Curiosity, Autonomy and a Teacher's Faith Restored

12/01/2016 08:48 GMT | Updated 11/01/2017 10:12 GMT

I began as a boy from a home broken by divorce and raised within the deprivation of one of the UKs poorest areas, where half the adult population has a primary school level of numeracy. Now I have a PhD from a Russell Group university and teach chemistry in a top independent school - I might be considered a poster boy for the importance of education to social mobility.

If only it were that straightforward. I worked hard to obtain a 'good' education, and my academic history suggests that I succeeded in that. However, my education didn't give me what I needed the most - rather, it left me with a massive amount to learn, and some important misconceptions to deal with as a young adult. More relevant, perhaps, I came to the view that all the fear of failure, as well as the stress and panic brought on by exams, was a drain on my development. Furthermore, examination failed to assess properly my academic abilities and those of my peers. Our progress was defined not by how we performed in school on a day-to-day basis, rather our years of work were judged on our ability to recall exam-friendly information on a handful of days, with this pattern repeated to a large extent at university. The fear of failure was present throughout my education, indeed for as long as I can remember.

Having qualified as a teacher and taken up the profession in the state sector I left, dispirited. Social mobility and the part I thought I could play had been the reason I went into teaching. However, I quickly became disillusioned by the state system, with the feeling that I was wasting my time and education, making me vow never to teach again. However, fate has brought me back, albeit to the independent sector. Working at Bedales School has since restored my faith - had I enjoyed the benefit of such an education myself, I suspect my rather bumpy ride in life would have been a great deal smoother.

Consequently, I am insistent that things should be different for the young people I teach. For this we need to look at how we assess their achievements which, in turn, demands that we are clear about the outcomes we seek. This is especially salient given the announcement in November by Education Secretary Nicky Morgan that seven year olds are to be subjected to more 'robust and rigorous' tests, and her observation that this should be considered a part of normal school life.

Fortunately I am now part of an institution that is both imaginative and happy to be different, a school where the 'whole' student is educated. Bedales has always been pioneering: it was the first non-Quaker co-educational boarding school in the UK, and the merits of outdoor work (a big new-educational 'thing') is innate to our modus operandi. Recently, and more pertinent to the point of my of argument, is the introduction of Bedales Assessed Courses as an improvement (recognised by UCAS) on what the school saw as narrow, prescriptive GCSEs, inadequate to the task of helping young people to question, challenge and make mistakes as part of their learning.

Such a novel take on education fuels my passion for teaching, although Bedales' guiding principle that engaging in this way goes hand in hand with high performance is contentious to say the least. In an article in The Telegraph, Barnaby Lenon, head of the Independent Schools' Council and former head of Harrow, expresses the view that exams are an essential element of a child's education, because of the value of committing knowledge and information to the long-term memory. Exams have their place, of course, but I have to take issue with the academic merits of such an approach alone. I have seen too many able, bright and keen students crushed by the exam system, and I do not share the Education Secretary's confidence that, somehow or other, schools and parents will manage the pressure on children. Is that really the best we can do?

I believe the approach to learning I have seen at Bedales is a better education because the model has at its centre the stimulation of curiosity and autonomy. The teenage me - able, passionate and hungry to learn - would have thrived on such a model, and thus entered adult life with a far more useful view of myself, my subject, the world and how I might engage with it. That, to my mind, is a kind of social mobility that is genuinely worth creating! Would I still have been a chemist? I love my discipline, so quite possibly - but I suspect my eyes would also have been opened much earlier to alternatives including the arts. Ultimately, whatever career path I might have taken, it's more likely that I would have understood it as the fruit of my studies, rather than a counter-offensive against what I have come to see as a stale and aging educational system.