BBC headquarters in Portland Place, London on July 2, 2020. (Photo by Ben STANSALL / AFP)
Artillery Row

Can the BBC rebuild our schools?

To rebuild our education system, we must encourage that undervalued institution; the Family

The increasingly accepted truism of the day is that, like it or not, on the other side of Coronavirus everything has to change. Parliament, theatres, pubs, hairdressers – the world we grew up in is dead. A biting recession is inevitable, with concomitant impact on government funding and economic opportunities; much that was familiar will simply not survive the strictures of lockdown, and we still have no idea when (or if) we will be able to return to a culture free from social distancing and personal protective equipment and R rates. As the noted optimists that we are, this forced restructuring of our most established and deeply entrenched societal practices has been greeted by many as an opportunity for much needed change.

Too many parents fall into the habit of sending the kids in for a few hours of third party childcare a day, absolving themselves of any further role

In recent weeks Tony Hall, current Director General, has confirmed that the BBC fully intends, post-lockdown, to take a central role in revolutionising the British education system into an Open University style blending of home learning and part-time schooling. Lord Hall will soon be stepping down, however, and it is unclear what Tim Davie’s vision for this BBC schooling system might be when he finally takes the reigns. Sir Tim Brighouse (former London commissioner for schools) and Bob Moon (Emeritus Professor of Education at the Open University) outlined their initial concepts for a state-wide Open School in the Guardian, describing “a free-standing, independent institution offering high-quality self-learning, tutored courses and resources in every subject.” The BBC is, in principle, the perfect partner for such a thing; their core mission remains “to inform, educate, and entertain” – Brighouse and Moon cite the work the BBC has already done to expand the scope of its Bitesize learning resources during the pandemic, and point towards similar endeavours from the Oak National Academy, and others. They go on to praise both bodies, and insist that “all this must be taken even further to provide overdue and long-lasting benefits to the whole school system.” 

BBC Bitesize works so well because it has been positioned as an optional aid to learning, by no means fundamental, standing separate from and subordinate to the classroom. Only those already motivated to improve choose to engage with it. The Open University works because similarly motivated adults actively choose to invest their own time and money in engaging with and completing the courses provided, with admirable drive and self-discipline. They take active responsibility for themselves and for their own learning, and use the tutors and course materials as resources to facilitate these ambitions. To take such personal motivation for granted in all children and for all subjects, and to re-build our school system on an infrastructure which actively requires it, is dangerous ground.

For too long and for too many, a child’s education has been considered the responsibility of the school system. Too many parents fall into the easy habit of sending the kids in for a few hours of third party childcare a day, absolving themselves of any further role, and then if the grades don’t satisfy, simply shouting at the teachers until they do (or until it’s a moot point). For the concept of an Open School to work, this has to end. We need to stop seeing teachers as the only people in charge of educating our children and start taking that ultimate responsibility on ourselves, utilising teachers and schools instead as experts and resources that we use to facilitate the education of our children, until our children reach the maturity required to take responsibility for themselves. Lockdown has given the overwhelming majority of parents an unprecedented insight into their offspring’s study and development, and the vital role that they have to play in directing that; the challenge has been accepted by many, and shirked by some. This distinction between parents who actively coach their child’s learning, and those who merely delegate it, is one Katherine Birbalsingh (author, headmistress and founder of the shockingly successful Michaela Community School in Wimbledon) speaks of often:

“Never before has there been such a clear divide between families. This isn’t about money or class. It is about understanding that education matters. Media and state constantly ignore the importance of family. For once, they should take note. But they won’t.”

Moving forward, a reimagined education system must be full, broad and (dare I say it) Odyssean. We must start thinking of education in the most expansive and all encompassing of ways, rather than compartmentalising it merely to hours spent in a classroom. Children (and adults) should always be learning; restricting this process to any single institution, authority, timeslot or third party is limiting and counter productive. Rather, we can see the parents role in education as that of curator; a blended education must, of course, incorporate the classroom, but it can also incorporate community service; practical skills; recreation. The best way to ensure that children do not become disaffected, and that schooling does not become appropriated into political, social, or religious indoctrination, is to make it multi-faceted; to drink from many wells. If we are to incorporate an element of home and distance learning alongside the more traditional, classroom based format, why not also incorporate elements of practical, applied education? Why not develop new, apprenticeship-style opportunities in trades and crafts? These need not be limiting or restrictive, but can offer transferable knowledge in foundational skills, which can then be built on throughout any number of different careers.

The patronisingly middle class focus of Blair’s education reforms threw a great many working class babies out with the bathwater, and now is the perfect opportunity to reassess; to start teaching children how to work and how to do, as well as how to think and how to create. The narrow, arrogant presumption that only one image of academic success should count as acceptable educational achievement is the very prejudice that led Sir Ken Robinson to declare in 2007 that “schools kill creativity.” We finally have an opportunity to overcome the data-driven, “learning for exam’s sake” culture of teaching children just to pass the next test on the schedule; children should also be taught for the joy of it, study literature to enrich their souls, develop critical thinking and imaginative, vibrant inner lives with no justification needed beyond the hungry pleasure of knowledge for its own sake. Education can and should incorporate craft and career as well creativity, empathy as well as economy, laughter as well as learning targets. Exams should merely assess whether or not these things are being achieved, and never be goals or ambitions in their own right.

In taking on such a task, we have to think beyond current practice. If the BBC or any other body is going to hold such a vaulted position, there has to be a clear and transparent process by which they can be reviewed and held regularly accountable, and an active (and rigorously policed) obligation to maintain a non-partisan and completely unbiased system for all, accurately presenting all sides of an issue or concept, and never acting as the mere extension of a political, cultural, or marketing agenda or output. It is vital in constructing this brave new schooling system that we include and incorporate voices from all walks of educational life, learning lessons from the successes of public, private, religious and independent schools as well as from state; from apprentices and tradesmen as well as scholars. Those developing such a system must be representative of non-metropolitan and rural bodies as well as London Commissioners for Schools; they must consult the most successful and experienced on-the-ground primary, GCSE, and A-Level teachers and not just administrators or academic experts in the theories of education at universities. We have a rare chance to really change the way that we raise and educate our children, and it would be a terrible and destructive waste of that opportunity were we to allow this to become just another well-meaning, failed scheme from the same old naive, stale, establishment think-tanks and consultants and committee members, whereby children with help from their parents win, and those without lose. If we want to change the way things work, we need to ask the people who haven’t been asked before.

We expose and improve the aspects of our current system that are failing young people, whether those are palatable truths or not

Similar programmes have been in existence for some time. Australia and Canada both have well established open schools dating back more than a century, and no shortage of more recent open education institutions have developed with both national and international focuses. We are in the privileged position of being able to learn from them all, and to explore our own innovations on the shoulders of their successes. We could very easily create a supercharged version of the pre-existing virtual school format, or just multiply the BBC’s pre-existing resources by ten; this would solve little and change less. It is my hope that we instead commit wholeheartedly to forging something new. That we commit to exposing and improving the aspects of our current system that are failing young people, whether those are palatable truths or not; that we identify the families and the children who need the most help and give them whatever we have to, whoever they are, whether they want it or not. That we take a radical and adventurous approach to developing a whole-life education, designed to build individuals not statistics, to teach those individuals responsibility and obligation to each other and to society, and to support and encourage that undervalued institution that must be the key driving force behind it all; the Family.

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