Why education shouldn’t be a treadmill

I can understand why some people say that education is a treadmill that you get on as soon as you’re born and eventually fall off,¬†presumably when the speed of the belt goes beyond your capacity to keep up. There’s a brilliantly amusing and thought-provoking post over at Jo Sandelson’s Heir Raising blog which makes this point.

I find myself agreeing with a lot of what Jo writes. Play is important and we need to make time for it. Hot-housing students does no-one any good. Much of the over-testing that successive governments have introduced in schools is counterproductive. All of us (children and adults alike) need to be free to explore and follow our passions, whether that’s racing cars, looking after pigs or becoming a priest. Working for a software company is perhaps an even weirder choice, but that’s a different blog post.

But (and there’s always a but) some of us rather like the challenge that formal education provides. When I was young (a long, long time ago) nothing horrified me more than being forced outside to play, especially if team games were involved. The more academic stuff I could do, the better. In sixth form I willingly gave up my Wednesday afternoons on the football pitch to spend a few more hours in the strange little storeroom between the physics labs. There were four or five of us in there, working towards getting an additional qualification in electronics.

An education system without examinations or assessment seems utterly pointless to me. They need to be viewed positively as the chance to get recognition for all of the work that goes into study. We have to encourage children and adults to think of examinations and assessments like that. Tackling the fear that assessments are a nasty, stressful hurdle to get over with negative consequences if you fail is therefore really important. It’s up to all of us to change that discourse, to take the pressure off, one child, one subject, one assessment at a time. (Now, I’m well aware that the former education secretary, Michael ‘loose lips’ Gove, did much to set this more enlightened view back several decades when he removed resits at the same time as denigrating vocational subjects, piling yet more unwanted pressure on students. Hopefully however, after his alleged leaking and misreporting of a conversation he heard someone else having with the Queen, he’ll be off to the tower soon).

If you want to be happy in life with a¬†comfortable standard of living, education is essential. A good education, with the certificates and grades to prove it remains the most important enabler of social mobility. While we should encourage everyone to follow their dreams – I have two amazingly talented daughters doing exactly that in the precarious world of writing and acting – it’s much easier to do that if you have qualifications to fall back on. I see very few happy people who have none at all … they’re probably even rarer than people like me who have always enjoyed study.

So how can we help to alleviate some of the pressure that children feel and make education seem less like a treadmill? In my view, education is so important that there needs to be a way for people to take second, third, fourth … or any number of chances to succeed. Sadly, recent governments have unthinkingly dismantled much of the support for ‘second’ chances by slashing further education budgets and forcing up the price of higher education – putting many mature and part-timers off.

Providing ways to ensure that adults can access FE and HE at any point during their lives is needed to break the tyranny of the treadmill. However, it’s only if people value education (academic and vocational), focus on the positive joys of learning and the benefits that a good education brings longer-term (socially and financially) that this type of provision will become a political spending priority again. It isn’t at the moment, and a sea-change in attitudes is required.

Education, examinations and assessments – not a treadmill, but a gateway to a happier future.

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Reader Comments

  1. jo sandelson (@heirraising)

    Very thoughtful piece Tim. Of course, what we are saying is not at odds. Extremist thinking in education can never work and I was concerned only about children being mindlessly driven. I mentioned – ‘Surely good education is genuinely leading the child to their personal best’ but not hothouse or drive to self harm. If only I’d had a caring and supportive father like your daughters clearly have, I’d have found a proper job by now to support the doodling, so you probably see things from the perspective of being in a solid family situation. However, since writing my post, I had my mind changed a bit last year after watching a BBC2 documentary called Are Our Kids Tough Enough? Chinese school. Several Chinese teachers were set up in a British school and their childrens’ results compared to those on the regular curriculum over several weeks. The results were startling. Perhaps we need a bit more rigour without losing the latent creativity in each child. Living in a celebrity culture where vloggers and models are national heros to a huge tranche of young people can’t be the right message.
    You also sound like you were an excellent student, Tim with possibly encouraging family support? Perhaps not, but I would suggest it’s not always easy to understand the mindset of those children who don’t have that support at home or haven’t yet matured intellectually to appreciate what a decent education can provide. It’s people like these who absolutely need a second chance and the financial back-up to do so, and I agree with you there about Government providing more rather than less help in this quarter. Jo x

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