We Must Break the Production Line Metaphor of Education

August 28, 2022

Thursday was a big day in the Driscoll household: my sons got their GCSE results. I’ll not embarrass them by stating their results, but my 16 year old is off to sixth form to do his A-levels. My fourteen-year-old worked out that if he blitzed a few subjects early, he’d have more free time for other things. I think that warrants a merit in initiative.

Along with thousands of other parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles across the country I was proud of what my kids achieved. And grateful for everyone who helped: it takes a village to raise a child.

The essence of childhood should be joy. Education should be about discovery. But for many kids, probably most, exams are a source of stress. Those who’ve not the grades they hoped for will be coping with disappointment. Or worse still, not coping.

What would an anthropologist from another planet make of our education system? Twelve years at school gets boiled down into a set of numbers from 9 to 1. Or A* to E, in old money. Grades get analysed. Published in league tables. Statistical comparisons made in press articles.

“Why do you have this obsession with individually ranking children?” our alien would ask. “Why don’t you measure whether the kids are healthy? Or happy?” Even if you believe the sole objective of public education is to prepare kids to be efficient work units, you should measure the really important things, like whether they can collaborate and work well in a team. Or be self-directed.

And most bizarrely, in all the discussion about education, no one talks to the children. Childhood is not a preparation for life. It is life. Sacrificing the joy of childhood for some promised economic future is self-defeating.

When I was at school, we were told a story that if you worked hard and did well at school, you’d get a job, and a house, and be better off than your parents. If you had a degree, you’d have a good career. Kids today don’t believe you. And they’re not wrong. You’re better off with a degree, but it’s no guarantee of a job. Or that you’ll be able to pay your rent, your energy bills and save up to buy a home. You could be paying-back your education until well after you’ve got kids of your own.

Public education is a political football. League tables. Changing the curriculum. “Back to basics.” “In my day, we learned the 3 Rs.” Or as Michael Gove insisted, we can’t have kids learning foreign authors like John Steinbeck. Yet oddly, Greek and Roman classics were okay. I like both.

What never gets examined is the actual basics of education. That’s the relationship between the teacher and the learner. Teaching is not a delivery system. There never will be some perfect formula of “knowledge” to be downloaded into young minds.

Children have a vast appetite for learning. We don’t need to teach kids to speak. Or to use mobile phones. Children, like adults, learn more from observation and imitating others than from following instructions. And the most important skill anyone can master is how to form productive relationships with other people. That hasn’t changed since we were hunter gatherers, and it won’t change in future.

Every child has feelings, motivations, interests, aspirations, passions, ambitions. The proper role for politicians in education is not to dictate, or legislate, or direct. It is to empower education professionals to have better teaching and learning relationships with their students.

To get this shift in education, and the willingness to fund it properly, requires winning the argument and telling the Little Englanders a harsh truth. The world they pine for has gone. And it’s not coming back.

If they’re lucky, a child leaving school today will retire in 2074. How do we educate our children to take their place in that future, given we don’t know what will happen with our economy next year?

We must break the production line metaphor of education. Our kids will need independence, self-awareness and interpersonal skills to solve the problems we’ve left them. And the best way to foster that, is to keep the joy in learning.