Today, I can see a lot of Facebook posts from friends and acquaintances talking about where their beloved children will be going to Secondary School next year. Some are delighted to get their first choice, others not so much. It left me pondering. In 2018, why do we end up in situations like this? Can this be blamed on the current state of the Educational System, the government, failing schools for example. Is it as black and white as it seems or are there other reasons? In this blog, I share my views.
When it comes to where we will be sending our children to school (nursery, primary to some extent) but more importantly secondary school and University, I think it is safe to say that we feel quite strongly that our offspring should have access to the best education possible. In fact, we are ready to move to a different part of a city to ensure that they get into our/their first choice school or to pay thousands of pounds to send them to an independent school.
In short, as parents we concentrate so much on our progeniture’s happiness, success and ability to excel in their field, that we are prepared to make a lot of concessions as well as to experience stress and anxiety whilst we wait to find out the results of our application for secondary schools.
So, how does this contribute to this ‘school choice dilemma’?
WE ARE ALL PART OF THE SYSTEM
Some of you might already know that I am passionate about Education and about the well-being of all stakeholders (students, parents, staff and governors) and that I am currently carrying out some research on what makes young people flourish or languish at University.
As part of this research, I recently came across the work carried out by Senge, father of ‘learning organisations’ and ‘systems thinking’ and author of The Fifth Discipline and Schools that Learn. In The Fifth Discipline, Senge argues that from a young age we are taught to analyse problems and to break them into different parts but that as a result, we pay a hidden, enormous price as ‘we can no longer see the consequences of our actions and lose our intrinsic sense of connection to a larger whole.’ When we try to ‘see the big picture’, we try to reassemble the fragments in our minds but, as physicists David Bohm says, the task is futile as it is like trying to reassemble the fragments of a broken mirror to see a true reflection. Thus, after a while we give up trying to see the whole altogether.’ (2006:3).
This is particularly important in Education because discussions like those happening today often focus around what is being done by the various actors (government, policy makers, educators, parents, students) who are represented as separate, unrelated forces. We also naturally tend to find someone or something outside of ourselves to blame when things go wrong. Senge calls this ‘The enemy is out there’ syndrome and says that ‘when we focus only on our position, we do not see how our own actions extend beyond the boundary of that position. When those actions have consequences that come back to hurt us, we misperceive these new problems as externally caused. Like the person being chased by his own shadow we cannot seem to shake them.’ (2006:19)
WE ALL HAVE AN IMPACT ON THE SYSTEM
We (all the stakeholders in education mentioned before) all play a part in the system and we each have an influence on the rest, and influence that can be hidden from view. We can only understand all this by contemplating the whole, not any individual part of the system.
Let me give you an illustration of what I mean. Let’s use ‘standardised testing’. There are a lot of conversations happening around this topic and many parents, teachers express their dislikes of this constant ‘testing’ but yet we all contribute to its continued application – here’s a systemic view of how we do this:
The government: imposes new policies and strategies on a regular basis, most of whom tend to focus on attainment and obsessively measures progress through standardised testing and put pressure on schools (and teachers) to perform via Ofsted. It also reduces funding. It produces league tables based on these results for the different regions/areas in the UK
Schools and teachers: Apply these policies and measures. They strive to be on the top of these league tables (because their funding depends on it) and spend a lot of time preparing pupils for and testing pupils. At parents evenings, teachers tell us where our children are in terms of attainment: ‘working towards, on target, or working beyond target’.
Parents: We consciously or unconsciously accept these policies by accepting this concept of attainment and of A* pupils, as mentioned before sometimes taking drastic measures such as moving to a new areas to get into a ‘better school’ or spending money to educate our children privately to guarantee a better education thus feeding the system of ‘standardised testing’ and ‘attainment’. At parents’ evenings we sit there and want to know how well our children are achieving.
Children: Start to believe that their marks and results gives them an identity, a label. They believe that they are ‘clever’ ‘bright’ or ‘intelligent’ because they got straights As or A*s. Some stop being curious and interested in learning and sometimes get bored because they spend an awful lot of time going through ‘practice exam tests’.
From this systemic overview, I hope you can clearly see how each of us has an impact on the whole? Yet as Senge says ‘we tend to focus on snapshots of isolated parts of the system (what the government or schools do for example) and wonder why our deepest problems never seem to get solved (2006:7).
Change in Education can therefore only happen if we take a more systemic approach and we ALL work together and we stop seeing each other as separate, unrelated forces.
I am not suggesting that I have the answer to this but I believe that there is amazing work being carried out by other countries such as Finland who do not value academic attainment and do not test their pupils constantly but who totally value and trust their teachers (see article here). We could use the Finns as an exemplar to guide us and to see how we could approach the education of our young children from a much more systemic way rather than the traditional cause and effect approach and most importantly from a perspective where “teaching to the test” becomes an alien concept and where competition, and league tables do not exist.
As a researcher, I feel that this is one the most important and vital points to focus on because working at a University, which is the last part of the Educational system, I see the effects on young people produced by years spent in this system.
It is high time to look at other options so that we can implement a more systemic approach to education, be inspired by other countries and learn from their experience so that we can introduce relevant and meaningful changes.
What do you think? Feel free to comment below (and to agree/disagree with me).
Senge, P.M The fifth Discipline: The art and practice of the Learning Organisation. New York. Doubleday/Currency (1990, 2006)