Open Thinkering


Is it time to get rid of secondary schools?

One of the really interesting things that’s coming out of research I’m doing at the moment is just how increasingly irrelevant secondary schools really to the lives of young people. There’s loads of great stuff going on in Primary schools. Really innovative, pedagogically-sound stuff. There’s also awesome things happening in Further and Higher Education.

I don’t see it in Secondary schools. Pockets here and there perhaps, but not to the same extent. And, more to the point, nor do the researchers and innovators to whom I’ve been speaking.

So what’s the problem? What’s holding back innovation in secondary schools? Well…

  • Teachers blame senior leaders
  • Senior leaders blame the curriculum
  • The curriculum was, up until recently, the responsibility of the QCDA
  • The QCDA blames the examination boards
  • The examination boards blame the government
  • The government blames lack of innovation in schools.

Now that the QCDA has been given its notice, this is a massive opportunity for secondary schools. People talk about the ‘crisis in higher education’. That’s just a funding crisis. The real crisis is 11-16 year olds voting with their feet.

What can we do about it? Take a stand, for a start.

So I’m not really proposing that we just let anyone over the age of 11 wander the streets. Of course not. But I do think that the organizations that form the secondary ecosystem have a whole lot of work to do to win hearts and minds.

12 thoughts on “Is it time to get rid of secondary schools?

  1. For me, this is about the Balkanisation of the curriculum.

    If we were to sit down and work out a secondary curriculum today, I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t end up divided the way it is now. Why does Geography deserve its own special place, for example. And why does History too, for that matter?

    Don’t get me wrong, the ability to understand geographical and historical data are vitally important. But they’re not useful ‘subjects’ for children – they’re modes of thought more than anything else.

    I’d like to see three big changes:
    More Games
    We know that critical success factors aren’t rote-learning but Attention and something-akin-to-creativity (ie ability to see connections), A Balkanised curriculum will develop neither so we need more projects, more immersive sims, more collaborative work.

    More Dan Meyer
    We know that some teachers are miles better than others. I think we should scale Dan Meyer and have him do everybody’s maths lesson in the Anglosphere by video link and pay him a huge salary.

    No exams
    Okay, my first suggestion is so commonly heard it’s banal. My second is slightly flip (though I am deadly serious). But the real killer is exams. They’re utterly and indefensibly stupid.

    Their sole function is to mediate between education and the job market and the data they provide is literally worthless to anybody (they’re not designed for giving us good data about teaching, which is why they’re so easy to game). Day 1 of school – you get your own domain and then you start portfolio-building. At 16 your CV is a ‘best of’ website with all the cool stuff you’ve done.

    Give employers and Higher Ed data not some filtered ‘information’ in the form of exam results and they’ll work out what to do with it.

    1. Trouble with your last comment, Simon, (which I agree with in principle) – is that most employers just wouldn’t know what to do with a portfolio. It would take far too long to work through it to see whether the candidate is suitable.

      That’s why some form of independent grading system that employers can understand has to be included in our education system. We all know it doesn’t really show anything – but it’s all we’ve got that is practical.

      1. In my heart of hearts I know you’re right, Mark.

        But between our current ridiculous exam system and my pie-in-the-sky, there must be myriad other ways.

        I’m not sure the current system is ‘independent’, in any case. There are certain assumptions so deeply embedded in the system that they’re hard to tease out. I speak as somebody who benefited to an astonishing extent from the exam system – I have a good memory, no hayfever, respond well to time pressure, am an early bird and can bluff with the the best of them.

        Doug’s right too. The current hiring/firing regime is even dumber than exams and schools. HR’s biggest crime has been to systematise and enshrine our cognitive biases into their dumb-as-bag-hammers-and-twice-as-unwieldy competency framework systems.

      1. Don’t talk to me about competency frameworks…. Just another case of trying to systematise the unsystemisable. Just like assessments of any sort really.

        To Doug’s point, I’m not sure we can do better than lots of people applying facelessly. We still have lots of people in this country who are relatively unskilled (or perhaps it’s better to say deskilled), and lots of jobs that require people with low level skills. We have to find some way of matching them up.

        Or do you have a better suggestion? (Not meaning to be antagonistic here. I am interested in your ideas)

        1. Faceless applications work well in a world where a qualification means you can do a job. There’s a hoop: jump through it.

          What Simon proposes (and I echo) is that there’s no reason why portfolios based on semantic web standards can’t do the job.

          Looking for a technician who shares your team’s love of The Grateful Dead? Looking to employ a Headteacher who’s not only got an NPQH but a PhD?

          Employers can then go looking for people rather than the other way around. One button in your portfolio would make it accessible (i.e. ‘for hire’) and you could have various privacy controls.

          Sorted. 🙂

          1. I like the idea in theory, Doug. I’m just not sure how easy it will be to apply it in practice. It will rely on adoption by both the job-seeker and by the recruiter.

            Although, I suppose it’s just an extension of the way we can currently add CV’s to the various job boards out there… So, it may work…

            Not sure it’s quite sorted yet. 😉

        2. You’re right about the deskilled. It is a tough one and there’s often a kind of ‘glass floor’ in evidence when people talk about web 2.0/E2.0/World 2.0 – we’re decidedly not all ‘knowledge workers’.

          Bleakest assessment is ‘they’ all end up on hyperlocal job boards doing odd jobs for the lords of the internet – one thing’s for sure-ish, if it’s not a face:face service it’ll end up outsourced or automated.

          More happily, ‘they’ end up working in Massively Multiplayer Online games.

          Happiest, we discover by experimenting with unqualifications and doing away with school that it was the education system causing the deskilling, the dissatisfaction and the disillusion; a new era of literacy 3.0 blossoms. I’m not sure that producing web portfolios based on your interests is either (a) harder for ‘them’ than school or (b) less informative than an NVQ level 3 in Customer Service.

  2. Great post and follow up comments. I’m completely with Simon.

    I’m becomingly increasingly convinced that the thing we need to get rid of is the exam system. They were originally intended as a measure of achievement, back in the days when the purpose of education was to sort the ‘wheat’ from the ‘chaff’. Now they’re simply an end in themselves.

    If we’re re-imaging the secondary school experience, I suspect it will contain much more ‘real world’ experience. When I apply for a job these day, my GCSEs don’t count. In fact, neither do my A Levels or (I suspect in many cases) my degree. What does count is my experience as a teacher and my effectiveness at communicating that to a potential employer. This is backed up a reference from someone who can hopefully speak for my skills, and a portfolio of relevant examples should I choose. Why can’t we just roll that system back into our new schools.

    I suspect most businesses will be perfectly happy with this (many really aren’t that fussed about the paper qualifications anyway), the only people who may have an issue are those further up the academic ladder, and those people who haven’t realised that the world has changed, and so has the purpose of education.

    1. In a recent blog post Seth Godin talks about how insane it is in today’s
      world that we go with the shiny suit and the firm handshake at interview
      rather than the person with a history of ‘shipping’ (i.e. achieving relevant
      stuff). James Paul Gee talks about how once we embed game-based learning
      theory, we’ll have ‘levelling-up’ instead of exams.

      Can’t wait!

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