As we embarked upon a new school year, I found myself surveying the landscape of a teacher’s world with the degree of objectivity that only viewing against the backdrop of a few weeks of holiday can bring. As always, it is the extraordinary value of the work that stands out, alongside its peculiar pressures.
To understand why this is so, we need only contemplate the fact that our youngest learners, joining Nursery or Kindergarten this term, will probably enter the world of work, if they choose to go to university, in approximately 2033.
And it is our challenge – and privilege – as professionals in school communities across the country to prepare them for that world.
But what will it look like? That is, surely, very hard to say. All we know is that it will be very different from today’s world. To give us an idea of how different it will be, let’s go back an equivalent number of years. That will take us to, say, 1997. Or, in other words, to the year when the domain name for Google was first registered and Apple had just appointed Steve Jobs as its CEO. It was years before Facebook was thought of (Mark Zuckerberg was 13.) In 1997, the pay gap between men and women stood at 27.5%. It is now down to 9.4%. The gap should be zero, of course, so the work of educating for gender equality remains a work-in-progress.
The scale and speed of changes in the context in which education is now taking place – what I would describe as ‘educational climate change’ – mean that our work as educators matters more than ever before. Working, as we do, in a more dynamic and volatile environment than ever before means that the young people in our care, and their families, need us more than ever before.
This ‘educational climate change’ derives from four main sources, all interacting upon each other.
First of all, we are working through a period of permanent revolution in the sphere of emerging technology. How do we help young people navigate through the temptations and torments which they encounter in their social media-saturated universe? How do we as teachers, many of whom have scarcely left the nursery slopes of the soon-to-be-obsolete interactive whiteboard, navigate its rapids ourselves without losing confidence or competence?
Allied to this, we are working in a context of societal fragmentation as increasing geographical mobility and time impoverishment accentuate inter-generational divides. How should we advise parents who are struggling to connect with their daughters, and support girls who are struggling to connect with their parents in an increasingly atomised social landscape where youth culture has an all-consuming life of its own?
In many cases, families are dealing with the additional strains that the aftershocks of an economic recession have imposed on top of the routine pressures of modern life.
Third, we are working in a context of rapid globalisation in both the higher education scene and in employment markets. Our students are now competing with the best from the rest of the world for places at the most prestigious UK universities and our programmes of support and guidance for them must be able to compete on a global scale. Moreover, schools must master not only the intricacies of a whole raft of additional threshold testing systems (BMAT, UKCAT, LNAT, HAT etc etc) introduced to discriminate among a plethora of A* candidates but also to get up to speed on the applications regimes of US and Canadian colleges and English-language universities in Europe as our students set their sights on courses overseas. Careers advisors can no longer rely on the eternal verities of the professions and the milk round but must advise for an era of graduate unemployment, the multi-phased career and the emergence of new jobs in previously non-existent fields.
Finally, we are working in a time of tumultuous curriculum reform, with an overhaul of both GCSE and A Level courses and exams taking place over a three-year period. How can we ensure that none of our pupils becomes an unhappy statistic in a guinea pig generation during a time of rapid change in the national education system whose expressed aim is paradigm shift?
Faced with such a barrage of competing pressures, it is tempting to withdraw into convergent thinking, focusing on box ticking and prioritising the measurable and examinable. However, for the current and coming generations of students, the truth of Martin Luther King Jr’s maxim, that ‘intelligence plus character – that is the true goal of education,’ is as compelling as ever, perhaps even more so.
The challenge for the teacher in a time of educational climate change, then, is to equip young women for success in the world-as-it-is and the world-as-it-will-be without creating a generation of anxious perfectionists who are afraid to put a foot wrong or social media junkies who lose sight of the things that matter in life or utilitarian careerists who never remember to look left and right to see how other people are getting along in their ascent of the ‘greasy pole’?
Will the reality of educational climate change, with its implications for our current thinking and future practice, receive more unanimous acknowledgement than its ecological counterpart has among those with the ability to shape opinion? We can only hope so.
Dr Helen Stringer, Headmistress