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School is for eccentricity, not just learning

27 June 2014

THE head of OFSTED, Sir Michael Wilshaw, is determined to root out "damaging 1960s orthodoxies" from the minority of schools that cling to them. He, like Michael Gove, is strongly opposed to "progressive" teaching methods, which encourage children to develop their own creativity and rarely enforce discipline.

This child-centred approach reflects a wonderfully idealistic vision of what education should be, but, as is now apparent, it has left too many adults deprived of basic skills.

I saw this when I taught ordinands who were the product of such methods: individuals whose abilities were stifled because they had never learnt to spell, punctuate, or write in sentences. This often meant that they struggled to construct a written argument; they could emote verbally, but not reason.

Those who support traditional structured learning often compare our educational standards unfavourably with those of successful Asian schools, where rote learning is normal, and iron discipline enforced. In spite of the damage that '60s orthodoxies have done, however, our educationists would be unwise to go too far down the Asian route.

While it produces competence and reliability, it is often at the cost of something just as valuable: the unorthodoxy that leads to innovation. For all its faults, our system has encouraged creativity, which is why Britain punches above its weight in the arts, fashion, science, and technology. We have a capacity for producing quirky thinkers.

I went to a highly academic school where excellence was expected and prized. But it had its eccentricities, for which I have always been grateful. The ethos was non-competitive. Grades were used rather than marks; so no one ever knew who came top. I was moderately academic, although far from outstanding, and I was really bad at art.

At a school reunion some years ago, I met some of my former contemporaries who had performed poorly at academic subjects, while excelling in art. Several of them had gone on to outstandingly successful careers in textiles and design. I reflected afterwards on how permissive the school was; how ready to nurture aspiration.

Nobody ever told me that I was bad at art (I could see that for myself), but I adored messing about with clay, creating monstrous objects, which I tugged home proudly, to the bewilderment of my parents. No one suggested I was wasting my time. Schools should teach us what we need to know, but also help us to become who we are.


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