Broadly speaking, it's nice to think that we've been making progress in many areas over the years, including science, medicine, the way we build houses and the way we use energy. Unfortunately we can't speak so positively of the British education system. Certainly this is a topic of much current debate and some improvements have been made to the National Curriculum as a result of ongoing discussion. We also continue to argue for various changes based on successful foreign schooling models and visions from highly-regarded figures like Sir Ken Robinson and founder of Khan Academy Salman Khan.
We know that the two most successful schooling models, in Korea and Finland, are marked as polar opposites across the vast ocean that is systematic educational learning, but what do we choose to do with this information? In Korea there is an emphasis on working hard and a belief that everyone can succeed through hard work, which gives the country a 100% literacy rate but also puts immense pressure on Korean children. Former Minister of Education Michael Gove, who wanted to 'implement a cultural revolution just like the one they've had in China' in Britain, ignored the fact that culture is a fluid and natural occurrence that cannot be altered overnight, and that the commitment to work ethic in China is vastly different to the way we view work here in Britain.
Meanwhile, Finland has a more gentle approach to learning: its schools favour short days for children, short working hours for teachers, shun inspections and have few examinations, and overall encourage children's personal learning interests. Of the two examples, British politicians have tended toward the draconian, but few of us realise that our specific criticisms of British schools have in fact barely changed in the last 45 years. In addition, the draconian approach of more exams and longer hours of studying clearly doesn't work in Britain, but we continue to pursue it. Why?
I only realised how little has changed myself, despite having worked in a school for a few years, when I read The Little Red Schoolbook, written by educationalists Soren Hansen and the late Jesper Jensen, and recently published by Pinter & Martin in all its uncensored glory.
Published in 1971 and banned shortly afterwards, the LRSB was prosecuted under the Obscene Publications Act on the grounds of explicit sexual content. Inevitably, some of the content is now out of date - it's stance on pornography as being harmless, for example, was easier to argue pre-internet era when porn was only available in difficult-to-obtain magazines. However, what's striking is just how much of this book is still relevant today in terms of what our children are learning- and not learning- at school.
As older people we are apt to moan about the youth of today, but the reality is that we criticise them for apathy and lack of engagement while teaching them to repeat our words like parrots. Children today are taught what we think we should teach them and what we think will best prepare them for the world- a changing technological world that we struggle to keep up with- rather than encouraging them to think for themselves or to follow their own learning interests.
Some people in Britain have been acting on this realisation, which perhaps explains the rise of alternative education options like forest school, home education, free schools and Steiner education. What these models offer is what the authors of LRSB hit upon in their book: that one of the key problems with the issue of improvement in education is that the people involved don't get much of a say. Hansen and Jensen have this radical notion that children themselves can help to make the rules, and that they should defy the authorities in order to have a say in how they are educated - an idea that is as radical today as when the book was first published.
If knowledge is power then this book could radically change our failing education system.
For example, the authors argue that exams 'make teaching inflexible, and they only measure academic knowledge. They cannot measure a person's real abilities and the contribution he may be able to make to society'. Roll on 45 years and we are still arguing about this point, but exams are becoming more commonplace and children are being tested through examinations earlier than ever before (thank you, Mr Gove). Also, the book states that: 'A recent study showed that 25 per cent of all school-leavers are virtually illiterate when they leave school' which, according to the publisher's footnote, 'hasn't changed much in 40 years' with similar rates of illiteracy upon leaving school today.
The authors also point out that: 'Some people believe that school cannot really be changed until the whole of society is changed. They are right. Others believe that society cannot be changed until school is changed. They have a point too. Society is made up of people, and it can only be changed by people. People are affected by what they know and what they are able to do. Everybody is affected by their years at school.'
This is something we can all learn from, as adults who are members of a broken political system which will be inherited by young people who are in a broken schooling system. We must fix one to fix the other, and major change is required to break the vicious cycle. I say that change is young people. I say, give them a say in what they learn and how they learn it. Let them follow their interests, and stop inspecting and examining them at every corner. You'll probably say that that is unrealistic. But it's not meant to sound realistic. It's meant to sound radical. Because a radical approach is just what we need to change the way our education system works (or doesn't work), after 45 years of a stagnant lack of progress. Let's give it a chance and put this book in the hands of our young people - we might be surprised at the results.