To be led by lions

It is common to seek to reform education in order to change society, to educate young people for the world we hope will exist.

The idealism is admirable, but there’s a danger in using schools to change society. It’s tempting: children are the future, after all. But it is risky to prepare young people for the society we wish existed rather than the one they will actually find themselves in. They are not cannon fodder for our revolution.

If we get too far ahead of the expectations of employers, universities and other destinations, we exclude our students from the opportunities currently available. If we don’t share the common references and standard modes used in society, however arbitrary some of these may be, then we place our students at a disadvantage. They need to understand how things work and possess the credentials required to progress. Yes, in an ideal world this would not be true. But that world does not exist and simply preparing students for it won’t bring it into existence either.

Unless you have a way of changing the entire education system at once, you can also be sure that someone, somewhere is making sure their children have the cultural capital and the qualifications. School reform in isolation really is the sort of revolution that dines on its young.

And yet, equally, what inspiration or pride is there in preparing young people to take their place in an unjust society? Are we not equipping them either to expertly exploit others or to be obligingly exploited themselves? To accept without question the way things are or to regard themselves as outsiders because they cannot see themselves in the stories they hear? Exclusion, complicity or exploitation: a dreary choice for the idealistic professional.

The alternative to blind hope or complicity is to prepare our students to change the society that actually exists. Neither to be equipped for a non-existent utopia nor assigned to their fate in the current system.

Such a goal would certainly involve the transmission of cultural capital. But it would be descriptive not prescriptive: it would be critical, instrumental and objective. “This is how it is often done” rather than “This is how it should be done”. This echoes in a larger sphere the debate around grammar and dialect. We can describe the ‘standard’ approaches without suggesting they are intrinsically better. They are useful to know.

Such a goal would require skills and knowledge beyond those of a good foot soldier – how to exercise influence, participate in decision making and make change. History and oracy, particularly debate, would seem vital here.

Such a goal would also require students to feel pride and agency. They would need to believe that they were worthy of leading and capable of doing so. Another reason not to suggest that their backgrounds, families, culture and heritage were inferior in some way.

This view could be compatible with a traditionalist approach to the content of education, although with perhaps a change of tone and greater diversity of knowledge. I wonder, though, whether it is also as compatible with a strictly traditionalist approach to behaviour? I’m reluctant to reject that traditional approach, as I think most young people benefit from structure and discipline. But compliance and obedience do not sit easily with agency and change.

Perhaps the answer lies in recognising the journey from novice to expert in behaviour management, as we are beginning to in the curriculum. Young people may need firm structures early on, become more aware of those structures and their rationales as they develop and begin to question and create their own rules later. Perhaps we need to think about sequencing in behaviour as we do to sequencing in curriculum? The first requirement of fluency, invention and creativity in any domain is that you understand and master the rules that you later choose to break. This could apply to conduct as much as it does to art.

As part of this reflection, we should also question the extent to which our rules are directly related to safety, concentration and equal access to learning, as opposed to conformity. There is, of course, no easy or distinct boundary between the two, especially in large and busy institutions where conformity and safety are linked, but it is a debate worth having. Do hairstyles truly create barriers to learning or safety, for example?

Using schools to change society is a risky business. It distracts schools from the role they were designed for and it doesn’t work. Ironically, if you don’t like what is happening inside schools, you may better off using society to change schools. The link between the two, though, is that schools can prepare people to change society. Not to participate in an imaginary one, but to act with agency in the one we have. This can be offered to all young people, not just the children of today’s elite.

This is not to say that we should leave it all to the next generation to sort things out. There is plenty of work for us to do in the meantime to make their task easier when they become leaders. When that time comes, let’s hope we find ourselves led by lions. We can do more than hope, of course, we can prepare.

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