Gaming v Latin – Free School culture wars coming to Hammersmith.Posted: January 7, 2015
(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.