December 2015 Debate

TonyFish             JoannaWilliams          Catriona_Maclay

TONY FISH: “There are no jobs in the future. We need to stop educating as if there will be.”

JOANNA WILLIAMS: “Schools cannot compensate for society.”

CATRIONA MACLAY: “Every community needs its pirate ship for learning.”

On a dark evening in December, St Peter’s Crypt was alive with debate once more, on a subject that affects us all: education. This was the first time the Balloon had a theme and it seemed to work; new ideas were tested, old assumptions aired and debated. Everyone emerged refreshed and invigorated.

From the world of tech and 3D-printing came Tony Fish, arguing that outdated models of school, teaching and curriculum are hampering both creativity and employability. Our grandfathers were likely to have had one employer or job; our children are likely to have multiple employers and the idea of a ‘job’ could be redundant.

By teaching subjects in silos, literacy and numeracy as ends rather than means, and forcing a separation between the academic and technical, schools discourage kids from finding out what they’re good at, and assembling the skills they need to make a living from it.

While most agreed with his analysis and the failures of the current school model, Tony was challenged on the importance of learning facts, and our duty to pass on the best that has been thought and written. Would it be the poorest kids who would be let down if teachers were guides on the side rather than sages on the stage?

Catriona Maclay, Hackney education pioneer, claimed that schools cannot do everything – communities can and must shoulder some of the responsibility when it comes to encouraging the most disadvantaged.

The classroom environment doesn’t suit every child and teachers don’t have the time to work closely with everyone at risk of falling behind. Drawing on her experience running after-school programme Hackney Pirates, Cartriona argued that all kids learn as a by-product of play and fun, in experimental and supportive settings outside school. This is especially suited to those needing more intensive attention to learn to read and write, and write and read to learn.

The final speaker was Joanna Williams, a passionate believer in letting schools do what they do best: teach academic subjects, give all children access to the civilised and enlightened canon that is their cultural inheritance, and leave the rest to parents and society.

Cluttering the mandatory curriculum with classes on obesity, sexual health, social media and meditation helps no one, argued Joanna – herself the product of a strict Catholic girls school. The universal facts and tools to reach and expand intellectual potential is what helps a child soar, not subjective and ideologically partial efforts to socialise.

Joanna faced some forceful questioning from people who felt poor children would falter in her ideal scenario, to whom she responded with a robust warning not to patronise children and parents – the opportunity to love and learn from Dickens and Shakespeare can’t only be for those with middle class bookshelves at home. Jo won the debate handily, with Catriona coming second and Tony winning just six votes (though as one man put it, “There may have been just six of us, but we all have our fingers on the pulse”).