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Why We Need to Make a Song and Dance About Education

19/09/2014 12:20 BST | Updated 12/11/2014 10:59 GMT

Two things in recent weeks have encapsulated for me the highs and lows of working in education. The release of the latest report by the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission,Elitist Britain?, is a predictably depressing reminder of just how all-pervading the class structure is in our society, and how pernicious is its effect on life chances if you're born into the 'wrong' stratum. It reinforces our understanding of the stranglehold a small elite has on the levers of power, broadly defined across all aspects of public life. Alan Milburn, the Commission Chair, hopes that 'this report prompts a re-think in the institutions that have such a critical role to play in making Britain a country where success relies on aptitude and ability more than background or birth,' and the Report makes sensible recommendations aimed at those institutions - government, universities, businesses and schools - that perpetuate this benighted status quo.

Employers should indeed 'broaden the range of universities they recruit from', 'build non-graduate routes, and advertise work experience and pay internships'. Universities should 'use contextual admissions to gain a rounder picture of a student', and someone, anyone simply has to 'close the gap in quality careers advice...' These and other similarly broad-brush recommendations ('parents should support children's education...') could have some impact, in time and with a strong tailwind. But we don't have time. There are children just starting school who need us to get this right now, for them, not in 10 or 15 years time when we've finished tinkering around the edges. Because what they need from us is something radical. They need us to re-think not just the structure of education, but what we want from it; not just how we can educate our young people to ensure we maximise the talents and experiences of all, but why, and to what end? What sort of society do we want and how can education, that most fundamental engine of social transformation, help us to achieve it? So the SMCPC Report left me depressed, because I see no way that its recommendations will really propel us towards the revolution that is needed.

But my faith was restored by an interview on BBC Radio 4's The Educators with Sir Ken Robinson, whose 2006 TED talk 'How Schools Kill Creativity' has been watched by over 28 million viewers. Here is a man with an inspiring vision for education which has everything - a passionate belief in its power, a real understanding of how and why children learn, a burning desire that every child's talent should be found and nurtured, and a crystal clear argument that the skills they will need for the jobs of the future cannot possibly be nurtured by an education system which he so compellingly demonstrates has had creativity stamped out of it. If an alien landed tomorrow, he challenges us, what would they surmise our education system to be for? The creation of university professors who - I paraphrase - live in their heads, and view their bodies only as vehicles for moving their heads to meetings.

This is a man who contends, utterly convincingly, that teaching children dance is as important as teaching them maths. We need to apply his ideas about creativity - and thinking creatively about the way children are taught - not just to the curriculum, but more broadly to the institutions that deliver it and the very society in which they are embedded. It's time not just to have 'a re-think' as the Commission suggests, but to re-imagine our education system away from the relentless pursuit of league table position and conveyor belt graduates and then to act, urgently and purposefully, to make it happen. Only then will we truly have an opportunity to tackle the negative aspects of the elitism on which the Commission so rightly shines its spotlight.

Sir Ken Robinson talks about the importance of giving children the time and space to make, and learn from, mistakes. Ironically we appear to have taken the first part of that injunction to heart in relation to the education system and to have spent years making mistakes, while ignoring almost entirely the absolutely critical need to learn from our errors. If we don't start to do that now, in earnest, then we can expect another similar report from the SMCPC in 5 years' time, and the suggestion that 'meritocracy and fairness are core values' in Britain will sound increasingly specious.

It might sometimes seem an insurmountable task, especially in the face of the dreary picture painted by Mr Milburn and his colleagues, but we must believe that the educational revolution envisioned by Sir Ken Robinson is not just possible but essential for our children's future. I for one shall be joining him, dancing, on the barricades.