When were schools ever ideal?

I guess that most teachers would agree, deep down, that schools represent a far from ideal solution to the education of young people. They are institutions - institutions which struggle to cater for the individual needs of young people and in which it is all too easy for the suffering of individuals to be overlooked. These are systemic problems, which persist despite the hard work and dedication of those employed in schools at all levels.

Ever was it thus.

If you listened to a certain brand of education gurus, you might imagine that there was once a time when schools represented a perfect solution, and that it is only now, as the digital generation passes through school into a digital society, that schools and the "factory education" that they offer are failing to provide young people with what they need.

Rubbish! The profound failings of schools have nothing to do with the nature of the current generation of students, and nothing to do with the kinds of careers that young people will be pursuing once they leave school. The inadequacies of school education are broadly the same today as they were in 1950. In 1950, schools were institutions in which the socially advantaged did better than the socially disadvantaged, and in which those with additional support needs often gained very little indeed.

Are we not still wrestling with these same problems? And are these problems not more deserving of our attention than the fact that wee Kevin may find school somewhat less of a rush than playing Call of Duty? Didn't wee Kevin in 1950 similarly find school less of a rush than playing football and fighting in the playground?

I do value the opinions of those who choose to observe, analyse and imagine rather than to work in classrooms day-to-day. Education needs these people. But many of them are picking entirely the wrong issue as their rallying call for change in education.


  1. A nail hit firmly upon its head, Robert!

  2. That's a relief. I wasn't sure how this post would go down. Most of the conversation about this post has happened on Twitter, btw

  3. The difference now, perhaps, is that we actually know what needs to change, and why. We know that setting is a contributory factor, for example. We know that preoccupation with exam results is a factor, for example because it can lead to us putting our best teachers in front of the most able students.

    The dynamics of the system are such, though, that these choices are locally rational for the decision-makers involved, despite being irrational in terms of the whole system.

    The more I learn about this stuff, though, the more I can see how the antibodies move in to attack any new ideas that might pose a threat to the status quo; many people are happy with things just the way they are.

    Perhaps the most important thing about Curriculum for Excellence is that offers an opportunity to make improvements. Which brings us neatly back to the antibodies...

  4. Do we have evidence that setting increases social inequality? My gut feeling is that it can't help, but I haven't seen any research on the matter.

    Have you read "Disrupting Class"? I think I'll read "The Innovator's Dilemma" now, since I found Christensen's analysis of the challenges facing innovators (which echo closely what you are saying, and which he expounds in "The Innovator's Dilemma") much more interesting than the specific remedies which he suggests in "Disrupting Class".

  5. [...] also discovered this perspective about educational quality on Jonesieblog, When were schools ever ideal? “The profound failings of schools have nothing to do with the nature of the current [...]


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