Amidst the hubbub of leadership questions, short-term poll obsession and questions over the future of the Union, members of the shadow cabinet have been very busy of late laying out exactly the kind of concrete policy views that some have said were previously missing from Labour.
One of the most interesting of these was provided in Stephen Twigg’s speech on reforming the education system. In it, he called for a longer school day, more teacher mentoring, and a focus on “soft skills” to better prepare students for life after school. The announcement coincided nicely with a review of the curriculum currently under way and due to be concluded later this year.
There is a broad consensus on what the outcome of education should be; namely, well- informed, well-rounded young people who have the capacity to advance themselves in whatever direction they choose. Sadly, in too many areas the wealth of a child’s parents still determines their success in life. There are serious debates taking place about the structure of schools and the deliberate attempts to carve them away from local authorities, but in this piece I want to focus on how education is delivered rather than the legal wrapper under which the school functions.
There are two examples of policies which can be implemented and cost very little that can help further both education and social progress. These are introducing debating at the heart of the curriculum and using peer-mentoring as a way to help the continuous professional development of teachers.
Firstly, we should put debating at the heart of our curriculum as a way of encouraging children to develop vital critical thinking and communications skills. People on the left often frown upon the idea of school as a place to teach workplace skills, but it is in work that we spend most of our lives, and as the one million unemployed young people in the country would surely attest, little is more dispiriting and eroding of an individual’s self-worth than the recurring rejection of unemployment.
Rhetoric and debating are typically seen as the purview of elitist independent schools, and as a skill with little relevance to daily reality. Nothing could be further from the truth. Debate is part of the curriculum in many ways anyway, from analysis of history through dissection of English and the understanding of competing scientific theories. The contestation of ideas is a vital part of what it means to get an education.
Teachers often worry about anarchy in the classroom if they allow students to debate, but many programmes both here and in the US have shown that students, when given ownership of a position and the right to advocate for it, are more likely to take their education seriously. Indeed, a major review of education conducted by the Irish Economic and Social Research Institute showed that across a multitude of regions and cultures, interactive classroom learning is the most effective way of teaching students.
With some schools failing to teach students basic reading and writing skills, focussing on oral presentation is an alternative way to engage reluctant students. There is nothing like the fear of making a fool of themselves in front of their peers to make students work hard. Debating also has the added advantage of teaching exactly the kind of “soft skills” that Stephen Twigg talked about. Recent talk of getting Britain manufacturing again is heartening, but Britain’s comparative advantage lies in services, and the more children are able to think and provide in these areas the better their chances in later life will be.
Mentoring for teachers is another area where there have been promising results of late. Teachers do receive training, but it is rarely based on observation of their classroom performance. In a thought provoking New Yorker article, Atul Gawande discusses the parallels between teaching to surgery and how, even as a top surgeon, he sees many opportunities to improve. Teachers should not view mentoring as an imposition, but rather as an opportunity to improve their performance. Experienced teachers should be encouraged to offer their services as mentors, in order to perpetuate best practice among new recruits.
These are just two ways in which education in Britain could be improved. There are many others out there, and politicians should start listening to them. Together, they point the way towards a more open, student-centred and successful school system.
Stephen Boyle is a Young Fabians Member