From ‘Children & Young People Now’, 10 December 2009 by Howard Williamson
UK Youth hosted a conference at Windsor Castle at the end of November on the future of learning. Chaired by yours truly, it sought to examine and debate what kinds of learning young people need for the 21st century, including “non-formal” learning.
Keynote contributors were Guy Claxton, author of What’s the Point of School? and Richard Pring, leader of the Nuffield 14 to 19 education review and co-author of the recent Education for All. Tim Loughton, the shadow children’s minister, took part in a panel debate. Though only a small number of people were physically present, it is estimated that 20,000 individuals followed the proceedings closely.
The ideas produced were very different from the developments around academies, the preferred educational trajectory of both the government and the opposition.
These flagship schools were meant to promote both economy (through private sector investment) and excellence, but seem to have done neither. There has been a triple whammy of negative publicity in recent weeks. First, the United Learning Trust, which runs 17 such schools, was banned from taking on any more until standards in its existing schools improved. Second, many of the sponsors who were meant to pledge in the region of a tenth of the overall investment in a new academy have actually contributed nowhere near that amount. And then – the icing on the cake – the new primary school league tables report that the school with the worst average point score (nil point!) is an academy: the first publicly funded Steiner school in the UK, the Steiner Academy in Hereford.
Paradoxically, Steiner is on a bit of a roll at the moment. The Cambridge Review of Primary Education, the first of its kind for 40 years, appears to have endorsed much of the thinking and many of the approaches that have always been advocated in Steiner education: learning through play, not starting formal school until the age of six, a commitment to a broader curriculum, a resistance to teaching to the test, and attention to an individual’s spiritual and emotional needs. This approach, traditionally dismissed as rather wishy-washy, has recently been applauded by shadow schools secretary Michael Gove, for producing commendable and credible education outcomes. The Tories appear to be leaning towards closer engagement with the Steiner movement and an interest in its “nurturing capacity”.
So how will the Tories deal with the Hereford scenario? We don’t know, any more than we really know the school’s level of educational performance. Although the sponsors applied successfully for academy status, the parents refused to let their children take the national tests. Will this remain an isolated incident or the start of things to come? Have parents and others (like many at the Windsor conference) finally had enough of politically inspired knee-jerk educational nonsense? We’ll see.
Howard Williamson is professor of European youth policy at the University of Glamorgan