Why try and catch up when our education system is backwards?

Building an education system for the future

Mary Student at Bohunt School Sixth Form

I’m a 17-year-old student who believes the English education system denies my fellow students and me access to many of the skills and ideas we need. A clear example of this is the climate crisis and its global impact; our education system prevents a thorough exploration of the relevant subjects and ignores the necessary interdisciplinary thinking. Ultimately, our education system is failing us. Here’s why…

As a current Sixth Form student and an activist for climate crisis education at Teach the Future, I am aware of the lack of conversation in classrooms regarding climate change and how the current, rigid, national curriculum doesn’t allow teachers to explore and expand on this. Our learning is strictly siloed, with teachers and students corralled by overbearing accountability structures. We learn about greenhouse gases in physics and deforestation in geography, but leave each lesson at the door, only to revisit these topics for memorisation in months to come.

Our world doesn’t work like that. The climate crisis will not be solved by geographers and physicists alone. It will also require economists, sociologists, biologists and many others. Therefore we also need to learn about government interventions, industry, colonisation, inequality and capitalism. Everyone has a part to play in this crisis, so we must all be enabled to act upon this catastrophe.

That enabling should start in schools with teachers freed up to create a local curriculum that is interdisciplinary and based around important, motivational, real-world issues such as climate change, inequality and mental health. The students of today are the farmers, pharmacists, teachers, parents, activists, artists and politicians of a future very different to our present reality. I think we owe them an education that will adequately prepare them for this. After all, isn’t this what our education should really be about?

Creating the citizens/environmental stewards of our tomorrow; preparing us for our future; developing autonomous, critical-thinking young adults and global citizens. Instead, with its knowledge-heavy, prescribed curriculum that is narrowly assessed and accompanied by stifling accountability systems, the English education system is acting as a factory churning out exam-taking automata taught solely to contribute to an outdated economic system that is fundamentally incompatible with sustainability.

This flawed education system isn’t just sub-optimal, it is actively stopping students from developing their skills, exploring their subjects, finding interest in the world around them, and ultimately hindering their educational outcomes and their ability to have a positive impact on society.

Taking exams at such a young age, after laboriously spending hours memorising formulae or poems, shoehorns students into labelling themselves as “an artist” or “a biologist” (or conversely, and perhaps more damagingly, “I’m just not a …”). Furthermore, our interactions are almost entirely student-teacher-educational resources, and the curriculum we follow is voluminous and highly prescriptive, offering little room for real-world application and exploration of our interests within that subject.

As a GCSE student, I was keen to dismiss subjects and label myself. I didn’t enjoy the content-heavy focus of chemistry, and, discouraged by some poor exam results, at age 14, I dismissed chemistry as a subject I was simply bad at. It was only during my lockdown learning period, when I took a step back from my textbooks, both physically and figuratively, that I found the wonderful and widespread nature of chemistry and made the scary decision to give it a shot at A-level.

I absolutely love chemistry and am planning to take it further at university. It makes me wonder how many other students the GCSE structure has pushed away from brilliant and successful careers. I was hung up on Chapter 10 – Organic Chemistry, on where the marks came from in the upcoming exams and which reactions I needed to have memorised, rather than looking at how the knowledge of these structures forms the basis of drug discovery, how these structures can interact with the membranes I had learnt about in my biology lesson that morning.

The problem with our education system lies in its lack of connectivity. GCSEs failed to show me the links between my chemistry lessons and biology lessons. They failed to show me the connection between art, science, music and history. They failed to show me the relationship between all aspects of my subjects and the ongoing climate crisis. Sustainability shouldn’t be limited to geography and physics. It should be woven through our education system like a golden thread. The same goes for all aspects of our lives. We should actively seek to show students how their subjects all feed into each other and impact life after the exam hall.

So what would I change if I had the chance?

I would get rid of the current GCSE qualifications and replace them with less content-heavy qualifications that focus on the ‘big-picture’ and interconnected thinking through real-world applications and a localised curriculum.

Our current exam system is based on the principles of competition and meritocracy, concepts that are fundamentally incompatible with sustainability. We need a system that values collaboration by leaving space for community work, group work, social action and citizenship. A system that values these projects just as highly as written assessments.

A system that encourages project work that naturally weaves together subjects and draws on local and topical events as well as valuing meaningful collaboration with communities and forging intergenerational partnerships that are so key to concepts like sustainability. A system with spaces designed for exploration and pursuing students’ own passions and interests and a system that drives collective social action.

We currently experience an education centred around recalling information in exchange for a number that determines your ‘intelligence’. It is failing us. We need interdisciplinary thinking, place-based curricular and synoptic linking, both within and between subjects; critical and alternative thinking, that fosters curiosity and creativity. We need an education that prepares us for our future.

If you would like to support Teach the Future, check out our website here where you can learn more about the campaign, sign our petition, use our template to write to your MP and much more! You can also get in touch with us on email.

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