“If I were education secretary I would…”

The first thing I would do is drastically limit my own powers, and those of my successors, by irreversibly vesting a major chunk of them in a non-political National Institute of Education (NIE).

Politicians are condemned by the nature of the political process and by their own lack of experience to — or at least appear to — think superficially, plan only for the short term, and always do too little, too noisily and too late. Politicians are a major reason why education develops to meet the needs of changing times so slowly. The NIE would abolish the nonsense of commercially-motivated, competing examination boards and create a single not-for-profit body to oversee qualifications. Equity would be enhanced by ensuring that all tests would have to assess students’ improvement rather than achievement.

The NIE would also produce a detailed menu of the personal “character strengths” that schools might commit to developing in their students. Schools would have to agree and publish their own customised list of these strengths, specify the methods by which they would cultivate them, and show how they would evaluate their success in developing them. A major role for a humane successor to Ofsted would be to probe justifications for these choices and methodologies, and to act as critical friends to schools in seeking ever more effective ways of achieving these worthy goals. The obsession with GCSEs, A-levels and university entrance as metrics of a school’s success would be forcibly mitigated by rigorous attention to these additional valued outcomes.

It will be essential that no national consensus about these matters should exist, or be sought. A major part of the value of this innovation is that schools and clusters have to think and talk about the deepest purposes of education for themselves. However, schools’ justifications will need to take account of the real mental challenges that students are being prepared to face, such as the need to assay knowledge claims in a knowledge-heavy world, and the need to manage one’s own attention in the face of commercially-driven bombardments. Platitudes about “grit”, “self-regulation” or “creativity” will not suffice.

To be accredited, schools will have to provide evidence that they are successfully cultivating these really useful dispositions in students choosing vocational, technical and practical forms of learning, at least as well as they are in the academically-inclined. The NIE will be asked to consider the virtues of requiring all school leavers (especially the “brightest”) to produce physical as well as literary and digital objects that are beautiful and useful, that require considerable hard work, and of which the makers are genuinely proud.

Guy Claxton is co-author of Educating Ruby: What Our Children Really Need to Learn (Crown House, 2015) @GuyClaxton


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