With the results of England’s 11+ exam looming for many children, Professor Miah inquiries into what we need from the future of education, after having spent the last year supporting his child’s preparation to take this controversial assessment.
Last week was a big week for my son and me; as he sat his secondary school entrance exam, what we call the 11+ here in the UK. We spent over a year preparing for this and it’s been a challenging, emotional journey for both of us.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with the UK high school system, it’s quite simple to understand. Some schools are called secondary comprehensives and everyone can access those schools, regardless of academic ability. As long as you live within the local catchment area, you stand a good chance of your child being offered a place at a comprehensive, as long as you remember to tell the local authority about your preference. If you don’t, then your child will end up with whatever the local authority decides is most suitable for them.
Alongside this, we also have selective schools, which have various entrance requirements, but most of them involve some kind of exam designed to test a variety of, well, that’s one of the big problems with these tests. There’s no consensus over what they test or whether they test it effectively. And it’s the difficulty with answering this question that kicks off this entire episode. What is it that we assess when we examine children in schools? It’s a hugely controversial subject, especially when it comes to public education, but, in my mind, having some good answers to this question is central to thinking about the future of education, as it’s all about what it is we think we know and what we think is worth learning in order to be the best we can to secure our future, either as individuals, or as societies.
The opinions vary about these tests, before we even get into the ideological and sociological problems associated with creating a two tier education system, where one section professes to be better than the other. The tests themselves sharply divide people. Critics will argue that the entrance exams test mostly for privilege.
Those who have the resources around them to help prepare for the exam are most likely to pass and these children tend to come from families that are stable and affluent and these, of course, tend to reflect a particular demographic grouping. It has become common now for many children whose parents seek for them to take the 11+ to rely on a tutor system, which is criticised for, both, being a financial commitment that many cannot afford, but also because it can involve ‘teaching to the test’; a system that most good teachers would consider to be barely teaching at all.
More generously, these exams seek to assess the academic attainment of a child, identifying how far they have progressed in their studies. In this way, it might be seen as a system that is fundamentally meritocratic, rewarding children for their hard work at school, so far.
Yet another assessment of their worth goes back to their origins in 1944. The creator of the 11+ exam sought for them to assess potential; it was thought to ascertain who would be more likely to excel academically versus those who would be best suited to an education that was ‘technical’ In fact, this was the language used to describe these different pathways, there were schools described as Technical Schools, set up to produce graduates who had skills that were of practical use within society. And this language still pervades the education system today, where universities speak with pride about their technical provision, rather than their academic pathways.
Regardless of which version you accept of what the 11+ does, it has the effect of splitting up children into different groupings, as a result of its deployment and this segregation of children at such an early stage of their lives has been widely criticised, both for failing to support children throughout their lives, but also in its creating a two tier society.
In the 1970s, the UK’s labour government sought to overturn this system, stopping short by allowing local authorities to choose whether or not they continue with the 11+ system. Some did, some didn’t. I grew up in a place that didn’t. My son did and he is right in the middle of the system as I type. In less than a month, he will find out which route he will take, as we await the outcome of his exam.
My own educational experience is already very different from his and not just because of the exam. I went to a comprehensive — the name given to schools within local authorities where there is no selective system — those schools that fall within the geographic areas that chose to remove the 11+ in the 1970s. In such locations, the population of those schools spans the entire range of the local community, except for those who may have gone to private schools. Those schools still remain all over the UK, regardless of whether the 11+ exists or not.
When I first became aware of the 11+ I had no strong feelings about it. While I went through a system where there was no segregation, it wasn’t something I grew up feeling proud of; I probably wasn’t very aware of it at all. And while I enjoyed school, I don’t really have feelings of pride about the system I experienced. I wasn’t brought up switched on to matters of ideological concern.
As an adult, working in the higher education sector, my feelings have changed or rather emerged. I cherish openness and seek for my own child to have access to all that the world has to offer him and for him to have the ability to choose the path he seeks for himself. I’m passionately against the idea that certain pathways may not be available to him, just because he didn’t go to the right school, or because he isn’t a person of religious faith.
For his life, I try to follow a simple principle, an idea articulated by philosopher Joel Feinberg who argues that we should seek always to maximise the range of options that are available to our children, and take actions that amplify these possibilities so that, one day, they can make their own choice in whatever direction they value.
Of course, the problem we face as parents is that every single day is characterised by the pursuit of one thing rather than another, or even nothing at all. Do we play the piano? Pick up a guitar? Go for a run? Do some homework? Watch some television? Meet friends? Game Paint? Or — and this is one of our personal favourites, play the sock game? A game which involves sitting on the floor opposite each other attempting to throw a rolled up sock into a slipper. It’s a compelling and competitive sport.
We are a species that, unavoidably, must choose a pathway. And this has become a measure of our success. To have choices is now synonymous with freedom, or, at least, it has been for many years. The achievements of our species have become defined by whether or not they maximise the pursuit of free choice.
And we have to make choices constantly over the paths our children take. There are some parents who let their children decide almost everything, from what time they get up in the morning, to how much television they watch, what they eat, and even what school they choose to go to. We believe that promoting such autonomy is the best way to nurture independence, having been brought up to believe that the ability to make choices is a critical indicator of our maturity.
We are so far down the road of choice maximisation that it’s now becoming clear that this may not be the best way to go. Too many choices can lead to an overemphasis on decision making and on individualism, the idea that our choices should be about us, rather than about others. We choose what is right for us, rather than what is right for the community. Choice is treated as an assertion of our individuality, the elevation of my agency over any sense of wider responsibility. We even think about our pursuit of individual freedom as a scarce resource, as if more freedom for me will mean less for others.
In this way, freedom becomes a matter of competition rather than the pursuit of a collective good that all can enjoy. Our society’s focus on the right to choose may explain why we are so bad at dealing with the pandemic, as we all are focused on the lives we think we should be allowed to live, rather than what the whole of our global community needs from each of us.
All of these things cause me to think about the future of education, which is at the heart of many of the problems we face as a society. Education affects not just how to progress as individuals, institutions or populations, but how we thrive as a planetary community. In David Attenborough’s most recent documentary, A Life on Our Planet, he identifies education — education of girls and women specifically — as one of the crucial components of creating a more sustainable population.
Education matters not just for our own prosperity, but for the planet’s survivability, to curtail humanity’s tendency to expand its number far beyond its need for survival. As well, the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals have education at the heart of many of their priorities, not just the one that explicitly focuses on education.
Among the things that I’ve learned as a parent is how setting the boundaries of expectations for children leads them to establish their own sense of normality.
My son has a really healthy lunchbox everyday, but on Fridays, he’s allowed to take some junk food. And on the last day of the school year, he is allowed to fill his lunch box with absolutely anything he chooses. He goes a little mad, of course, but on that day, he also still chooses to include some lettuce, cucumber and tomatoes on that day.
He has assimilated the habit of eating healthily by being required to eat like this for nearly all of his meals. As well, we limit screen time a lot. He gets 1 hour of gaming during the school week — far less than his friends, I am assured — but he really values that hour and, on the last day of the school year, he’s allowed to game all night! Literally, all night. But he tends to stop about 12 and goes to bed.
Early on in his gaming life, it was treated like any other after school activity; a once a week affair, rather than an any-free-moment expectation. We sometimes have set backs and he wants more of the stuff that is restricted, but generally, his life is pretty balanced.
And this leads me to today’s inquiry into the future of education, a subject which would, on any other day, take me in the direction of how technologies are going to change how we learn and teach. This is generally what people ask me to write about. Yet, today, I’m more mindful of how hard it is to predict the future of our education system, in part because what we consider to be worth learning changes over time.
The future of education is as much a future of the things we think we need to learn as it is about the things we think are worth learning. The difference between the two is that the latter may not serve any instrumental purpose to the productivity or indeed survivability of a species, but it will speak volumes to the kind of quality of life that we seek to enjoy during our lives.
The tension that many societies wrestle with is between the need to prioritise skills or forms of knowledge that are in the service of productivity, and the pursuit of those things that are designed to improve our quality of life, without any need for further justification. And while one may be tempted to think that there is a hierarchy between the two, we are wiser to consider that they are complementary parts of a system that perishes without any one component. This is not to say that all forms of life enhancement are equal.
When one thinks back to a period in which music and theatre were simple matters of a community’s oral traditions, rather than complex creative productions, it is apparent that the complexity of our life enhancers can take many forms, not just those that are presently thriving or at least which were thriving before the pandemic.
We don’t need Spotify or Soundcloud in order to safeguard the future of music. We don’t even need professional musicians, but the measure of a civilisation is found in its capacity to support the cultivation of such arts at such advanced levels. A nation with great artists is revered for its excellence by other nations; the works of those artists are sought by others to participate in that excellence.
I am certainly not one to argue for the dismantling of culture and creativity, especially not in these times when we need the arts more than ever to keep us company in our isolation. We would be lost without our creative artistic community, members of which are often the frontline of truth-telling within our social world. And without their authenticity or ability to occupy the space in our lives reserved for trivialities, or their pursuit of an honest reflection of the good and the beautiful, we would live lives of great sadness, unable to discern falsity.
Yet, it is also clear that our cultural world consists of a series of time-bound manifestations. Today’s theatres with their complex health and safety obligations are a world away from the amphitheatres of ancient Greece. Some years from now they will be very different from how they look today. Today’s musicians, whose music is syndicated through digital downloads bears nearly no relation to the ancient art of music, how it was experienced or how it was created.
And while we may lament the loss of the past versions of these artistic cultures and their creative communities, we do not do so so with great intent. There are no movements to revive lost arts, which are, instead, now found only in those museums and galleries that seek to remind us that they once existed and that they also mattered. And it is enough to say simply that knowledge of their history still matters, even if their practice is lost to today’s people. They may yet be revived some time in the future.
The same is true of the sciences, many versions of which are confined to the history books. Discoveries which have undoubtedly informed our present levels of intellectual enlightenment are always destined to be overturned and consigned to history. We have no need to value these early achievements, save for their reminding us that there is continuity in our intellectual development. Knowledge does not emerge from a vacuum.
Even those insights that may be described as epiphanies or moments of pure invention where we get close to the semblance of a novel or unique idea, these moments are still located within a context, a social setting that must be able to nurture these ideas and allow them to bubble up to the surface and influence our our social and biological worlds.
To do so they must go through a range of gatekeeping structures, the purpose of which is to hold such perspectives to account and demand that they evidence their insights. It is not enough for me to have an idea or a theory about the world without also testing it against the views of the people who are most capable of interrogating its significance.
This aspect of education is the cornerstone of intellectual progress and, in academia, we call it peer review. Even if you’re not in academia you’ll know how the system works, as it underpins nearly all social media platforms today. Every time you choose to do something just because someone else has liked it on Facebook, or reviewed it favourably on Amazon, you are entering into a system that is similar to how knowledge develops. We propose something. We invite others to give their opinion. And if there’s enough consensus, we develop that idea or pursue that course of action.
And so, when I think about the future of education, I think how important it is that we maintain criticality in everything we do. Regardless of what artificially intelligent robots can do that’s better than us, we must always remain critical of what things are worth knowing, both for practical reasons and just because they improve our quality of life.
Taking an exam to assess a person’s ability isn’t all we should do, but if we don’t test ourselves, then we lose sight of our own progress. We lose opportunities to intervene and rethink how to optimise the learning process. And while this is not a defence of the 11+ in the UK, it is a defence for challenging oneself and for this to involve accepting challenges that are not simply the ones we choose to pursue. In fact, challenging ourselves, where we would really rather not be challenged, may be just the right thing for all of us.
Nevertheless, we should be absolutely clear about one thing. The 11+ does not test for natural ability, I know this as I’ve spent a year supporting my son through the work programme it demands. The 11+ tests entirely for what a child has been able to spend time learning and practising.
And, since much of what it contains is not taught in Year 5, a child taking the exam at the beginning of Year 6 will only do well if they have been lucky enough to have been supported in that journey.
So, I’d really rather the test didn’t exist, but I hope for his sake, after all the work he’s put in, that he does well.