A Proposed New Structure for Schools

This article is in draft form. I have not yet added proper citations or figures to support my argument. I prefer to set it down in rough form while it is fresh in my mind and refine it later.

Introduction: Why is a New Structure Needed?

I am here proposing a radical new structure for the way schools are organised. I maintain that such a new organisation will result in a better educational experience for all learners and less stress for teaching staff.

Before proposing a solution, I shall outline some of the current problems with the present system. The first of these ills is the high suicide rate and rate of self harm among young people. This was drawn to my attention recently by the case of a young woman in Ireland who took her own life at age eighteen because of the pressure of exams. Some young people are so disaffected from school, which they feel has nothing to offer them, that they prefer to express their individuality and sense of identity by joining knife-wielding gangs. Even for those young people who do not resort to such extreme measures, there is concern about underachievement among young men, and bullying is rife everywhere.

Teachers and headteachers are also under strain. School results are under constant scrutiny, putting heads under pressure to improve their school's standing in the league tables. Constrained by the demands of the National Curriculum, and forced to prepare students for SATs, with huge amounts of administrative paperwork, teachers have far less time to pass on knowledge of and love for the subject matter which presumably drew them to teaching in the first place. In some schools, teachers are forced to spend large amounts of classroom time in trying to keep order. As a result, many teachers face stress related illnesses and general dissatisfaction with their jobs.

While pupils and teaching staff face increasing amounts of pressure, others in society voice complaints that standards have dropped and that young people are not up to the demands of higher study and skilled professions in the twenty first century. What can be going on that such should be the case?

Many people have decided that the system has broken down to such an extent that they have decided to bypass it altogether and teach their own children. Such home-educated children typically do very well academically and are confident and well socialised, though often their parents have had to make huge financial sacrifices to achieve this.

Yet where the philosophy of a school is well thought-out, schools have much to offer in terms of camaraderie and team-spirit, and working together towards a higher goal. Schools in the Round Square movement, for example, started by Kurt Hahn, place service to the community as one of the cornerstones of school life. How is it possible to bring life back into all schools, along with a sense of community and a love of learning? While it is possible for some well-funded independent schools to achieve these goals, pupils at some of our large inner-city comprehensives face a dismal prospect indeed.

What is the Cause of These Problems?

In his writings, Rudolf Steiner emphasised the deleterious effect of assessment upon the learning process. While he would have preferred to omit all examinations from his schools, he was forced to compromise and include the state approved exams of his time. But as a principle he was against them. I believe that the role of assessment in our schools has reached such a disproportionate level and has become so intrinsic to learning outcomes that it dictates the form all learning can take. Even at university level, students now frequently ask lecturers whether "this material is examinable." What a sorry state of affairs.

The Proposed Solution

I should like to propose that the roles of teaching and assessment are completely decoupled, with schools being responsible for teaching and all the usual social aspects which a school fulfils, and assessment and preparation for assessment being the responsibility of newly formed examination preparation centres(EPCs). These will work in parallel but independently from the schools and will offer students the opportunity to be assessed when they feel they are ready. Pupils at schools will no longer be required to follow a national curriculum, and the EPCs will offer teaching specifically to cover those parts of the examination syllabus with which a student is unfamiliar. EPCs will also teach examination technique and be responsible for administering those courses assessed by coursework. Any student will have a right to register to be assessed in a subject whenever he or she feels ready, regardless of age. It will ultimately be the responsibility of the student and not the school, although it is envisaged that schools will play a huge part in advising the student and facilitating matters by organising the student's timetable appropriately. Such EPCs would be equally open to pupils attending any school, or to any home-educated person, and would not therefore be affiliated with any one school. They would also act as examination centres for private candidates who just wish to sit the exam or be assessed via coursework.

Let me state quite clearly and baldly what it is I am proposing. Under the new scheme, schools would no longer be responsible for putting students in for exams. This task would be carried out by the newly formed Examination Preparation Centres. As a corollary, schools would no longer be required to follow a National Curriculum.

Without the requirement to prepare pupils for exams, schools would once again be free to teach subjects for their own sake and can once again take up the mantle of true academies of learning and offer pupils the possibility of a course of study more relevant to their individual needs and with which they can more readily engage. Teachers could teach those things which really interested them, inspiring in their pupils a love of learning, and pupils could request lessons in topics they were keen to learn about. I would suggest that in such a set up, a school may wish to retain some staff on a full time basis and bring in other people with specialist knowledge when necessary. Schools could also focus on team activities such as team sports or teamwork in serving the local community.

Corollaries

Since a school will no longer be ranked in a league table according to examination results, students will no longer need to sit large numbers of examinations at age sixteen. Students will choose only to sit those subjects which they feel are of genuine relevance to their future, although they may want to study other subjects but not be examined in them.

The new scheme would also mean that it is more likely that subjects would be assessed over a number of years. This means that the universities will need to drop their prejudiced view that a student who takes a large number of exams in one sitting is superior, since this will no longer be the norm.

A further change required of universities will be to implement a post-qualification admissions system, since schools will now not be in a position to give predicted grades on UCAS forms, and so applications will normally be made after the results of the exams for eighteen year olds are known. This change will considerably simplify the university admissions system and do away with the necessity for clearing over the summer. A series of changes to the university admissions system are currently paving the way for a change to a post-qualification admissions system by 2012.

In future articles I propose to explore in greater depth the role of schools and examination preparation centres, and some of the practicalities involved in ensuring such a system works to the best advantage of students and society.