I return to the Tute office this week after some time away on an intensive programme with Chester University in Estonia. I spent 10 days in Tartu, exploring student diversity and engagement as a part of an Erasmus-funded course between students and professors from eight universities in Europe, representing Sweden, Finland, the U.K., Hungary, Austria, Germany, Estonia and Spain.
The programme was excellent and highly focused on why we, as a continent, are struggling to address the issue of early school leavers, defined by the EU as ‘young people (aged 18–24) having completed at most a lower secondary education and not being in further education or training.’
We looked at a wide programme and identified ways in which student diversity is (or is not) being understood and addressed in education. Early school leaving is linked to unemployment, social exclusion, poverty and poor health; and young men who are ‘foreign-born’ and belong to ethnic minorities are more likely to leave education and training earlier than any other ‘category’ of student. There are many reasons why people give up education and training prematurely: personal or family problems, learning difficulties, or a fragile socioeconomic situation and, no doubt, if you work in a secondary setting, you will have experienced these circumstances at play for students in your care.
Whilst in Estonia, we considered some of the ways in which these concerns could and are being addressed. The way the education system is set up, school climate and teacher-pupil relations are all important factors. However, since there is not a single reason for early school leaving, there are no easy answers. Petra Goran, Policy Officer, DG Education and Culture at European Commission, has recently written,
“Early school leaving is not just a school issue and its causes need to be addressed across a range of social, youth, family, health, local community, employment, as well as education policies. Also extended educational concepts such as cultural education, cooperation with businesses or other outside school actors, and sports can play an important role in reducing early school leaving by promoting creativity, new ways of thinking, intercultural dialogue, and social cohesion.”
This is what the elements of the programme focused on: drama education, adventure education, overcoming language barriers, the physical spaces for learning, nature education, leisure time education and vocational education. Yet, if I were to identify just one over-riding theme that recurred throughout the programme it would be this: the largest contributing factor to early school leaving is the inability of the education system to mould to the needs of individual students and individual students to mould themselves into the pigeonholes of a homogenised system.
In our neighbouring European counterparts, I could see that there were efforts to address these issues and to reinvent their education systems in a number of ways. I saw that elsewhere, children start school later and spend fewer hours of the day or even days of the week at school, the range of subjects taught vary (handicrafts and economics feature from as young as 7 in some places), but national testing often only occurs at the end of schooling; in some countries, no testing until age 17. Not only do these changes relate to the classroom and student, but also to the staff and premesis. In many countries, qualified teachers hold Masters degrees as well as Bachelor degrees, giving them more time to study their craft. Degrees are also required to teach kindergarten or preschool, which is not the case everywhere, but you can also graduate with an education-based degree in leisure time management; there are roles for teaching staff which purely support students in choosing leisure activities and in organising social events because these are understood to be valuable learning experiences too. Even the ways in which the school buildings are physically constructed are very different: floor to ceiling windows, open spaces, artwork and plant life adorning the corridors-a stark contrast to the more clinical settings that I’ve seen previously. Another contrast is the way that vocational and academic pathways run as equally-weighted, parallel options, where students are able to opt in to schools and courses best suited to them and their needs, perhaps reminiscent of the polytechnic system of years gone by.
Whilst in Estonia, I visited some amazing educational institutions, but these were not limited to schools alone. There, I visited a ‘nature house’ where students go to learn about the natural world; everything from how to make pots from clay, to how to care for animals, to learning which climates plants will grow in. I visited a science centre where there are practical applications explored through science in action experiments that children (and adults) physically engage with. I visited a museum, a youth centre, a drama centre, an adventure education site and a number of other alternative sites for education. What amazed me most was not that these places existed; they do here in the UK too, but the emphasis that was placed on them and their relevance to students’ learning. They were available within walking distance and were very visibly in use by many local school students.
I’ve written in the past about the difficulties we face in education in the UK as a result of an overly prescriptive, narrow curriculum; we will all wait with bated breath for the exam results yielded from the new GCSE specifications come August, but I anticipate that there will be larger numbers of students than in previous years ‘failing’ as a result of the academic nature of the specifications that are, for some, becoming inaccessible in the pursuit of ‘higher standards.’ Due to the Progress 8 measure against which schools are now judged, the value we place on vocational subjects, creative subjects and the arts has been called into question. Unlike the emphasis on alternative methods of learning that I saw in Estonia, we seem to favour only one: an academic pathway.
There are so many issues with this flawed logic and that there isn’t space here for me to elaborate on them all, but it should suffice to say that the prioritising of academia for academia’s sake is not something I can support, regardless of my own academic background. The drive towards raising standards in our schools has become confused with raising the importance of academia at the detriment to all other forms of education; and what leading voices and organisations are saying about the nature of education and preparing our students for an ever-evolving future does not match up to these ideals. Sir Ken Robinson has been revered for his stance on this very topic,
“The problem is that too often, and in too many ways, current systems of mass education are a catastrophe in themselves. Far from looking to the future, they are facing stubbornly toward the past.”
So, how does all of this fit with what I saw in Estonia and what we do here at Tute? What I take away from my recent trip is that education and the forms it takes should be wide and varied. Enriching learning opportunities for students and inviting them to learn in new or alternative ways is of enormous benefit. Every single student we teach is an individual learner, with individual needs and individual talents. The challenge is how to juggle meeting these individual needs, foster these individual talents and enable them to enjoy learning, whilst ultimately helping them to succeed in their education (regardless of any complaints we might have of the system). It is my resolute belief that our education system in the UK will need to change in the future, but until then, what can we do to support our learners?
Not all students learn easily sat in a classroom; that’s why so many alternative education sites are being used elsewhere on the continent, as well as in pockets of alternative provision here at home. Our students are wonderfully unique, so why should we persist in trying to convince ourselves that they will all learn in the same way? What our students need is a diverse menu of learning options; some will learn through drama, some through reading and writing, others through adventure pedagogy, more again through practical applications of science or through investigating nature. Learning online is yet another medium, an alternative tool for progress that we can, and should, be employing to support our students.
The first study I undertook when I joined Tute three years ago was into students’ enjoyment of and engagement with learning online. Overwhelmingly, students feedback that they enjoy and learn through online lessons and the growing numbers of schools, students and parents using Tute is further testimony to this. It is not that learning online could or should ever aim to replace schooling for students, it is that it can complement and strengthen traditional teaching. We need to find ways in which we can diversify our teaching to meet the needs of our diverse students. Perhaps then, we can do something to address the number of early school leavers and ensure our students receive the best education possible.
Learning online has meant that students across the country can learn in subject areas and with students that they would never have had the opportunity to work on or with in the past. The narrow curriculum or strangle-hold of a restrictive budget can be overcome. An individual student can choose to take a course previously unavailable to them in almost any subject they like without their school having to employ a new teacher or a need for other students to join the group. A student who struggles with the physical surroundings of the school can learn from the comfort and security of their own home. A student who finds face to face interactions uncomfortable can flourish when that barrier is removed. Learning online creates more options, more choices, more freedom. The most exciting thing about what we do here is the potential to make these choices available to all.
Not all students are the same and they certainly don’t all learn in the same way. Wouldn’t the future be boring if they did?
By Sharon Smith
Sharon studied English Language and Literature at The University of Manchester, then went on to graduate from Manchester Metropolitan University with a PGCE in Secondary English and, later, a Master’s Degree in Teaching and Learning. She is currently undertaking a Doctorate in Education at The University of Chester. She is mum to daughter Ellie and when she’s not juggling being a working mum and an eternal student/proud, self-confessed geek, she enjoys consuming a little bit of wine and far too much chocolate.