Comprehensive, creative and democratic: my three wishes for education

With another national teacher’s strike looming next week, I’ve been pondering a lot about just what is wrong with our education system at the moment. As a former teacher, a governor and a parent, I fully support the difficult decision NUT members have made to strike. Of course a strike will cause disruption, but with the rhetoric often levelled against teachers in the press it’s easy to forget that ultimately the people who will suffer in a dysfunctional system are our children. Teachers who are overworked, undervalued and disillusioned will not be able to provide the education our children need and deserve. As the professionals at the frontline of Gove’s misguided reforms, society needs to trust teachers when they say that things are not OK in our nation’s schools – and to support them in the face of the bullies who are powering on regardless.

However as well as thinking about everything that is going wrong with the education system under the Tories’ guard, we mustn’t forget to hold on to our core beliefs about how our education system should be. It’s all too easy to get caught up in the minutae, particularly when any time to think is being eroded at an ever-increasing rate. Every teacher I know entered the profession with a philosophy that guides the choices they make in and beyond the classroom and keeps them focused on what’s really important. It would be a sad day indeed if, when teachers finally feel able to raise their heads above the parapet, they realise that the barrage Gove has unleashed upon the profession has eroded those core beliefs that led them into the classroom in the first place.

With this in mind, I’ve revisited my own philosophy of teaching and condensed it into three wishes for education: three core things which I believe if we could find a way to encompass would create a system fit for our young people and the futures they will carve for themselves and for society.

I wish our education system could be:

1) Comprehensive

I am a staunch supporter of comprehensive education: a system which rises above the divisions and inequalities in our society. As a teacher (and now as a governor), I gravitated towards schools that were called comprehensive, but the problem with our current system is that no school can truly call itself that.

Whilst we have a system that includes private schools and grammar schools – and increasingly a confusing patchwork of options which chip away at the comprehensive ideal in different ways – then the schools that are left are missing vital sectors of society. In order to have a system that everyone – particularly the most powerful and influential – is invested in, we need everyone to be a part of it.

I have made no secret of the fact that I went to private school – and have written about why I wish I hadn’t. Many people I speak to dismiss the idea that we could get rid of private schools in this country as naive. Perhaps it is, but it isn’t without precedent. The much-revered education system in Finland has no private schools – they were abolished in the 1970s – and its achievements come from a focus on equity rather than excellence. Public figures from Warren Buffett to Alan Bennett have called for the abolition of private schools to promote social justice. If Gove was really serious about the gap between rich and poor in this country being “morally indefensible”, then I would have thought private schools should be the first thing to go.

Personally I wouldn’t stop there though – in order for our system to be truly comprehensive I’d get rid of grammar schools too. There are only 164 of them anyway, against over 3000 secondary schools in total, and they are concentrated in particular geographic areas where they undermine the comprehensive system: heaping pressure on parents to try to do the right thing by their children and skewing the intake and results of schools that do not select by ability.

And whilst on the subject of ability, I’d actually go one step further in my quest for a truly comprehensive system and, as Finland has done, outlaw setting by ability even within schools. The damage it causes to the aspirations and self-esteem of children consigned to bottom sets is indefensible, and evidence collected over thirty years indicates that, counter to popular opinion, it actually damages pupils’ achievement.

Our schools should obviously be places of academic learning, but they are about so much more than that too: by making them truly comprehensive we could begin to build a better society from the outset.

2) Creative

The second foundation of my ideal education system would be creativity: not just in the curriculum, but underpinning the system as a whole.

Particularly at the moment, with the sidelining of arts subjects in the secondary curriculum as a result of the now-defunct EBacc, school seems to be a journey away from creativity for young people. As pre-school children their minds are open and alert to a multitude of ways of seeing and interacting with the world, but for many as they move through the exam factory their minds are narrowed. This is of concern not only for the creative industries: as the human race faces increasingly complex challenges, creative thinking is key to find solutions to the new problems we face.

So much of what Gove seems to want to do to the curriculum is backward looking: a return to a 1950s education stuffed with facts at the expense of learning. We need to encourage our young people to think, not just to regurgitate, if they are ever going to be well equipped for their futures: futures which in reality we know close to nothing about.

This space to think is a privilege that should be extended to our teachers and school leaders, too. No-one is saying that our schools were perfect before Gove came along, but education professionals need to be give the time and professional autonomy to creatively develop a system that really works. There is a wealth of research that can be drawn on to encourage this, and teachers should be encouraged to do their own research too to find out what helps their students in their classrooms. I was lucky enough to engage in such research whilst completing my Master of Teaching qualification, and it was incredibly powerful for my motivation and sense of pride in my work – something which all our teachers deserve.

Teachers don’t need to be told how to do their jobs by the government any more than young people need to be told what to think by their teachers. A system built on creativity would allow all stakeholders space to grow.

3) Democratic

The third thing that I believe should be at the heart of education is democracy – again both within and beyond the classroom, for pupils and teachers alike.

I believe in child-centred learning. Not in the unfocused, wishy washy way that has recently been denigrated in the media, but in a way that puts the child at the centre of their learning experience and structures an appropriate learning journey around them. There are a myriad of ways that this approach can manifest itself in schools: from getting students’ input into policies and procedures, from enlisting their help in planning schemes of learning, or simply by providing them with projects where the outcomes are not set in stone but can be crafted by their interests. Even better are approaches where young people’s learning can be rooted in projects whose impact is felt beyond the school gates, helping them see that their efforts really can bring about change in their communities.

For so many young people, there is so little about their lives they can control. In our schools we should teach them that what they do does matter, that they can have a positive impact on themselves and society by the choices they make.

Teachers and school leaders too need to feel that they are part of a democracy. There is not much worse for morale than feeling like your voice doesn’t count, and yet this is the reality for the majority of professionals in education under Gove’s regime.

Of course in all of this someone is going to have the final say: but everyone benefits from listening to the people who are really affected by what happens in our education system, and very few do if they are silenced.

So there you have it: I wish for an education system that is comprehensive, creative and democratic because I believe that is what is best for our young people and for our society. When you think about the teachers striking on Wednesday, remember that they too will have strongly held beliefs that are at the core of what they do, however much the government and the media may try to represent their actions as selfish and narrow minded. And if you are a teacher, or a parent, or in fact anyone with an interest in education, I’d love to hear your ideas too. What are your three wishes for education? How can we create a system that will work – now and for the future?

Thank you to Sara at ‘Mum turned Mom’ who inspired this post with her prompt: ‘If I had three wishes…”


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21 thoughts on “Comprehensive, creative and democratic: my three wishes for education

  1. 3arn0wl

    🙂 ✔A+

    In terms of democracy, I think education ought to be run by a pedague heavyweight, rather than a lightweight Prime Ministerial appointee. To that end, I’d scale back the DfE and Ofsted severely and in place have a college of teachers, whose managers are elected by teachers:
    I think the curriculum is probably too rigid too – I’d like to see a system where students can follow their interests and talents in a well thought-through way. To this end, again, it’s teachers who ought to be in control of curriculum contents, not a secretary of state, and certainly not the unaccountable exam boards:
    I couldn’t agree with you more on the issue of Comprehensive education. Some of the best teaching practice I’ve seen has been in schools in difficult circumstances (and vice versa too).
    It’s way past time to value the teacher & way past time to empower the learner.

    1. sophieblovett Post author

      It is frustrating that education policies are so oversimplified, being used as a political pawn by people who really have no idea what they’re talking about – and then accuse teachers of ‘dumbing down’! I guess the problem with really empowering teachers and learners is that they’d become much harder to control… Some really interesting ideas on your blog – thanks for commenting.

      1. 3arn0wl

        Spot on: it’s all about maintaining power. It’s a real weakness in our political system that departments are *gifted* to non-experts. If I remember correctly, Estelle Morris was the last SoS with an Educational background beyond going to school.

  2. Le Coin de Mel

    A great deal of thought has gone into these wishes. No educational system is ideal and I hope my children will have the opportunity to be educated in a system that is comprehensive, creative and democratic. Mel #ThePrompt

  3. Laura

    I too have fears for the education system in this country. Teachers should be given more power and leverage when it comes to what children need the most, they are the ones that spend the time with our children and know how to bring out the absolute best in them #ThePrompt

    1. sophieblovett Post author

      I liked your wishes 🙂 I was just having a day of feeling particularly happy with my lot when I wrote this – and particularly annoyed with what’s going on in education… I know so many teachers who are so dedicated and passionate and downright brilliant that Gove’s slurs feel like a personal attack!

  4. Sara (@mumturnedmom)

    I love your take on #ThePrompt this week. What a passionate post!
    Your ideal education system sounds sensible and very necessary for our children. Schools have a great responsibility. Thank you so much for linking to #ThePrompt x

    1. sophieblovett Post author

      Thank you – and thank you as always for the inspiration! I just wish the people in charge of our schools would be a bit less shortsighted in their thinking – or maybe just listen to the teachers who are full of fab ideas!

  5. Astrid

    I’m a bit late, hopping over from #theprompt, but I wanted to say I agree with most of what you have to say. I was educated in a grammar school, and this shaped my views too, like yours were shaped by your education in a private school. I do see the downsides of child-centered education that is not based on testing, as in schools we have in the Netherlands where kids are pretty much allowed to learn whatever they please. That places too much responsibility on a child. Then again, your idea of a democratic classroom allows for age-appropriate participation of students.

    1. sophieblovett Post author

      Thank you for your comments. I agree that some sort of structure is definitely needed to help kids direct their learning – but there are so many options other than just lecturing them from the front which is what Gove would have us do!

  6. thenthefunbegan

    I’m *really* late popping over from The Prompt but I have to echo Lou – such a very well argued case and very interesting thoughts on how things are and how they should be. I see where the inspiration for your Lili Badger novel came from. Funnily enough I have always thought that if I ever write a novel it will be about some sort of dystopia. #Brilliantblogposts

    1. sophieblovett Post author

      Don’t worry about popping over late! I really struggle to keep up with reading all the brilliant blogs out there with everything else that’s going on… I’ve always found dystopias fascinating in how they reflect on our world. Interestingly with Lili Badger it was the character that came to me first, but there is no doubt my views on education influenced the plot as it developed…

  7. afamilydayout

    Really interesting views which I mostly agree with. My daughter is in year 6 and ever since Christmas all focus has been on SATS to the exclusion of the fun creative topics they usually have. I can understand some testing but the pressure is much more than I expected for 10 & 11 year olds.

    1. sophieblovett Post author

      I think it’s really sad what happens in year 6 – when kids came to us in year 7 their ideas about what makes a good story would be ‘remembering to use semi-colons’ or ‘a variety of connectives’. I’m all up for grammar of course, but not when it kills creativity! And I fear the pressure of testing is seeping lower and lower in primary schools – teachers definitely have a challenge on their hands to keep stuff fun and engaging too.

  8. Victoria Welton

    I am SO with you on this and in particular the point about comprehensives. I went to private school for a year and a half an hated it! The choices should be the same across the board. Thank you for linking to PoCoLo x

    1. sophieblovett Post author

      It’s interesting how many people there are who haven’t had a positive experience with private schools… And yet they still get held up as the gold standard!

  9. Honest Mum

    An important, brilliantly written post-I have commented on your private school post too as I abhorred the years of private ed I had from 7 until 6th form, I realise not all private schools are the same but many and especially all girls schools appear to be a breeding ground for bullying and at such a formative time…I agree private schools don’t help the state, ‘comprehensive’ system so it becomes a never ending cycle as then some feel the best option is to opt for private education..such food for thought. Thanks for linking up to #brillbogposts and so pleased to have discovered your blog through my linky, truly x

    1. sophieblovett Post author

      Thank you for your lovely comments – and I’m glad you’re enjoying the blog! It’s nice to have an outlet for all of my ramblings on education as well as keeping a record of Arthur’s development. Looking forward to lots more #brillblogposts tomorrow x


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