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Saturday, 9 August 2014

Towards a Green Approach To Education

"Education without values, as useful as it is, seems rather to make man a more clever devil."
- C.S. Lewis

I do think its time for the Green Party to be speaking louder and more frequently about education. The current education system is under unprecedented attack from the coalition government and I'm not convinced that the departure of Mr Gove will change the general direction of policy. Moreover it is a cliche because it is true that youth are the future and the values and attitudes imbued into them from school and college matter and make a difference. Therefore in this piece I'm going to address two key themes: a Green approach to general education policy and the system and secondly a green approach to educational values and the curriculum.

Firstly the system. The key change that the coalition have made is to prevent local councils from having the power to open new schools. All new schools must be free schools or academies. Moreover the government is encouraging as many existing schools as possible to convert into academies, which means that local councils will no longer have any control over them. Free schools are set up and run  by 'interest groups' independent of local government while academies are still run by their existing management and governors. Both are free to set their own curricula and overall educational ethos.
Some people in the Green movement may be wondering what the problem is with this direction of travel, regarding free schools and academies as giving more choice to parents and greater freedom to teachers in terms of teaching radical ideas. However in reality neither of these is the case. For a free school to be given the go ahead there has to be a 'proven local demand' demonstrated, which in practice means a vocal and well organised 'interest group' with lobbying experience and organisational skills. The vast majority are set up be either religious interests, business people or organised groups of middle class parents who don't want their children mixing  with the "riff raff" at the local comprehensive. The dangers in this are massive. Firstly there has been much reporting in the media recently about the alleged 'Islamic Trojan-horse plot' in Birmingham, involving schools supposedly pushing segregation of the genders and so forth. All I seemed to be reading was about Islamic extremists this and Muslims that as if the problem was an ethnic one and not a systemic one. The simple fact is that if you rip schools away from local authority control and let local interest groups set the agenda with limited accountability then more of this will happen. Christian fundamentalists pushing creationism, businesses using the school to push their products and all manner of twisting and turning of the curriculum becomes easier. In addition, the changes fuel greater inequality as whenever a free school or academy opens up then it sucks funding in that area away from other schools. Free schools get thousands more per sixth form student than do ordinary school sixth forms for example. However don't expect the quality of teaching to be better in the free school as part of their 'freedom' is the ability to pay their staff less and recruit less well qualified teachers.
It is hardly compatible with Green ideas to see a system emerge which creates a fragmented education system where the curricula can be heavily influenced by big business or religious fundamentalists and where more and more 'sink schools' emerge as a result of losing funding , thus increasing inequality.
Furthermore, the more fragmented the system becomes and the greater the role that business plays in schools, the easier it becomes to increase the level of privatisation. Clearly it would be virtually impossible to just privatise all of the compulsory sector however the introduction of fees for sixth form provision is already being talked about in right-wing think tanks. Add to that schools obtaining a major sponsor and that major sponsor (a major corporation) then gets to influence the curriculum and ethos of the school in the direction of their values and interests. You may think I'm scaremongering if I ask you to envisage the 'McDonalds  Academy Colchester' with a big yellow M over the entrance or the 'Simon Cowell Academy of the Performing Arts'. However the direction of travel that the government is taking the system is in the direction of greater corporate sponsorship. The Green movement needs to oppose this loudly.

Regarding values, it seems to me that we live in a time where it has never been more the case that schools need to make the effort to encourage concern for the environment and wider social concerns rather than just becoming exam factories. There is so much testing in the system now and so much cramming for tests and exams that there is a danger that an arid utilitarianism will reign free, where young people are prepared for the 'world of work' with all their exam qualifications and IT skills and the wider enrichment and social and environmental values provision gets squeezed out. Or worse, the corporate business interests and religious fundamentalists determine that enrichment.
Schools can make a difference to social values. One of the big successes has been with E&D (Equality and Diversity) with regard to racial diversity in particular. Thirty years ago racist language was far more common both in schools and in wider society and yet today its very unlikely that you'd hear a pupil using the 'N' or 'P' words in school and where it happened it would be very rapidly dealt with. I'm not suggesting that there are no problems at all anymore and certainly there remains a massive issue with E&D as regards homophobic bullying and language in schools. However compared to thirty years ago much has changed and this is because it has been taken seriously in schools and colleges.
Therefore social enrichment in schools matters because it can make a difference. What should Green social enrichment be like? I'd say the following would be a start:

1) Young people need to be given the opportunity to see and appreciate the natural world not just turned into IT experts. If they spend all of their lives cooped up in front of a computer screen all day then how on earth should they be expected to gain any environmental sense or concern for nature? Schools have a duty to provide opportunities for engagement with the countryside and to instill an interest in wildlife and the state of the planet.

2) Education should be varied and different paths encouraged and equally valued. Trying to force everyone down the academic route is like hammering square pegs into round holes. The system of league tables and constant testing just encourages this barmy attitude that all young people must succeed academically or else they are something lesser. Nowadays this attitude is disguised beneath a veneer of political correctness such as banning the word 'fail' etc but this is just silly. Its the attitude behind it that needs to change. The talented carpenter needs to be seen as just as important as the grade A mathematician. Young people should be encouraged to follow their dreams or learn a trade , whatever, but neither should be seen as lesser than passing academic exams. Schools should not just be judged on exam passes in some crass utilitarian way.

3) Schools should be about learning about social issues, the wider world and about gaining a political sense. In my day there were CND groups in the school and all kinds of political stuff went on. They should be centers of debate not centers of sitting in front of a computer all day. I'd allow all pupils/students up to five days off per year to attend demonstrations of their choice. Imagine the reaction to that one from the Daily Mail.

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