The Future School

So what will post-13 education look like in the future? To imagine the future school we need to ask ourselves questions about the future workplace. Will professionals need to read or write? Will there be ‘office’ jobs? Will there be significant changes in the perception of status of certain jobs? Will political leaders ever need to prove their ability to dance or sing? If talent is nurtured in solitude what is the point of team working? What is more important to an employee: intelligence or character?

The teaching profession, like musicians and writers,  are groping around for a role in the internet age. They are trying to find a business model, so naturally, most of the thinking is been done by the private sector, most notably by  Anthony Selsdon, Headteacher of Wellington College. He says: ‘What’s the point of independent schools if they are not going to innovate? Children need an owner’s manual, so they can manage themselves. Manage their minds, their bodies, their emotions, their relationships. People come out of schools with no understanding of what anger is, what depression is, what anxiety is. They don’t understand the importance of silence and stillness, of seeing what’s there in the mind.’

Selsdon can rest assured on the second point, school is the prime source of anger, depression and anxiety so schools are doing a wonderful job in making children aware of it. I am not sure whether parents would readily pay £24,000 a year to have their child taught ‘silence and stillness’.  These are noble states of mind, but might they not be done more cheaply and so reach more people? Wealthy people will always find ways to separate themselves from the poor and education has been one of their preferred method. But with OSE they may have to try something else. If the state gives deprived students financial rewards for results, parents will have to do the same.  In 2009, the average parental reward for a top grade A Level was £70. The lower down the social scale you go, the more effective this rewarding becomes. OSE can be the engine for increased social mobility.

Any teacher reading this will agree with most of it. No-one likes to appear to be against innovation. While schools are busy promoting ‘e-learning’ there must be a nagging worry about getting paid. How are we to persuade teachers to adopt this new way of working? The solution is simple, we sack them. £64 billion a year is spent on education and something’s gotta give. As life coaches keep telling us, the sack is a friend with a very important message. Teachers can become liberated, autonomous parts of the creative economy. If you’re a creative, you do it for free because the future is free. But of course the creative career is about being freelance and having a plurality of careers some of which make money and some that don’t. It’s risky but rewarding. This type of working provides a greater range of activities which bring about a less specialised and more rounded person. The 21st Century career is about the forward slash. I am a teacher/musician/speaker/writer/composer and a founder/director of an educational trust. Disregarded advise form those close to me, who said I should have stuck to one thing, I have realised that each activity feeds into the other in ways that I never predicted. When I teach guitar, students love to hear of my other activities and I’m happy to talk about. This talk would bore the pants off my adult friends so I’m pleased to have an audience (it’s sad, I know). They even give feedback on my compositions, my adult friends would, quite rightly,  feel acutely embarrassed and uncomfortable with such a task.

So teachers, how about a career as a filmmaker? School children are now spending more and more of their class time watching films, in particular, those broadcast by  YouTube. And the teacher just sits there. I am reminded of an aspect of the Soviet Union. At the top Moscow hotels for visiting dignitaries they had uniformed doorman who opened doors for the visiting guests. When automatic doors became the standard, the authorities, not wanting to seem technologically backward, had them installed at the hotel. It then became the job of the doorman to break the beam so as to open the door for the guests. The modern teacher has become like that doorman, clicking on links so the class can watch the internet. Teachers should be out there making films. They may not be Hollywood blockbusters, they may just explain V = IR.

More and more maths teaching is done using computer games which engage young people so much more than a rambling teacher in front of the class. Teachers should be designing these games. They can start now while the students are busy with the games. There is no reason why games cannot be applied to other subjects an no reason why they cannot examine children as well as teach. There are limits to this as I heard of one instance where a boy, in all seriousness, applied to music college on account of having a high score in Guitar Hero.

Being freelance also means having to learn business skills such as marketing and web-design, roles that in large organisations, are done by specialists. Being well educated, teachers should not find it hard to find other sources of income which will in turn, qualify them to become visiting speakers. OSE offers teachers the chance to be sexy and admired but there are those older ones who have become institutionalised and for these we need to offer less risky alternatives. They can transfer to the primary sector (I am not proposing any change to pre-13 year olds) or they can become librarians, IT advisors or mentors. Schools can become giant internet cafes where students can be advised on pathways (there’s a popular education word – we won’t get rid of them all) to qualifications.

It is not just state-run institutions which feel threatened by OSE. The likes of Anthony Selsdon are grasping around for a new role even if it means teaching ‘happiness’. People should be free to pay for whichever education they like. If they think it is good value, that’s fine by me. There are many committed, talented and innovative people in education and I believe Selsdon is one, but they should not try to buck the trend. They should look at the music profession and see how it dealt with recording, amplification, broadcasting, copying and downloading. There is a way – it just needs a great deal of imagination, ingenuity and courage.

OSE is not a grand design but a process, and it is hard to predict what will evolve.  The idea here is merely to encourage people to adjust their sails so as to benefit from this wind of change. The process is well under way but switching resources from teachers to learners will naturally meet stiff resistance from a very powerful and well organised quarter. Some state schools in deprived schools are already paying students for passing GCSEs, prisons pay inmates to learn though sadly, prisoners are paid for attendance rather than results. The teaching profession keep this quiet. They take credit for the outcome but not the means. It is regarded as rather vulgar to admit to money being a motivating factor in education. This is wrong. We should be publicising it.

We did this at the Memory Trust, through our open-source education project Verse4Cash. More than any other field of knowledge, literature offers the biggest scope for faking it. One can pretend to have read books, name-drop authors and regurgitate academic phrases but one can never fake the memorisation of poetry. The trust promotes and certifies the memorisation of poetry and by so doing affect social change. Learning poetry is hard work so how do you get prisoners and young offenders to do it? How does one ever get someone to something they rather not do? Pay them. After all, this is what money is for. We conducted a trial at a Pupil Referral Unit, a school for excluded pupils. Instead of excluding the pupils we excluded the teachers and instead of paying the teachers, we paid the pupils. They chose the poems and we gave cash rewards for learning them. They get paid for becoming a repository for the nations poetic heritage. And one pleasing bi-product of this intervention is that it raises academic achievement.

We used the name Verse4Cash because it is no-nonsense description of paying people to memorise poetry; it does what it says on the tin, and students appreciate this. However, we have had to change it to Friends for Life because education purists were upset by these pecuniary motives and we have had to adjust to the world as it is. For middle class families, university is regarded as the gateway to a well-paid career. Some students may simply have a passion for Business Administration, but for most, it’s about the money. For children from deprived backgrounds, the link between paying attention to a teacher and money is very tenuous. The shorter the period between effort and reward, the more effective it is. The juiciest carrot held in front of a donkey is not going to shift him if it is held a mile away.  For this reason, examinations should be termly. This is already becoming increasingly the case though the reasons are more for avoiding student stress.

But schools are about more than teaching so we must look at these other roles such as social cohesion, values, networking and team spirit. Can these not adequately be catered for by other organisations: sports clubs, theatres, arts centres, music societies, choirs, orchestras, book clubs, churches, mosques, synagogues and temples. They can be provided by family and even a place of work. In the last few years young people have proven to be adept at forming social networks, more so than their elders. Being a bus user for many years, I have recently noticed how schoolchildren from different schools mix far more readily than they used to, when uniformed cliques were the norm.

The school is a risk-adverse and gated community. They are ruled by a profession in crisis, riddled with self-doubt, ridiculed from without and within and protective of their livelihoods. The only thing that stops an enthusiast with a metal detector on the the muddy banks of the Thames becoming a good history teacher is a CRB certificate and a reluctance to use words such as ‘pedagogic’ and ‘kinaesthetic’. We need to encourage a gradual breakdown of these institutions. I am not talking of a modern day dissolution of the monasteries, but a realignment of how we want to help our young people deal with an uncertain future.


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