A motorist is lost in rural Ireland and stops to ask a farmer the best way to Dublin. 'So you want to get to Dublin,' says the farmer. 'Well, if I were you, I wouldn't start from here.'
If we were to think about the best form of schooling for today, we wouldn't start with what we have got, which is, in Donald Schon's terms, an enterprise which is too large to fail. It has grown by piecemeal accretion to a model developed for the needs of industry more than 100 years ago. Enormous capital is tied up in buildings housing individual classrooms, a cadre of teachers have been trained in single subjects and an ever growing educational administration is obsessed with uniformity. But that is the way it is and so we have to ask if anything can be done within the present constraints to provide young people with a better school experience.
In my last article
I asked why we needed examinations. But we could also ask why we need secondary schools. Are the reasons economic? Perhaps a well-educated workforce is more productive and innovative? At a more basic level, do schools have to provide childcare while the parents are at work? Are the reasons social? Do we want young people to understand the world and take pleasure in learning? Are the reasons political? Do we want young people to be engaged with matters of governance and welfare in society?
It is possible to ask many more questions of this kind but perhaps we need to take an overview to help us in establishing what schools should do in educating young people. Educational research rarely, if ever, gives us clear guidance as to what we should do. So I suggest two basic functions for schools which are 'conservative' and 'subversive'.
Conservative in the sense that we would like young people to be aware of the past achievements of civilisation and the progress we have made in understanding the world. Subversive in the sense of preparing young people to question and challenge present procedure and existing taken for granted assumptions. It's clear that schools have presently largely focused on their conservative role while giving little formal attention to their subversive role. As Linus comments in a Peanuts
cartoon: 'No-one is going to give you the education you need to challenge them'.
Some years ago, In the book Inequality
(1972), Christopher Jenks and his colleagues set out to investigate the effect of schooling in America on the life experiences of young people some years after leaving. Here are some of the conclusions:
None of the evidence we have reviewed suggests that school reform can be expected to bring about significant social changes outside schools.
There seem to be three reasons why school reform cannot make adults more equal. First, children seem to be far more influenced by what happens at home than by what happens in school. They may also be more influenced by what happens on the streets or by what they see on television. Second, reformers have very little control over those aspects of school life which affect children. Reallocating resources, reassigning pupils and rewriting the curriculum seldom change the way teachers and students actually treat each other minute by minute. Third, even when a school exerts an unusual influence on children, the resulting changes are not likely to persist into adulthood.
The character of a school's output depends largely on a single input, namely the characteristics of the entering children. Everything else – the school budget, its policies... is either secondary or completely irrelevant.
In a remarkably honest preface to the book, Jenks acknowledges the work of his many collaborators but as the main author of the text, '... it embodies his [Jenks] prejudices and obsessions'. Nevertheless, the text draws on three years of research and was able to use the results of the earlier Equality of Educational Opportunity Survey,
headed by James Coleman. So these are not conclusions without foundation and, even if disputed, are ones which need to be addressed in any reassessment of secondary education.
Instead of evaluating schools in terms of long-term effects... we think it wiser to evaluate schools on their immediate effects on teachers and students. Some schools are dull, depressing, even terrifying places while others are lively, comfortable and reassuring. If we think of school life as an end in itself, rather than a means to some other end, such differences are enormously important.
Looking at school life as an end in itself... suggests that we ought to describe schools in a language appropriate to a family rather than to a factory. This implies that we have to accept diverse standards for judging schools just as we do for judging families. Indeed we can say that diversity should be an explicit objective of schools and school systems... a school system that provides only one variety of schooling, no matter how good, must almost invariably seem unsatisfactory to some parents and children. The ideal system is one which provides as many varieties of schooling as its parents and children want and finds ways of matching children to the schools that suit them.
I have quoted at length from both Charity James (in my last article) and from Jenks here (both from the 1970s) to show that I can add only a little which is original. However, it would be wonderful if our present batch of politicians and local authority administrators (obsessed as they are with absolute uniformity) were to read this material from the 1970s and consider what has been achieved over the last 50 years by all their committees, reports and debates. Local authorities need to reassess their role. Instead of trying to micromanage schools, as at present, they should see their function as facilitators – ready to encourage innovation and support attempts to break the current complacent consensus.
Most secondary schools operate similar structures for the processing of students. When they arrive they will be organised into particular age classes and they will 'progress' as a year group through the various 'stages' of the process. It is possible that some schools may still practice 'streaming' in which the allocation to a class is determined by performance in a particular subject. I worked in a private school which made such a distinction on the basis of skill in Latin. Here, staff would say wearily that they were off to teach the NPIs (not particularly intelligent, the lower stream). It might be claimed that the effect of being in the 'top' stream made students aspire to better performance (however it's not possible to show that this, rather than individual disposition, was the determining factor), but the effect on the 'lower' streams was most markedly the opposite. When little is expected, little will be given.
What is more common is setting, particularly in the upper stages. This has the ostensible advantage of allowing the able students to progress more quickly but still carries the same message to students in the 'lower' sets. Finally, there is mixed ability grouping in which there is no attempt to differentiate between students in a particular age group. What does educational research tell us (beyond what is immediately apparent) about the benefits and disadvantages of each method? As I have said, frankly very little. Much educational research consists of 'case studies' which have little relevance beyond their particular circumstances and other research is often left with the problem of compounding variables. That is, it is extremely difficult to isolate single factors for analysis. Should we have small classes or large classes? I can produce research to support both positions.
A further detail of the processing structure in many schools is the division of the entire student population into 'houses'. This is a clear attempt to copy the arrangements in private schools where there is a clear connection to a particular residence. Such houses are mainly the vehicle for competitions of various kinds although it is often claimed (without much actual evidence) that such houses foster a bond between younger and older students.
I have done evaluation work in rural Denmark where the norm is for all-age comprehensive schools (ages 5 to 16 years). Here, older and younger students mix naturally and there is no sense of our 'primary-secondary divide'. Also in Denmark, team teaching is often used with students setting their own priorities for learning. In what we would call early secondary, at the beginning of the week, in discussion with teachers, students decide the allocation of time to give to each subject and teachers then assist with appropriate resources.
In the past decade, much progress has been made in provision for students with 'learning difficulties'. This attention to what are often idiocentric problems is very welcome. However, there has been less attention given to students at the other end of the spectrum, who also have idiocentric issues related to their superior learning capability. It is a curious irony that what is so often seen as an 'academic curriculum' actually fails the most academically able (who, when they succeed, often do so in spite of rather than because of the system). These more able students are vital to the development and improvement of society. Any reform will have to allow flexibility for able students to progress at their own pace and not be tied to what is often 'middle of the road' teaching.
We can expect little help from educational research to make detailed, unambiguous decisions about the future form of secondary schools. However, there is one area of investigation which does give positive results. This is what is usually called 'cross-age tutoring', where younger and older students meet together, with the older student helping the younger with some aspect of the work. Observing such a classroom, we often hear the older student say reassuringly, 'I had problems with this myself and what I found helpful was...'.
Reflecting on the experience later, older students say that it made them really think about what they were explaining, while younger students said that they could ask questions which they wouldn't ask in a normal class for fear of looking stupid. Such cross-age tutoring has been tried on a small scale in a number of schools but has nearly always been significantly compromised by timetable difficulties.
In proposing school reform, we are constrained by the enormous investment in the present system and we have to recognise that a primary function of schools is to look after children while parents are at work. So there will be little possibility of novel time arrangements.
In this situation, it is possible to list some of the things we need to consider in the context of reform:
Except for ostensible organisational convenience, there is no basis for moving students in year groups as a means of 'progression'.
Except for convenience in organising competitions, there is little basis for house systems.
There is little detailed agreement on curriculum apart from a general notion of an approach covering a range of subjects.
All the teachers we have in secondary schools are 'subject trained' – and are likely to be so for the immediate future as a result of the allocation of places in teacher training.
Present methods of forming learning groups all have significant problems, either of student perception or practical teaching difficulty.
A primary function of schools is to look after children while parents are at work. Schools have to operate five days a week for about seven hours a day (including a time for lunch).
In any system with many, often conflicting, variables it is unlikely that all can be optimised simultaneously. There will value judgements to be made about the kind of secondary system we want. Are we to place a priority on cross disciplinary working? After all, the various problems facing us will not be addressed within the confines of a single subject. How to deal with rising sea levels? We will need economics, sociology, biology, and construction technology to name but some of the expertise required.
Or is our concern with working in teams and learning to live with each other as well as learning about the various subjects? And whatever particular judgement we make, do we agree with Jenks that the least we can do is to make schools (like the rural primary I mentioned before) which are happy places for students and teachers?
One approach within the present system is that instead of fitting students to a fixed complex timetable in S3, the timetable should be flexible to accommodate every student. This is not an impossible dream. I know this is possible, having done it for many years at Bankhead Academy, where the students were allowed a free choice of subjects (without any compulsory requirements) and the timetable then constructed around their choices. For this to be possible, a symmetrical timetable structure is required which enables the columns to be populated with the necessary subjects. Unlike many modern complex school timetables constructed with computer programs, this method could often be completed overnight. And yes, everything was not possible, but for the very few students who could not get one of their particular subject combinations, the matter was resolved by negotiation.
If, in a more radical approach, we choose a cross-disciplinary model, then one possibility within the existing framework is to operate integrated courses in S1 and S2. I have experience of such a course: Man a Course of Study (MACOS) devised by Jerome Bruner, which was built around the unifying theme of human cultural evolution. Modern media technologies provide scope for real development in such courses across all the subject areas presently taught. However, I could not persuade my scientific colleagues to participate as they wanted to retain their subject 'identity' and the fact that the course was dropped two years after I left the school suggests that such cross-disciplinary courses are probably going to be difficult to implement.
And what of the often claimed virtue for Scottish education of a 'broad' and 'balanced' curriculum? Robin Downie
talks of the misleading possibilities of metaphor and this is particularly true of these terms. While 'broad' we can perhaps accept as referring to a wide range of individual subjects, we are on much more doubtful ground when there is talk of 'broad understanding' and 'deep understanding'. But it is the notion of 'balanced' which is much more seductive, suggesting as it does some perfect state of equilibrium. What are we to balance?
Ask primary students to balance oranges against apples and they are unlikely to compare and contrast texture and taste. They will reach for a pair of scales and balance the common property of weight. We have accepted the idea of 'broad' because different subjects are characterised by different areas of interest and methodologies. If every subject was largely the same as any other, then any subject would do. If they are essentially different to justify the notion of a 'broad' education, then how do we balance entities which are different in kind? We do so by the only thing they have in common on the timetable – which is time. So we have the ridiculous idea that 120 minutes of English is 'balanced' by 120 minutes of mathematics. But then not all subjects are equal and other subjects usually get less time.
In pragmatic terms, we usually justify an extra allocation of time to English and mathematics on the grounds of basic literacy but at secondary level we should have gone beyond basic literacy. I suggest a stronger pragmatic case for treating each subject in the same way and allocating the same time slots to each individual subject, with considerable simplification of timetable structures.
Can I suggest a structural model for secondary schools which optimises the social aspects using modern resources to promote learning, while avoiding many of the structural problems I have identified?
Come to my reformed school. Here the students are enrolled in mixed age family groups. The exact arrangements will differ depending on the size of the school but we can take a school of 800 pupils as an example. I see the mixed age family groupings working up to Nat 5 (about 600 students) with the Higher students changing to a subject based grouping. This is simply to reflect the present examination based approach to Higher and Advanced Higher qualifications which is not likely to change in the immediate future. Although why we trust individual universities to determine the grades for their students (with scrutiny only by an external examiner of their own choice) and deny the same procedure to schools is a mystery.
The timetable operates in 90 minute units, two before lunch and two in the afternoon. We still teach more or less the same subjects as now (until we can get some reform of teacher training). Each subject works with the same allocation of time (yes, the same time allocation to drama and to music as to mathematics). Using this timetable it will be possible, if desired, to have as many as 20 different subjects operating in one 90-minute timetable slot. Where it is objected that a subject cannot reasonably work with such a wide age range, the answer is simple. We timetable two or three family groups to come at the same time which are then divided into two groups of younger and older students.
I am a physics teacher. If the school decides to offer 20 different subjects, I will have a maximum of 30 students of different ages in each family group (but I would envisage a smaller number of subjects giving correspondingly smaller family groups). I work with a colleague as it will take two of us to maintain the lab in use for every period in the week. We arrange the lab as a resource centre. Only one family lab will be required with the other lab on open access to older students. Not all family groups will work equally well so with my colleague we decide, possibly on a weekly basis, which families need an extra member of staff.
With this timetable structure, we can decide this ourselves without affecting any other subject. We will have four years to get the more capable students to Nat 5 but the key is that students will know by the end of year 4 in which subjects they are likely to be successful. The difficulty of 'choosing' subjects at the end of S2 is overcome. There will be occasions when I can involve all the family class in a particular activity, such as looking at the effect of technology on the environment.
For the most part, students will be working in small groups on topics appropriate to their stage of understanding (which may be students of different ages). I may sometimes ask a more advanced student to work with another who is having difficulty. I will try to use all the advantages offered by communications and media technologies so there will be much less 'direct teaching' but instead I offer support as students work largely by themselves using texts and well-constructed on-screen materials and simulations designed to stimulate curiosity. There is a great deal of relevant material available on the internet which I want to access without the usual local authority firewalls.
I will be using wireless connected tablets and a few desktop machines with enhanced video capability. I have to put in a lot of time to prepare, but I only set my lab up once and I only need one set of apparatus (instead of the usual class set) for each individual activity so I can afford better kit. It's true that overall I don't save on consumables but it's no worse than at present. I cannot assess each student's work individually, so I make considerable use of online self-assessment which asks a student if they are ready to move on.
Overall, I use a system of 'continuous re-assessment' for national qualifications. That is, the evidence collected for outside scrutiny relates to what students can do now, rather than to some grade obtained a year or more previously. On my wall, I will have a big poster saying 'Curiosity, Creativity and Criticality as the basis for our learning'. And I mean 'our learning', as I have much to learn from a 14-year-old about the operation of computers, as I hope they will learn from me about semiconductors.
We have come full circle from my original article. We can move away from the vague and ultimately unproductive notion of 'leadership' as the answer to the difficulty of student alienation and instead adopt innovative solutions to the structural problems of present day secondary schools.
David Eastwood is Emeritus Senior Lecturer at the Department of Education, Aberdeen University