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November 2022

Two glimmers of hope?

HalfonCornrows

It is difficult to feel optimistic during this period of uniquely chaotic and dishonest politics here in our (allegedly) united kingdom. In particular, it is difficult to feel optimistic about education when so many thinkers, educators and even politicians have reached consensus on the urgent need to rethink how we educate young people – yet NOTHING CHANGES.

But I offer two items from recent news that might, just might, offer some grounds for hope that sense might prevail and some of the out-of-date assumptions that plague schooling might finally be ditched:

  1. Robert Halfon has been brought back into government as an education minister. One of the few things that has provided grounds for political optimism regarding education has been that in recent years a growing number of senior politicians, including Conservatives, have been openly critical of our current exam system and narrow, inflexible curriculum. Former Secretary of State for Education Kenneth Baker, recently wrote “I introduced GCSEs in the 1980s – but now it’s time to scrap them”; former Conservative minister Nick Boles referred to the present education system as "a ramshackle hodgepodge” (a statement that inspired the title of this blog); and Robert Halfon, who was until recently Chair of the Education Select Committee wrote last year in an article entitled “Assessment - time for a rethink?”:

    "Recent survey findings from the Edge Foundation found that 92% of parents and 95% of teachers want education to help their children develop a range of skills like critical thinking, creative problem solving and communication. Amongst young people aged 14 to 19, 84% feel that schooling needs to be more flexible… Employers have been calling loudly for this change too… This is not simply about throwing out GCSEs … it is about a broad and balanced portfolio offering rigorous knowledge, intellectual breadth and the skills that students need to access jobs and opportunities."

    I have long said that the only people who still believe in the narrow exam-focused curriculum that we currently have in our schools are members of the Conservative Government. So I was delighted that following Robert Halfon’s appointment last week we have at least one government minister who is on record as having called for a broader, more up-to-date and more relevant approach to education.
  1. School uniform policies that ban Afro hair are ‘likely to be unlawful’  We would not dream of refusing medical treatment or access to public transport to a young person just because they are wearing jeans or have their hair in cornrows. So why on earth should we deprive them of education because they refuse to conform to arbitrary rules about what they wear and how they style their hair? I suggest that schools’ obsession with controlling clothing and hairstyles (aka ‘uniform policies”) has two historical origins. Firstly, the British tradition of schooling has its roots in Christian religious practices, and religious institutions have always used rules about hairstyles and clothing as a means of control. And secondly, there is a long tradition of pseudo-militaristic approaches to discipline within British schools, and the military also feel the need to control clothing and hair. The recent statement by the Equality and Human Rights Commission that “discriminating against pupils… because of their hair may have a negative effect on pupils’ mental health and wellbeing” is, of course, just a tiny chink in the armour of senseless uniform policies, but at least it is a start, a tiny step in the direction of a more civilised and respectful approach to how schools treat young people.

But am I perhaps being over-optimistic in suggesting that these two recent developments might augur well for the future of education in this country?

Images: The images of Robert Halfon and of the young women with cornrows are both believed to be in the public domain.