Should education be a matter for politicians?

What a stupid question – of course it should!

Education needs the central guidance of a government that decides with the help of experts, what is best for our children. This model has been shown over the decades to improve the living standards of nations who have committed themselves to educational policies that are initiated by central government policies. This is so self evident that this kind of question should never be asked.

That is certainly what I thought, until I recently read a fascinating book called ‘What’s the Point of School?’ by a British education specialist, Dr. Guy Claxton. Naturally the content has a strong British context, however, I believe the issues are universal. One of his main points is that the British education sector has substantially lost the plot because it is a system that was developed for a completely different mind set and work force. He asserts that the ‘problem’ with education as decreed by British parliament, is that they are trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. Imight not be forgiven for simplifying his argument, but that is not going to stop me trying.

Today’s education was developed and relevant to an industrial revolution that occurred about 150 years ago. Such an education enabled the children of that time to: Read, wRite and do aRithmetic –the so called three ‘r’s. This would allow them to follow written instructions efficiently or indeed to write them. Discipline was strictly maintained because this allowed order to be maintained, which is required if you’re busy in factories manufacturing textiles, steel or ships and consistency and uniformity is the golden prize.

However, it seems evident to Dr. Claxton (and I must say to myself too), that we do not live in that age. We live in an age where things are constantly changing. Where diversity is the norm rather than a uniformity found in production lines. Where life long learning is a fact of life and the only things we can be certain of in the future – is uncertainty.

For an absolutely brilliant version of this thesis check out the amazing video below of a talk given by Sir Ken Robinson on this matter but animated in a fantastic and creative way.

So why is most education around the world focussed on a model that was built for 150 years ago? Well if you believe Dr. Claxton, it is because a revolutionary change needs to occur in the way we do education. Revolution, as most of us understand, is normally an anxious time, sometimes painful and many times not without substantial teething problems. How does this relate to politics?

Politicians on the campaign trail at election time, tend to focus on a few core areas in their efforts to get (re-)elected: health, defence, social welfare and that old war horse – ‘education’. In the UK, I’ve noticed that the most experience or formal training in education that a Minister of Education has had,  is that once they too went to a school as children themselves. Roughly, of the 33 people selected to this position in the UK since the end of WWII, I count two who definitely had education training. Eight of them I’m not sure of but unlikely. The rest not of these eminent men and women have clearly from their published biographies had no training, including today’s incumbent Michael Gove. It is not impossible that a person could be an excellent education minister with no formal training in education, but one would have thought this would be the exception not the norm. 

I suspect however if more Ministers of Education had experience in, or formal training in education, they certainly would be less inclined to chant out clichéd slogans such as ‘think outside the box’, or ‘back to basics’. 

In the UK there tends to be a swing in government educational approaches every time a new party gets elected in. Traditionally the parties from the left favour a more ‘open’ approach to learning but often that gets misinterpreted, by both observers AND by the actual teachers, as essentially an ‘anything goes’; the result appears to be an educational disaster. The parties from the right favour a ‘back to basics’ approach with the idea that ‘if it worked for us then it will certainly work for our children’; the result is a rigidity and incredibly narrow skill set as to make the children redundant before they’ve even had a chance to apply for a job. Talk about a ‘lose-lose’ situation. 

So it was with some predictability that I read in a UK newspaper that the new Conservative Party’s (right wing) manifesto is going to ‘reform’ education but in fact it’s simply a variation of ‘back to basics’. Of course now that they’ve been elected after more than a decade of the Labour party (left wing), the education sector is of course undergoing a fundamental change that has more to do with winning votes, rather than actually reforming education with the revolution that Dr. Claxton is referring to.

Despite this, I still believe that education should be a matter for politicians. If the UK wants to avoid Dr. Claxton’s  continued negative evaluation of its educational programmes, then their politicians should avoid stating educational concerns as merely a campaign slogan. They must instead have the courage to stand up and announce that education today is a different beast from that brought about by the industrial revolution of 150 years ago. They might be able to help this cause considerably if those that are selected to be the Ministers of Education were actually trained in, or have a professional concern in formal education before they are awarded this important portfolio.

My hope is that the movers and shakers in the respective education ministries around the world would read Dr. Claxton’s book and consider to what extent they maybe guilty of the same charge of having an education system that that is out of date but is being implemented in our new world of globalisation, rapid change and a transition from traditional to modern living. Here at the Multiple Intelligence School we've adopted the motto of thinking we can jump ahead of countries such as the UK in our educational reforms. After all why wait?

Education is a progressive discovery of our own ignorance.  -Will Durant