Monday, 5 July 2010

Back to the Future for Schools?

This afternoon’s announcement by Michael Gove (Secretary of State for Education) of the strange death of Building Schools for the Future, a twitstorm raged across the ether as various educators, architects, technologists and seemingly anyone with an interest in this nation’s future expressed their incredulity at the savagery of the cuts. The DfE’s press release is charmingly titled as an ‘overhaul’, in reality it’s the coup de grace on a programme that was, in truth, just too New Labour to be allowed to survive.

For me, the tweet of the day came from @photocritic : “In 'Back to the Future', Doc sets clock in the DeLorean to a day 25 years in the future. Today is that day.”

This co-incidence of policy and zeitgeist is too sweet to ignore.

In 1985, as Michael J. Fox was portraying the time-travelling Marty McFly on our cinema screens, the UK had;

  • A Conservative government bent on retrenchment and tradition
  • An education system focused on the transfer of knowledge from one generation to the next
  • An economy failing to adapt to the needs of a changing world market
  • A decent national football team

Many things have changed in the interim (well, at least one of those things) but are we any closer to achieving a leading place on the (no longer futuristic) world stage? Are we now well positioned as a nation to provide the next generation of team workers, creative thinkers, collaborative investigators and independent problem-solvers which will characterise the successful economies of the next 25 years?

My personal view is ‘no’. And less so today than yesterday. BSF wasn’t just about school buildings you see, it was about transforming education, it was about producing different outcomes – and this, I feel, was the real target of Gove’s axe. ‘Transformation’ implies change is needed, which is an ideological bridge too far for an Education Secretary on record comparing rote learning of poetry to iPod ownership. Seriously.

BSF’s greatest potential contribution to the UK’s future was in changing what it like to learn at school, providing choice, agency and investment in their education to a swathe of disaffected young people to whom Miss Havisham (Nick Gibb’s barometer of educational success) is an irrelevance, but who nevertheless need to find their place (and a job) in the C21st UK.

£5Bn was saved in a stroke this afternoon, a short-term quick win for a tough-guy Government. The continuing inappropriateness of our education system in the face of technological and global economic reality will cost an awful lot more by the time Back to the Future reaches it’s 50th anniversary, however. Will the Government realise this in time? I doubt it; as Marty McFly says after introducing his parents’ prom dance to Johnny B. Goode “I guess you guys aren't ready for that, yet. But your kids are gonna love it.”

Dom Norrish

Follow me on twitter @domnorrish