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A vision for education in the teenage years 
Guest blog by Terry Loane*

Politicians and professional educators rarely seem to agree on very much. So it is remarkable that in recent years there has been a growing consensus among everyone from senior conservative politicians to academics and teachers that schools in this country have a narrow exam-focused curriculum that does not promote the development of the sorts of skills and relationship with knowledge that young people need if they are to thrive in the world of today and tomorrow. As evidence of this, just consider the following two statements. Kenneth Baker (who was Secretary of State for Education when GCSE exams were introduced in 1988) said this about GCSEs last year“I think that they’ve run their course now. I’m in favour of them not continuing.” Speaking a few years earlier, Guy Claxton, Professor of the Learning Sciences at Bristol University, dismissed the validity of conventional exams when he said “Everyone knows that the kind of performance required is about accurate retention and regurgitation. But the demand for those skills is now pretty low in the marketplace.”

Something important is, however, missing from this emerging consensus about the need to get rid of GCSEs and other age-specific standardised exams. What is absent is any clear vision of what education during the teenage years might look like once we have ditched GCSEs and the narrow curriculum that they encourage schools to adopt.  What follows is an attempt to outline a positive vision of a system of education fit for 21stcentury teenagers.

The starting point for a vision of teenage education must surely be to acknowledge that by the time young people reach the age of 13 they are very, very different from each other in terms of their interests, capabilities and needs. It is therefore inexcusably crass to group them together according to chronological age and then to impose a narrow, fixed, information-based curriculum on each age-cohort. We need a far broader and more flexible educational offer if we are to cater for the significant individual differences between teenagers. 

And this broader and more flexible approach must acknowledge the key importance of those educational activities that have sometimes been referred to as ‘extra-curricular’, ‘co-curricular’, or ‘non-academic’. These labels are all rather dismissive of activities that are too often regarded as optional extras, the first to be discarded when the system is stressed by exam neurosis or funding cuts. 

Yet it is clear that the attributes that employers are increasingly looking for– and that are needed more generally in the 21stcentury – are precisely those that are developed by these extended curricular activities. Resilience, commitment, communication, collaboration, reflection and empathy all develop as a result of involvement in sport, musical performance, drama, outdoor activities, debating clubs, residential weekends etc. etc. 

Developing a broader, more flexible and more total approach to teenage education requires a radically different approach to the mechanics of schooling. In the next blog post I will explain how this might work in practice.

* Terry Loane recently retired after an unusually varied career in education. He has taught people at every age and stage of learning from pre-school children to apprentices and higher education students. During the later years of his career his main focus was the development and use of digital technology to enhance learning. Terry’s current blog is Beyond the Ramshackle Hodgepodge.

Rethinking Assessment

Colin Johnson – I listened recently to an online talk: “Assessment – the silent killer of learning”.  This clever title sums up a fundamental problem.  In striving for objectivity we use only simple ways of checking a student’s knowledge and understanding, so we drive our teachers into ‘teaching to the test’.  Yet we claim that an education is about much more than memorising facts and ideas; it’s also about citizenship, teamwork, creativity, personal fulfilment and so on.  Profiling and giving credit for these attributes is a much more complicated challenge.

The move to ‘context-based’ questions in exams is a worthy attempt to set school learning within an everyday setting, but what happens in practice?  In order to explain the context, the questions themselves are much longer.  Candidates are presented with a new barrier: the need to wade through a lengthy preamble. So the assessment is no longer a test of what they have learned about the topic, but a test of their success in navigating the contextual information.

These and many other issues are longstanding challenges to reliable and valid assessment of what is learned in school, to say nothing of that wider range of personal skills and qualities that – in the words of one wag – are “what remains when you have forgotten everything that you were ever taught”.   

This mini-blog is by way of a trailer for our free event on 22 February which is ‘selling’ fast.  Join us if you can!

Gerald Puttock – Just one of the adverse effects of the pandemic is the situation of so many people who, very often through no fault of their own, are unemployed and looking for a new job. More …

Circle of Education
Gerald Puttock – There is a need for the separate stages of education (pre-school, primary, secondary, etc.) to work more closely together with their neighbours in order for it to become one seamless learning journey – a Circle of Education®. More …

Do we really need exams?
Colin Johnson – Covid has thrown many educational challenges at us – not least in questioning the sanctity of school examinations.   As I write, there is a serious suggestion from some university vice-chancellors and a major teaching union that in 2021 A-level results should again be based on teacher assessment.  More …

Tertiary education
Prof. Dan Davies – The news over the summer that the UK government is planning to re-vamp higher technical education along German lines – together with the muddle over A-level grades and the scrapping of the 50% university participation rate target – might lead us to believe that we are at the dawn of a new era of valuing skills on a par with academic qualifications. More …

Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)
Dr Alison Shaw – At the Society for Total Education we believe in the development and recognition of the full range of a person’s potential. ACEs are damaging that potential and are preventing children from thriving into adulthood. More …