The British education system is suffering. In the most recent survey York fell from fourth in the world to 14th in Science, seventh to 17th in Literacy and eighth to 24th in Mathematics. Despite claiming to have learnt the lessons of other countries’ success, the government’s approach to education is still blinkered.
Finland currently tops the tables, outperforming the rest of the world in almost every area of education. Days are short, schools are given the freedom to develop their own curriculum, teachers are required to have a Master’s degree and children begin school at the age of seven. Most notably, there are no external exams.
In the UK, exams are promoting a culture of textbook learning and fostering a stifling environment of right and wrong. They are degrading education, repressing creativity and devaluing the pleasures of learning, so we should be worried when Greg Watson, head of OCR, suggests that British schools have become “exam factories”.
And exams are not the only problem. Many struggle with Maths, for example, a subject that is currently divorced from real world application. Maths could easily be integrated with art, programming, debate, science and politics, a move that would help break down the mental divide between science and the humanities. The divide is a historical oddity, and just part of the government’s failure to appreciate the often unquantifiable value of the humanities. Innovation is the result of artistic and original thinking channeled through the rigid disciplines of science, a fact the curriculum would do well to reflect.
We need to look very closely at the way we think about education. Learning should be a process of exploration and an open-ended end in itself. The current structures are built on labels; labelling of subjects, of pupils, of achievement. Labelling eradicates internal debate. It simultaneously glorifies and dehumanizes the figureheads of ideas and discourages exploration. Why do we need to know that Marxism, Christianity, Climate Change, Trigonometry, Racism or Postcolonialism are called by these names? Labelling encourages segregation, the compartmentalization if ideas, superficiality, cultural snobbery and the devaluation of true understanding.
A man who never lost his curiosity, the great physicist Richard Feynman puts it well: “you can know the name of a bird in all the languages of the world, but when you’re finished, you’ll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird.”