Gaming v Latin – Free School culture wars coming to Hammersmith.

(Peter Wilby’s article in the Guardian on 6th January provided the inspiration and some of the background for this post)

West London Free School has become a well-established feature of the educational scene in Hammersmith. As is well known, it has a very particular approach to the curriculum and to the process of learning. In its own words:

“We offer children a classical liberal education – a core body of knowledge in a fairly narrow range of academic subjects, complemented by lots of art, music, drama and competitive sport. No technical subjects, no vocational ones.”

If a current proposal is accepted, it will be joined in 2016 by a school that is, according to its own rhetoric, the polar opposite. Its focus will be on science, technology, engineering, art, maths and developing computing, coding and creative skills. Appropriately enough as its founder sponsor is Ian Livingstone one of the key figures in the British computer games industry.

The result has been an initial flurry of predictable and rather tired argument about how schooling should be conducted. According to Livingstone:

“Children are totally different from 50 years ago. They run their lives through social media and smart phones. They collaborate naturally.” But at secondary school “they meet a regime of standardisation and conformity requiring them to memorise a lot of stuff that they won’t ever need because they can google it.”

In Toby Young’s view, the regime advocated by Livingstone has actually been the norm in English schools since the 1960’s and is the fundamental reason why we’ve been outstripped by Asian school systems. Moreover it has served, in his view, “to entrench poverty and preserve privilege. The reason for this is obvious: if ordinary children are learning very little at school, they’re never going to be able to compete with those from more affluent backgrounds.”

The absurdly polarised debate between “memorising a vast array of facts” and an apparently exclusive focus on creativity and problem solving does little to advance anyone’s understanding. The actual process of learning arguably is a good deal more complex than either side allows. There is, in any case, more than one way to skin a cat. But the possible juxtaposition of two schools with such strong ideological convictions leaves us with a number of interesting issues about how things like pupils’ entitlement and the encouragement of innovation play out in practice.

Labour’s current position is that schools should have curriculum freedom but within the context of a broad and balanced curriculum – a concept which is yet to be defined. There’s a loose assertion amongst all parties that schools should prepare pupils for life in modern Britain. This is often about values but can also be about not narrowing the curriculum so as to restrict children’s opportunities – for example by refusing to teach evolution or by excluding sex and relationships education. So, in this context, what do we make of a school that proudly asserts “no technical subjects, no vocational subjects”?

Michael Gove was a great convert to the cause of recasting the teaching of computing to focus on “creating content and making applications rather than just using them”. But at West London, there’s no technology and no computing on the curriculum at all and no mobile phone may be seen, let alone used, on pain of confiscation.

Is this school actually offering a broad and balanced curriculum? Is it preparing pupils for life in modern Britain? Can it help to create such a chasm between the way school operates and the way young people actually live their lives? It would claim of course that it is and it can – Latin (a subject Mark Zuckerberg learned up to age 18) it’s argued is an entirely adequate substitute for coding.

It may be that Livingstone’s school errs in the opposite direction – by being too loose and unstructured. We can’t know because it is still just an idea. It will need to be subject to the same rigorous scrutiny to see what the actual experience of young people is. The point here is not so much to argue the case one way or the other but to make the point that concepts like “broad and balanced” and “life in modern Britain” are not self-defining. They need much more serious thought than they are getting.

Both of these schools are in danger of buying into the belief that everything everywhere else is rubbish and there is but one true path to salvation. This has never been true. Most schools do a decent job but they’re human institutions so don’t always get everything right. To talk about secondary education as being exclusively a “regime of standardisation and conformity” is a gross caricature. So are the assertions that child-centred education has been ubiquitous since the ’60’s and “the effect on our public education system has been disastrous.” Even the persistent assertion that we do badly in PISA is likely to have not much to do with how schools work – it’s been shown for example that if Chinese heritage pupils in Australian schools were entered for PISA on their own, they’d come second in the world. Something outside schools may just be important too.

Innovation is important. Schools do need to develop their own personalities and to try out different approaches. Education would be the poorer if this didn’t happen. But this needs to be balanced by an entitlement for all young people not to have a school experience that is unduly distorted by a particular ideology whether religious, political or pedagogical. Where the boundaries should be is a hard but critical question.

Some will claim that the answer is choice – individual schools can push the boundaries because children can always go somewhere else. The answer of course is that they can’t always go elsewhere – there is a growing shortage of places and outside the big cities there is often no practical choice. The early comprehensives offered variety in one institution by often being huge. We no longer see that as the answer and we’ve replaced it by the notion of choice between schools. But schools do need to understand that not all pupils will go to them because they buy 100% into their beliefs – there are other drivers like not travelling, staying with friends and (a real issue in Hammersmith) not being Christian so not actually having much choice. Just as faith schools ought to take account of unbelievers, so should the pedagogically pure.

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3 Comments on “Gaming v Latin – Free School culture wars coming to Hammersmith.”

  1. David Pavett says:

    I agree with the general argument John develops. For the record though, it is not clear though in what sense the two approaches discussed are “polar opposites”. For example Toby Young’s free school puts a lot of emphasis on science (most pupils will be expected to do separate physic, chemistry and biology at GCSE level). Ian Livingstone’s proposed school does not exclude the arts. According to the proposal “Students will be given opportunities for cross-curricular learning across science, technology, engineering, maths and arts subjects, including the use of technology in art.”

    The rejection of “technical” subjects in the prospectus of the Toby Young school is presumably meant to be be a rejection of “technology” subjects i.e. applied science subjects. Most English speakers would think that the ideas covered by GCSE sciences are actually quite “technical”. It is even possible, of course, to get very”technical” in literary criticism, the study of grammar, of considerations of harmony in music. So, this use of the word “technical” is not a plus for English standards on the Toby Young team.

    Similarly, the website promoting the Ian Livingstone proposal has slipped up on the technical matter of web design. The website has been launched without properly checking it in all major browsers. In FireFox and Internet Explorer the menu buttons obscure the body text (at the time of writing). The site appear to have been checked only with Google Chrome. This seems to shows lack of due care and attention given the emphasis, in the proposed school, on computer technology and making things work in the real world.

    The difference between the schools, where they may be said to be opposites, is that one boasts of the lack of direct vocational relevance in what it teachers while the other is based on emphasising that relevance.

    Last point. John is right to say that Labour talks about a “broad and balanced curriculum” without telling us what it understands by that. It is surely time that it did so, especially as this form of words is already included in Ofsted’s guidance for inspectors, so we need to know what it is that Labour wants to add/change.

    • johnebolt says:

      I think the difference is above all in their respective descriptions of how they teach (or will teach). It’s in his Spectator articles that Toby Young really goes to town polarising memorising against practical activity.

      When WLFS says “no technical subjects” they mean no Design Technology and no ICT or computing. So a very substantial chunk of the National Curriculum is completely missing.

  2. terryloane says:

    Yes, John, the contrast between the approaches of these two Hammersmith institutions certainly highlights the complete absence of current consensus on how and what children should learn.

    Ian Livingstone tells us that “children are totally different from 50 years ago”. Indeed the whole world is quite different from 50 years ago. And if we are really honest we must accept that as a society we do not have a clue about what children should be learning in this very different world because as a society we have not had a thorough debate about what should be taught and learnt in the 21st century. The various approaches mentioned in your post, John, represent very different yet equally inadequate responses to this lack of thinking about ‘curricular aims and content’ (for want of a better term). The psychology behind the Toby Young approach is surely straightforward. It is a classic case of Freudian denial, or perhaps even Freudian regression. Educators find it really scary that they have no idea how education should adapt to the huge change and uncertainty of the contemporary world, so one way to reduce the anxiety is to pretend that we still live in the 1950s, and to regress to the way (posh) schools operated then: compulsory Latin, braided school blazers, ‘Divinity’ etc. etc. The school’s motto may be ‘Sapere aude’ – dare to be wise – but it certainly does not dare to live in the 21st century.

    The Ian Livingstone approach may seem more in touch with the contemporary world but it is also surely dysfunctional. Yes, coding, programming and engineering are important skills for some people to have, and children certainly won’t learn these under the Toby Young approach, but the aim in setting up the Livingstone school relates to the perception that the country lacks, in Livingstone’s own words “the hard skills that the [computer gaming] industry required – coding, art and animation … we weren’t getting work ready students to apply for jobs… And not particularly good for the nation either, because it doesn’t really help the economy.” The clear implication is that schooling is about increasing the pool of ‘work ready’ young people with ‘hard skills’. The perceived needs of capitalism win out over any idea of real education.

    But it is simply fatuous to suggest that the answer to the very real dilemmas that you describe is a “broad and balanced curriculum”. Perception of breadth and balance resides solely in the eye of the beholder. For example, would a curriculum that included both evolution and ‘intelligent design’ be broader and more balanced than one that only included evolution!? Using the meaningless phrase “broad and balanced curriculum” is, I suggest, just an excuse to avoid the sort of difficult debate we must have on the aims, purposes and content of children’s learning. And here are three texts that could be an excellent starting point for such a debate:

    # From Exam Factories to Communities of Discovery: The democratic route by Frank Coffield and Bill Williamson
    # An Aims-based Curriculum by Michael Reiss and John White
    # How schools kill creativity by Ken Robinson