Melissa Benn finds this book about the future of education has some elements of good, but requires improvement
Priya Lakhani is a dynamic businesswoman, a barrister-turned-cooking sauce entrepreneur and now the award-winning founder CEO of Century tech (or CENTURY as it is rather distractingly capitalised throughout this book), and currently sits on the UK government’s Artificial Intelligence (AI) Council. A talented and telegenic performer, Lakhani has now produced this punchy, boldly titled polemic which comes garlanded with praise from a range of voices within the current political and educational establishment.
Inadequate claims our education system is not fit for purpose, particularly in the area of Artificial Intelligence, Lakhani’s special area of interest, and industry. As a preface to her proposals for reform, she conscientiously takes us through the development of the so-called fourth industrial revolution and the potentially dazzling, and threatening, implications of AI.
In one of the most interesting parts of the book she discusses the urgent need for ethical regulation, raising the alarming prospect of AI creations so sophisticated they could easily find ways around human attempts to close them down. (If you want to sample the true flavour of the nightmare ahead, imagine hundreds of thousands of Donald Trumps in robot form, refusing to concede power.)
There’s a lot of talk of the need for a “system rethink” but fewer concrete solutions
But while there’s a lot of talk of the need for a “system rethink” and the power of working “smarter, not harder” there are fewer concrete solutions. For example, she identifies routine marking as one of the many mind-numbing, unnecessary data-related tasks that has made contemporary teaching such a miserable job and one that AI could really help with. Rightly concluding that teaching will always remain a largely human endeavour, Lakhani nonetheless uses this opportunity to slip in one of several, by her own admission, “shameless” plugs for CENTURY products.
More broadly, she accuses our education system of failing in a number of key areas – a bloated curriculum, over-rigid accountability measures and inflexible testing and exams, as last summer’s GCSE and A-level debacle made frustratingly clear. Our teachers have no real creative and intellectual freedom, causing them to leave the profession in droves and as a result of all these developments our young people are suffering what appears to be an escalating mental health crisis.
These are significant charges, but they are hardly new. Over the past decade a host of progressive educationalists, campaigners and groups such as Headteachers’ Roundtable (to name but a few) have warned of these developments, only to be knocked back time and again, accused of trying to sabotage the government’s quest for “high standards”.
Not only does Lakhani fail to acknowledge these alternative voices, but she has an unfortunate tendency to characterise anyone with an interest in education – bar herself, I presume? – as either an unhelpful busybody or a dangerously vested interest. This leads to the odd lumping together of a neo-traditionalist figure like Nick Gibb with the teacher unions.
Lakhani makes no mention of the structural problems that shore up our “inadequate” system, including the yawning gap between private and state school resources, the creeping expansion of selection that overwhelmingly benefits the affluent, or undemocratic practices in so many academies, from vastly inflated CEO salaries to the worrying suppression of union activities.
But judging from the book’s influential endorsers, many from within the Tory party, Inadequate signals the new reach and power of a cross-party, cross-sector coalition advocating a limited menu of reform – one that has gathered significant momentum in this crisis year.
For a crisp summary of Lakhani’s valuable proposals, jump to page 141. Here you will find calls for a slimmed-down curriculum, the replacement of our stressful and inefficient exams with more low-stakes assessment, a demand for teachers to be given the freedom to teach and sufficient in-school resources to enable young people to deal with rising stress and actually enjoy their school life.
Let’s hope Lakhani is given more of a hearing within the DfE than the many who have made similar proposals over the past few years and been dismissed out of hand as slothful utopians. I still retain some hope that we can do better as a country. An education system adequately serving the majority of young people would mark a promising start.