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June 2021

May 2021



My attention was recently drawn to the existence of an "Independent Reconfiguration Panel" within the National Health Service (NHS). The Panel's job is to advise on changes in the pattern of NHS service delivery.

I was rather struck by the word "Reconfiguration", and I immediately began to wonder if it might be a useful word to add to the vocabulary of those of us who see the need for a radical rethink on how education works in Britain.

We cannot usefully use the word "reform" to refer to our ambitions because this word has been commandeered to describe the very trends that we oppose. For example, Pasi Sahlberg has coined the term Global Education Reform Movement (or GERM!) to refer to the process of standardisation, curriculum narrowing and fetishisation of testing that has done so much to damage to young people and their education. And the more general term "educational reform" has been used in America to describe similar reductionist failures in their education system, starting with George W. Bush's "No Child Left Behind". So the word "reform" has all the wrong connotations for those with imaginative and far-reaching ambitions for improving education.

Another "re…" word used when referring to educational change is "reclaiming", with several conferences and campaigns in recent years adopting the slogan "Reclaiming Education". But this is also problematic, as it suggests that as long as "we" take back something that "they" have taken from us everything in the world of education will be fine. The Socialist Educational Association has recently made this idea even more explicit with its "Give Us Back Our Schools" campaign. And there seems to be little doubt as to who and what they mean by "us" when their campaign poster talks of a need for "all schools to return to the CONTROL [my emphasis] of democratically run local authorities. This implies that "us/we" must "control" education. Hmm!

But I think that the notion of "reconfiguration" could be useful for those of us with a vision of a radically different approach to education. Dictionary definitions of reconfiguration refer to altering the form of the elements of a system. And we must surely accept that most elements of our current education system do need to be shaken up and rearranged. Imagine the mythical visitor from outer space coming down to earth and taking a close look at British education. They would surely be perplexed by what they saw and would have some searching questions like:

  1. Why are school buildings locked shut for nearly half the days of the year? Why are they the least used of all public facilities? Surely you should use these expensive resources in more imaginative and efficient ways if you kept them open for longer. [See Note 1 below.]

  2. Why does the school day for teenagers start so early in the morning when there is scientific evidence that this is damaging both for their health and their  educational success. Don't you want to optimise their learning? [See Note 2 below.]

  3. Why is a young person's educational success judged by the efficiency with which they memorise, and regurgitate in exams, information which will mostly never again be of use to them after they leave the exam room?

I think that the idea of reconfiguration could be really useful in helping to communicate the magnitude of our ambition for educational change. But I also think that our ambitions need to be far broader than those of the NHS "Independent Reconfiguration Panel". It seems to concern itself with quite limited change, like whether a particular geographical area should have one or two maternity hospitals. But we educators need a far more ambitious and imaginative approach to reconfiguration. Only by implementing such a bold vision can we move to an education system that can do its job of preparing and enabling young people to truly thrive in the 21st century.

Note 1. I wrote about the issue of the scandalous under-use of school buildings back in 2014 in a blog  post entitled Why are schools locked shut most of the time?

Note 2. For evidence about the circadian rhythm of teenagers read this study: Is 8:30 a.m. Still Too Early to Start School? A 10:00 a.m. School Start Time Improves Health and Performance of Students Aged 13–16

Say goodbye to GCSEs - they won't be around for much longer

A year or so ago a neighbour told me of her concerns about her 16-year-old daughter. The girl's ambition to become a vet was in jeopardy because she had failed the maths GCSE exam. That got me thinking about GCSE maths and veterinary medicine. I accept, of course, that a vet must have a certain capability to think scientifically, but does a vet need to be able to solve quadratic equations? Almost certainly she does not. Does a vet need to have memorised the formula for the surface area of a trapezium? Of course not. Does a vet need to understand unique factorisation theorem? Again, no. So just how relevant is the GCSE maths syllabus to the practice of veterinary medicine? That leads to a much broader question: just how relevant is the GCSE maths syllabus to anything that the majority of young people who take the exam might do subsequently in their lives, regardless of the vocational path they might follow?

"Not very" seems to be the answer. And one would surely give the same answer if asked about the relevance for most young people of most of what they are required to commit to memory and regurgitate in GCSE exams generally, not just maths.

Questioning the relevance of GCSE exams is hardly new. The 2004 Tomlinson report proposed a series of radical educational changes, including abolishing both GCSEs and A-levels. (But the Labour Government At the time lacked the courage to implement the Tomlinson proposals.) A few years later the visionary educator Guy Claxton gave a clear explanation in his book What's the Point of School? of the educational damage done by schools focusing on GCSE performance. And a recent poll by the  Association of School and College Leaders of 799 head teachers found that 86% felt that GCSE exams should either be reformed or scrapped. Perhaps most tellingly of all, Lord Kenneth Baker, who introduced GCSEs back in the 1980s, said last year:

"I think that they’ve run their course now. I’m in favour of them not continuing."

With this degree of unanimity it is hard to see how GCSEs can last much longer. The wheels of reform can often grind slowly but I confidently predict that no child currently at primary school in Britain will suffer the nonsense of being obliged to take GCSEs (or any other age-specific standardised exams) at the age of 16, In other words they will be gone by 2026 at the latest.

But what, you may ask, will replace GCSEs? How will we be able to record and report on the capability and achievement of young people? I will answer this question in a future post on this blog, but the good news is that alternative - and much better - systems for assessing capability and achievement already exist, and they have been tried and tested. Where do we find these systems? We just need to open our eyes and look outside the school gates!