Children are left just to sink or swim

Our schools are not equipping society for the 21st century.
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The Independent Online
I remain unconvinced that young people will be able to flourish in the so-called Learning Age that beckons, given their lack of preparation during formal schooling. It will be like expecting pupils to be able to swim, even if they haven't been properly taught how to, simply because there are increased opportunities for them to visit swimming pools.

Take young people to a swimming pool for an hour a day and encourage them to swim; make it an entitlement if you wish. Divide them - in fact they will divide themselves - into three groups; Group A comprising children who can swim, Group B comprising children who can't, while children who don't want to swim are in Group C.

Every day when the children enter the pool, children in group A spend the hour swimming in sharp contrast to the non-swimmers in group B who simply flounder around trying in vain to stay afloat. Meanwhile, children in group C spend their hour leaning against the side of the pool, chatting and generally splashing about with one or two gradually beginning to misbehave.

Attendance, despite the fact that swimming is an entitlement for all children, is poor among children in this group. As every day goes by, the gap between the groups widens. The good swimmers get better and better while the rest not only struggle but become increasingly de-motivated as they do.

Substitute learning for swimming and it is apparent that we can divide society into the same three groups: people who want to learn and know how to, people who are unable to learn and people who don't want to learn.

As the days pass, the gap between the groups will grow ever wider with enormous implications for the harmony of society. Providing an entitlement is not sufficient; we must actively encourage and enable all members of society to make the most of that entitlement. This will only happen if large numbers of young people leave school both wanting to continue their learning and knowing how to make the most of the vast amount of information and the ever-growing learning opportunities that will inevitably come their way.

For The Learning Age that the Government outlines will not emerge simply because large numbers of people will have immediate access to vast amounts of information, any more than we will become a nation of strong swimmers simply by sticking everyone in a swimming pool.

It is the policies that this and previous governments have pursued that have not only failed to create the Learning Society that is so clearly within our grasp, they have also hindered its natural evolution. For while the driving force behind the policies - the desire to raise standards - is laudable, the policies themselves have been both limited and limiting.

Not only have they resulted in a suffocating and over-crowded curriculum framework, they have created an oppressive climate of accountability which uses public examination results - the GCSE grade C and its younger cousin the level 5 SAT - as the prime, arguably sole, performance indicator. Far from being policies that have encouraged, or required schools to ensure that young people leave secondary school with the learning skills that will enable them to flourish in the information and technological age of the impending future, they have been policies which have simply placed schools under relentless and increasing pressure to help pupils pass exams.

Equipping young people with the independent thinking and learning skills that will see them through a lifetime of learning is a luxury there simply isn't time or - if government policy is to be believed - a need for.

We are in desperate need of clear direction as we enter the new millennium. If we want to produce flexible, autonomous young people who are equipped with the learning skills that the forthcoming information age demands, then we have to say so. Rather, the Government has to say so and it must do so loudly, consistently and unambiguously; for a realignment of schools at the scale necessary if we are to truly prepare young people for the Learning Society can only be achieved at a national level.

For a quarter of a century there has been increasingly widespread recognition that young people are leaving secondary school ill-equipped for the brave new world they are entering and yet the only solution that has been found to date is to apply more pressure to schools and teachers. Children currently at secondary school will not be leaving until the next century is well under way and, perhaps more strikingly, pupils who are currently at primary school will still be of working age as the 21st century passes its half way point and attention begins to turn to the 22nd century.

These are the children who will be doing jobs that have yet to be invented - are we seriously suggesting that 5 GCSE passes at grades A-C will be a suitable preparation for their adult life?

The writer is headteacher of Lakers School, a comprehensive for 11-16- year-olds in Gloucestershire