Moral purpose for the Commons

First published on November 2011.

The aftermath of the summer 2011 riots in England saw plenty of recrimination, but precious little by way of education. The government decided, almost from the outset, that the cause was simply ‘criminality’, without offering an explanation as to why so many young people would choose to become criminals, many for the first time. They also seemed disinclined to ask what might be done to prevent such a widespread, disturbing breakdown in law and order from happening again.

My own analysis is that we have many young people in the UK who have become disengaged from civic society. There are complex underlying causes of that disengagement, but at least some of it, I believe, lies in a loss of confidence in the adult world around them. Consider the world from their perspective: one in five young people is currently without work; in terms of income, we live in the third most unequal country in the developed world; recent years have seen a succession of moral scandals affecting establishment pillars including MPs, bankers, the police, the media… Is it any wonder young people are loath to take lectures from those who appear to have ‘made it’ when, in their eyes, they simply ‘have it made’?

And what of education itself? Aren’t schools supposed to be the place where students come to understand the world and find their place in it? Perhaps in Matthew Arnold’s time, but the past two decades have all been about what Michael Barber, former education advisor to Tony Blair, delights in calling ‘deliverology’. Schools, whose performance indicators are exclusively focused around results and efficiency, have become adept at gaming the system. So long as the stakes being tested remain so high, and so narrow, changing the rules simply results in ever more sophisticated strategies to bend them. Some inspirational leaders manage to keep the higher purpose of schooling visible to staff and students alike by doing the right thing. Too many others, however, decide that system compliance is the best course to take, so do the required thing. In the classroom, this invariably means that teachers teach the exam first, the subject second and the child third. Teachers know it and students know it.

In fact, what we need to do is to reverse that order.

If the riots taught us anything, it’s that we need to restore the moral purpose of schooling. Kids see schools for the ‘exam factories’ they’ve become, so civic disengagement begins in school. Disengaged students are often portrayed as disruptive low achievers. This conveniently ignores the ‘disengaged achievers’ – the growing number who know how to pass exams, but at the cost of being turned off further and higher education for life – or what I heard one teacher describe as ‘radiator kids’: not causing trouble but not contributing much either, other than keeping the room warm.

My belief is that, if we want schools to help young people to value their community (rather than trashing it), schools will have to become less like exam factories and more like learning commons. The factory model of schooling talks at kids and talks about them (to others); the commons ask them to talk. The factory prescribes what they need to know; the commons asks them what they are interested in learning. The factory has walls and fences to keep out the community and to keep in ‘the hands’; the commons values learning in the community, with school as the base camp for learning, not the destination. The factory sees parents as a nuisance; the commons sees them as a valuable source of expertise and as learning coaches.

The idea of a learning commons isn’t an old-fashioned one: the characteristics I’ve just described are seen in the phenomenal growth of social learning and in our most innovative global companies. School-as-enclosure (remember over 80% of schools block access to the vast library of video tutorials out there) is struggling even more with user engagement, when what’s available out there is so much more immediate and exciting.

Learning is supposed to be a non-rivalrous activity; if I learn something from you, you still have that knowledge and, in teaching me, you may well deepen that knowledge and learn something new. But the politically imposed competition in the system (everything from International PISA tables to school exam results) makes collaboration difficult and drives creativity out of our curricula. There is no better example of this than the English Baccalaureate.

Under so much pressure, it’s little wonder that schools are struggling to calibrate their moral compass. But we can help them. As parents and voters, we can demand that our politicians allow schools to prioritise creativity alongside literacy, values-based curricula over results-driven ‘deliverology’, and a culture of collaborative enquiry over cut-throat competition.

Perhaps then we’ll have students doing projects in and with our communities, not setting them alight.

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Illustrations by Paul Davis -