exam room: desks separated, rigidly aligned, front-facing. Collaboration is forbidden, breaks are supervised; notes and research are left at the door. Access to the outside world has been disabled with mobile devices confiscated and turned off, watches removed. Only pens, transparent pencil cases and paper can be seen. Those with dispensation to use computers are confined to another room.  The task is strictly timed to suit a fixed approach. An “off day” is not to be countenanced and there is only one chance to get it right. The questions are the same for everyone and the answers are predetermined too, with the highest reward reserved for those who most nearly hit the mark.

The contrast is stark. There is, of course, a place for exams. The ability to work under pressure is important. They can act as a powerful motivator and memory is a muscle we need to learn how to flex. But over the past few years, and in the name of rigour, we have added and added again to the things we must learn and assess. Rote learning has taken root, and stress levels have risen inexorably. The need for mass-produced tests and the chimeric search for “reliable” grades has driven out the open-ended questions that might invite deep thinking, support a growth mindset, and encourage fresh ideas.

We now reward conformity and fixed thinking instead – and at a time when adaptability and initiative are so necessary in the workplace. An algorithm fixes the bell curve of achievement and condemns a third of all students to fail the most basic of requirements in English and maths, a failure that impacts significantly their life chances. The favour given to academic subjects over technical, vocational, creative, and practical skills has disempowered segments of the community and diminished opportunity in precisely those occupations that are so badly needed. The EBacc is much at fault. Its myopic focus on English, maths, science, a language and a humanity has all-but driven out the creative and performing arts, and technology has been another casualty too.

It is time we looked again at those things we value most, the skills we wish to develop, and the knowledge we want to impart. A slimmer curriculum with more open-ended questions and variety in assessed tasks would broaden opportunity for creative, collaborative enquiry, adventure, exploration, and experimentation, and would encourage students with different skillsets to shine. Technology needs harnessing to break down societal, economic and geographic divisions. Investment needs to prioritise those at risk of falling through the cracks. Partnerships between schools, both independent and maintained, with business and industry should be developed and supported.

Meanwhile, teacher training should be advanced to meet the new demands and career development. Adaptive testing and AI could personalise learning to support and address classroom differentiation; digital resourcefulness needs embedding as the fourth “R” in the toolbox of essential skills. The classroom of the future could be an exciting place, rigorous and demanding, collaborative, creative, curious, and individually affirming and rewarding too.If employers increasingly disregard GCSEs and even A-levels as measures of future employability, and feel the need to train new employees in the basics of collaborative and complex problem-solving skills, it is in honest recognition that our current assessment is not fit for purpose in a new and changing world.

The writer is the High Mistress of St Paul’s Girls’ School

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