Peter Tait Education

Peter Tait Education

Common Era or Common Entrance: A Talk to the Oxford Group of Prep School Heads, 24th January, 2019

EducationPosted by Peter Tait Sat, January 26, 2019 13:08:44

I must say I am surprised to be back talking about Common Entrance. It’s thirteen years since I spoke to the Senior School Academic Deputies and Directors of Studies about Common Entrance at their conference in Lisbon in 2006 and various conferences thereafter. Although I was a director of ISEB - embarrassingly when I took my own school out of the humanities which I felt were dry and simply asked children to regurgitate knowledge without any analysis or thought - I couldn’t help but feel that significant reform was needed – and I am pleased to note since then, most subjects have had a thorough overhaul and it is a different examination, albeit with the same constraints.

But in the aftermath of the decision by the three schools, Westminster, St Paul’s and Wellington College that led to this discussion today, please indulge me for a minute while I offer a reminder about senior schools and the use they made of common entrance when it suited them to do so.

They really had it good! They didn’t have to prepare papers, supervise exams, justify their marking of exams, pay for any of the costs and, along with GSA and IAPS got a cut of some 80k, money taken from prep school parents and schools for their convenience - what a service!

But that wasn’t enough. CE didn’t evolve quickly enough, some subjects were content laden and soulless so that despite the convenience of what CE offered them, despite the wonderful bargain it represented, senior schools started to get edgy about filling their lists and hence looked at new ways of assessing their intake through entrance tests and scholarships that got earlier and earlier so they could get the jump on their rivals. It had nothing to do with education and complete disregard of how prep schools were structured. The action of three schools was no surprise, only disapponting in that the school decided to make a story out of it for their own ends. The irony is that it has taken this long after the conference in 2011 on Common Entrance: Fatally Flawed or Fighting Fit at Wellington College in 2011 at which Sir Anthony Seldon was hugely critical of Common Entrance for Wellington College in particular, to move. But we shouldn’t get hung up on their decision.

After all, is Is there anyone here on any of the Boards of those three schools?

And How many prep schools are even acknowledged when the these august schools get their raft of Oxbridge places, due in large part to your work in prep schools pushing them close to, or beyond GCSE level on arrival?

Deciding a new curriculum isn’t about Common Entrance –it’s about what is the best education that we can give to our children. So forget senior schools. They are so constrained by exams, so desperate to retain their league table place, under siege from the Charities commission, the press, defending IGCSEs, establishing schools abroad etc they don’t care. . . . nor should you think they act in our interests because they don’t. If they could get all their intake from primary schools they’d do it as it would tick more public benefit boxes. If their roll drops, they lower their intake to Yr 7 entry as had happened in parts of London without any discussion – or if they may go to co-ed from 11. Either way, when times get tight, self-interest rules.

All of which can be very liberating if prep schools use this freedom to ask the bigger question of ‘what is the best education we can give to our children?’ and place it inside a bigger question, which is how do we survive in a new marketplace without our traditional raison d’etre?

Before answering the question of a new curriculum, however, I do want to acknowledge the work being done at ISEB to widen consultation and to lead change.

I appreciate that many here will want the status quo albeit as an exit exam not an entrance exam - in which case an examination that will require common marking – something I’m sure ISEB will pick up on. And also that talking about Common Entrance is akin to talking about Brexit with its various constituencies. But we should be happy that CE has a future for those schools who want it. On the other hand, I hope that ISEB may look at what it is examining by working with prep schools to help influence a curriculum that sets prep schools apart, is more relevant to our needs and gives our children an intellectual robustness, new attitudes and values that will help them in a brave new world.

So what form would this new curriculum take? It would need to be more than tinkering. More than adding a few new trendy subjects. More than the Prep School Baccalaureate offers. Some schools have already looked at History, Geography and Theology and added some of the human sciences such as psychology and economics, but more than that. More than bringing in languages or public speaking and debating. More than creating extra-curricular clubs or activities to diversify the offering.

None of that would be enough to create a curriculum that would be truly distinctive, bespoke to prep schools, relevant to what is going on in education while also embedding environmental and social responsibility into every subject.

Yet here we are in 2019 with the opportunity to create a different curriculum

When I began looking at what a new curriculum could look like from age 4 – 19 years I started with something that resonated with me in an article on what children wanted to be when they left school and the two most popular answers from the children were rich and famous. And I reflected on the alumni of the independent sector and the way they represent us and wonder ‘are we teaching our children how to think ethically and of others rather than self - of community or the planet rather than GDP and wealth? And when we consider the growing influence of infotech and biotech, of nanotechnology and unbridled social media and technology, of the need for ethics in weapon and medical research and of the ethical vacuum in politics, in industry, in law, in financial services, whether we are doing enough to make good citizens, as a sector, let alone as a country (i)

As a response to my own question, at present, I’m involved in producing a curriculum for Years 7&8 predicated on ethics and sustainability, and as a trustee of a charity www.operationfuturehope working in environmental education and re-wilding school grounds, giving talks to schools and thereby teaching children to think about their world and their future in a more ethical way. In that curriculum we ask some fundamental questions including:

1. What are our human values?

2. How do we make decisions? Designing a flow chart.

3. Fake news and critical thought.

4. What is philosophy

5. What is anthropology

6. How well do we know our world?

7. Trees and birds – know our own world

8. Climate Change

9. Setting up and running a weather station (P)

10. Making our own power through solar panels (P)

11. Economic models and the economic doughnut

12. Responsibility

13. Re-wilding

14. Conservation – our responsibilities

15. Our local environs

16. Animal conservation

17. What can we do? Activism is a dirty word.

18. History and myth

19. Financial literacy and business ethics

That way, we can encourage children to see themselves as part of a family, but not centre stage, to get them to think about their communities and their part in those communities. We should encourage them to be thinking globally, from a young age for that is the future. Without denigrating the huge impact of ‘Every Child Matters’ in safeguarding, sadly parents took the maxim to mean ‘ my child matters more than anything or anyone else’ thereby placing the child at the hub of the family rather than as one of the satellites moving about lunar parents. While I might agitate that ‘Every Pensioner Matters’, the truth is a better message would have been ‘every person matters’ or in extremis, ‘every sentient being matters.’ We’re not quite there yet! But this generation are up for it and want it to happen.

Clearly we don’t want to throw out what works or jeopardise what we do well now and that is our academic and wider education offering, those subjects we do particularly well, our core subjects, classics and languages, but we should see if we can use our independence to create a curriculum that is more relevant to the issues that affect us all - and most important seek to change the attitudes to learning, to the environment and to each other.

We cannot join just extend what we do, and add an extra language, a few human sciences, more drama and art and music, debating, coding, a little technology, and call it a new curriculum, because it’s not about adding new content or replacing old with new. Last year there were 213 suggestions in the press about what should be included in our curriculum – the largest groups being in health, finance and technology – and we all know the curriculum is the dumping ground for new ideas. But on the other hand, when we look at a list of some of the most advertised jobs in 2018 - Data science manager, engagement managers, senior mobile developers, Cloud solutions architect, strategic sourcing specialist – and the skills they are crying out for: creativity, critical thinking, flexibility –we do have to ask what we are teaching and why. For instance, we all know about ox-bow lakes: my father was taught about them as was I – and those I taught had more of the same. When we look at the various domains of Geography, a subject which has expanded in recent years in all its domains: human, economic, spatial, physical, environmental – we realise we have to make decisions about what to keep and what to off-load knowing it will still be there at the end of a google lifeline. The sum total of knowledge is doubling every year and we cannot keep expanding our curriculum by adding more. In any new curriculum we have to choose who inhabits the framework and ensure that it is better / more relevant / more appropriate than what it’s replaced.

In writing a new curriculum, we should consider how we should respond to the four biggest challenges facing us: Artificial Intelligence, climate change, terrorism, mental and physical health. Ias as ector, I worry about our conservatism and our hypocrisy as educators, pushing our children harder and harder and catering for burnout by employing counsellors, force-feeding information into children so they grow up content rich, but unable to process all they know. I am a believer in knowledge and skills working together – one cannot exist without the other – but not of front-end loading that happens in GCSEs and A Levels. Less can be more and prep schools should focus on understanding and utility of knowledge rather than the amount.

I wondered what David Attenborough would suggest as a curriculum? Many here no doubt promote forest schools and Green School awards, but we can get children thinking differently about green issues – one reason why the conservation and environmental education of operation future hope with its focus on regeneration attracted me. How many children live their school values in their behaviour and attitudes and in their day to day living? And how many will continue to do so after they leave? Ask those at Canary Wharf, consumed with careers and the acquisition of wealth and weep.

Getting the framework is key as is determining the purpose and function of a curriculum. It may well be a curriculum based in greater part on the human sciences and the creative arts, but it has to carry parents and senior schools by ensuring they are getting more, not less. So the packaging is important.

There are so many ideas out there: promoting languages / lectures / Lamda courses for a year group, ESB, Grade One Music Theory for a year group / courses in critical thinking, more focus on Oracy, especially debating; studying the Human Sciences such as anthropology and psychology; Tackling health issues like Obesity through exercise; Climate Change; Artificial Intelligence, fake news; understanding Biotech and infotech / coding, literature / economics / Art History / Doughnut economics, how to use technology to advance rather than enhance learning (and area where we all follow like sheep); looking at our school grounds as learning environments through re-wilding, labelling trees, ornithology, expanding the creative arts: drama, music, art, technology, TED talks, e-learning and so on and so on. The challenge is how to present a new offering into a manageable whole with a sound rationale while protecting what we already do well? What will this curriculum look like? And once the premise has been established, can it be rolled out across prep schools like a smorgsbord with various options from the preceding list, but all grounded in the same premise.

And if we choose to proceed, how do we embed the values we teach; how do we reduce the content, but increase the levels of thinking and understanding; how do we get away from the addictive algorithms and an education mindset wrapped up in binary debates; how do we give children a better understanding of the world they are inheriting so that when the tech giants – Amazon and Google launch their own on-line schools – 5 years 10 years at most is what I’m told – we are already there, with children who can think ethically about the world and act accordingly.

Which takes us back to the question ‘What is the best education for our children’– not what would senior schools like which would improve their results at GCSEs. Recent polls suggest parents do not believe schools are equiping their children with the subjects or the skills they need in life and want more attention paid to soft skills, coding, and finance skills. Nor does industry think we’ve got it right. Nor universities. We should listen more closely and take a lead.

It’s not about doing more, it’s about changing a part of what we do and doing all of what we do, differently. Listen to senior school teachers bemoaning the content-heavy syllabi, schools criticised for starting GCSE preparation in year 9 and rejoice that we don’t have to go there!

Years ago, I wrote to every one of the Russell group to ask what they looked for and they were all that they said – independent and creative thinking, ability to write coherent paragraphs, communicate clearly attainable at prep schools. We can market ourselves on the fact that we do what senior schools are patently unable to do. My New Zealand experience was that if you have had a good prep school education you can handle everything, in spite of senior school! Perhaps that is what we should be striving for? And marketing ourselves on?After all, schools don’t need the validation of baccalaureates, endorsements, certificates? Years 7&8 are the best years to teach and they can handle high-level thinking. High expectations, a good work ethic and a pupil buy-in can move mountains, but it needs to ensure that what is learnt is going to offer children a future.

It will take cooperation amongst prep schools, but that should be happening anyway - after all, prep schools are an endangered species - and changing the public perception of what a prep school education is able to give children might be the way of securing our future. We would keep our standards, and raise our expectations while promoting those things we do well: teaching children to listen, to question, to respect other opinions and the natural environment, to show manners, to become independent learners, to develop memory while seeing the world globally from a premise not predicated on GDP, but on community, service and ethics.

Of course, we have the hoary old chestnut that is assessment. Perhaps because it is my experience from New Zealand where there were school exams, but no entry exams, that I realised that motivation to learn doesn’t rely on the threat of exams, but the joy of learning. Idealistic? Not in my view, but in the UK it would require an enormous change of culture. Perhaps algorithms will help us out by measuring what is currently immeasurable. Perhaps ISEB has some ideas?

But this is an opportunity to do something prep schools have been too reluctant to do – celebrate their independence without craving the validation of CE or anything else. And by answering the question, ‘what is the best education we can give our children in the here and now?’ prep schools could become exemplars for other schools that have neither the courage nor the opportunity to do the same. And it could start with the schools gathered here who decide to make prep schools the first choice for parents, not the last.

Of course, all the above entails a great deal of work. It needs a structure. It needs a premise. I have given over considerable time looking at what a new paradigm of education would look like and also, a new curriculum on my website. It is a work in progress and is on my website for anyone interested.

It would be an opportunity lost if, in creating a new curriculum, we do not look at changing how children think and feel about the world and their place in it: to teach children more about community than self, about the importance of making choices ethically rather than through self-interest, of seeing themselves as sentient beings, looking after their own space. Then we can put together a curriculum that challenges children and extends their knowledge, strengthens their core subjects and repackages others (like History and Myth) while embedding a whole new range of skills necessary for their life after school.

Imagine if prep schools became known for the fact that children who attended them had an international perspective on the world, that their education was predicated on an ethical view of the world, that they were independent, curious, practical, community minded and creative human beings ready to lead us in another direction. Then a prep school education would be known not for a meaningless set of grades or for feeding exam factories, but for producing children with the skills and values that society needs more than ever.

(i) See previous blog ‘Changing the Paradigm: Education for an Ethical World Leweston Lecture Autumn 2018