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Is Our Education System Becoming Obsolete?

Munira Mirza, the former Deputy Mayor for Education and Culture of London, argues there’s still much work to be done to equip our young people with the skills they need for the future.

When the UK government unveiled its industrial strategy at the end of 2017, education played a big part. The prime minister promised to “establish a technical education system that rivals the best in the world to stand alongside the UK’s world-class higher education system”. Four months on, education is still a hot topic. Ahead of her Educating for the Future breakfast with Investec Private Banking, Munira Mirza, the former Deputy Mayor for Education and Culture of London, addresses the division between state and private education, the perils of ignoring technical training, and why every child should learn one or two poems by heart…

Is our education system in good nick?
It’s definitely respected around the world, and the number of people around the world sending their children to study in the UK is vast and growing. As far as league tables go, we could do better – but considering the size of the country, we’re not doing badly at all.

In terms of academic results, there have been substantial improvements in state school education, especially in reading and writing at primary level. There have also been improvements in behaviour and extracurricular activities. While much of this has to do with the opening of new free schools and academies, it’s also down to a general improvement in the overall system. Where we’ve done extremely well as a country is in improving life chances for pupils at the lower end, and we need to create more opportunities for those gifted and talented children with high potential.

If there was one thing I could change tomorrow, it would be that every primary school taught their children to learn one or two poems by heart

The state vs. private debate
Meanwhile, the division between state and private education (the latter regarded as the best in the world, incidentally) has blurred quite a bit. The Tatler Schools Guide now includes high-performing state secondary schools as well as private schools, and if politically there are still some outdated views on what private schools do and who they’re for, such views probably don’t recognise that private schooling has changed a great deal and is striving to be more supportive, working with local state schools in areas like teacher training.

Of course, there are challenges that need to be addressed. Private schools are increasingly expensive, and many middle-class families find it difficult to afford the fees. Meanwhile, the debate around selective schools and grammar schools shows no sign of quietening. Personally, I know good people who’ll agree on many things but will fall out over the grammar school system. While many working-class people have benefited from it and are adamant it needs to be revived, there are equally as many middle-class people who think it’s too elitist and undermines educational progress. I think it’s likely to be too controversial, politically, to reintroduce selective education into the state system on any scale, and although it’s been an engine for social mobility for many, it’s also perhaps an unhelpful distraction when it comes to trying to improve the comprehensive system.

Apprenticeships as a genuine alternative
There are also questions about whether our education system, post-age 16, does enough to support technical education. The founder of Phones4u, John Caudwell, recently argued there’s a chronic shortage of workers trained in practical and technical skills and that young people need exposure to the alternatives to university right from their first years of secondary school. So much emphasis is placed on university as the only successful pathway, and it shouldn’t be, as it’s not for everybody. Vocational courses, too, are often seen as the poor relation to academia rather than an aspirational next step.

Since the introduction of tuition fees, there has been more interest in alternative ways of developing a career. But the structure of certain industries, such as construction, have become reliant on cheaper, well-skilled labour from parts of Eastern Europe, a lot of small businesses still operate without apprenticeship models. Allied to this, pressure on employers to save costs has meant apprenticeships have not been very well remunerated for young people.

While there’s a perception among some business leaders that we have a ticking time bomb in terms of technical skills, and a talent gap, a lot of our engineers are actually in demand around the world, so I don’t necessarily think it’s all doom and gloom. However, I think industry leaders have often had a short-sighted approach, and the big companies that tend to dominate in a lot of sectors haven’t necessarily invested so much in apprenticeships. There’s certainly a demand for more people in those areas. If apprenticeships were properly structured, the quality was better and we could improve the pay, they would be a really attractive choice.

There are plenty of technical areas within the creative industries, too, but they’ve relied very heavily on talent coming through the university systems and haven’t tended to think about apprenticeships. By offering internships to graduates, businesses are also guilty of reinforcing social positions, knowing graduates will compete for them. It’s true you can’t do architecture unless you have an architectural qualification, but there are some areas such as technical roles in the theatre for which you don’t require a degree. With the appropriate formal training, you could learn partly on the job.

Why art and culture matter
Some commentators have portrayed schools as cultural deserts these days, which isn’t true. There has been pressure on art teacher recruitment in some areas, but many teachers do value the arts and try to ensure access for their pupils. I’d like to see an increase in the amount of art history and cultural history taught in schools, and it’s important the government reiterates the importance of the arts and conveys that message to schools, not all of whom understand it. Some schools have dropped music teaching, for instance, and they really should be held to account for that.

There was a time in the recent past when some schools encouraged students to take up arts qualifications at the expense of languages or humanities, because they were deemed easier. That was, in a sense, gaming the system, to try to perform better in the league tables. That’s not something you can defend, and there are many in the arts who would recognise that it is not doing any service to education. As Steve Jobs once said, “Technology alone is not enough – it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the results that make our heart sing.” There should be greater emphasis on subjects that increase young people’s knowledge and engagement in culture; it’s not just about participating in and making art, but also learning about it.

If there was one thing I could change tomorrow, it would be that every primary school taught their children to learn one or two poems by heart. There is currently a controversy over the government’s proposal that every child should memorise their times tables, something at odds with the ‘progressive’ approach which seeks to not impose too much on children, and to be very child-centred. If you say ‘memorising’ it sounds very dull. But if you say ‘learning things by heart’, it sounds much more passionate. There’s nothing wrong with making sure pupils remember things, so they can recall what 12 x 12 is in later life. Similarly, to be able to recall language is a wonderful thing. Learning poetry does something to your soul and really does support your inner life – surely a skill essential for us all.

Photograph credit: Julian Andrews.