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'The hallowed uplands of progress are not so neatly measurable'

As society and employment evolve at breakneck pace, educational revolution must follow, writes Will Cowell

Most of us have seen the video.

You probably watched it through bleary eyes one tragically, naively hopeful September morning. Sun-kissed heads nodded sagely in agreement as we digested the fact that our current Victorian model of education is designed to prepare students for the production line, not the modern world of creative start-ups and blue sky thinkers.

Creativity is what we need. Critical thinking, independent, free-minded, pioneers of industries that don’t even exist yet. Now go back to your regimented day of rows of students in neatly packaged hour long segments, dictated by the ring of the factory bell and do that. Aye, right.

I hate to break it to you Ken, but not every kid passing through my backwater, northern, post-industrial, poverty-gnawed seaside town makes it onto the Boeing R&D team (bad example) or starts up a creative hub for vegan life coaches. But here we are.

Once the onslaught of September kicks in, changing the paradigm is replaced by more prosaic notions of changing your pants because of the OFSTED rumours once again and that pile of books you’ve been leaving in your car with dark hopes of it being torched by joyriders or struck by a meteor.

So we slip into old habits: habits of institutions, habits of tired, undervalued, underpaid and irritated humans. This old hulk of an aircraft carrier isn’t turning around unless we do more than encourage it with nice words about being creative once every other September.

It’s not that I disagree with Sir Ken; I agree with every word. School does kill creativity. School does batch up young people and send them off down narrow paths to become the humble debt consumers the system requires them to be. Bright eyed and furnished with shiny grade 4s in English, maths and science and an interest and passion for absolutely none of it.

They stumble into the real world ready to joylessly rack up their hours spent in their bullshit jobs. The crushing of creativity isn’t, as Sir Ken thinks, a result of habit; it’s by design. It’s the bottom line approach. We take a few hours of pointless arts time and spend that extra time doing more maths = better results = better school? The business equivalent of trimming the fat. Yet this Quixotic desire to relentlessly measure every last ounce of input vs output is the biggest barrier to modernising the way secondary education serves its pupils.

We are now told by OFSTED that our remit now includes raising the cultural capital of our students. Surely, this is a quantum moment in education? Like Einstein on discovering the properties of light - we now surely must realise that the hallowed uplands of progress are not so neatly measurable.

“It seems as though we must use sometimes the one theory and sometimes the other, while at times we may use either. We are faced with a new kind of difficulty. We have two contradictory pictures of reality; separately neither of them fully explains the phenomena of light, but together they do.”

Measure the unmeasurable, trade tangibles for non-tangibles, raise the cultural capital, whilst sacrificing creativity and keeping results on an infinite upward curve.

Ken is also right about the industrialised approach; we take our raw material from Primary schools, add value, and sell it on. The profit of positive residuals is trousered by those leaders taking the credit and building careers out of turning around failing schools. Neatly measurable, presentable, spreadsheetable and detestable. Look at the mess that approach has made to the climate and the economy. Yet this is the system we fuel the furnace of.

So what do we do next? Much as some of us would like to, changing the post-industrial landscape of Brexit Britain is above our paygrade. The first thing we should do is stop taking the blame and feeling the guilt for the problems of wider society.

Lots of us are forced to deliver our joyless curriculum in an outdated format to prepare our students for joyless working lives in boring, precarious and low paid jobs. We didn’t choose this so we should stop labouring under the idea that the world of work neatly picks up where we leave off and that our job is to connect the two. We need to see society post-work. We don’t need to teach students to be creative so they can blue sky some great ideas at work, we need to do it so they have an appreciation of art that will enrich their lives. To teach them how to be humans outside of their dwindling working hours.

Ken’s vision is true, but he is wrong to think we can get there by tweaking our lessons and having more group-work. If we are serious about rebooting our system for the future, the entire landscape needs to change. No more lessons dictated by a bell – students should progress by knowledge, not time. No more classes of 30 in rows, more trips, more sport, more music; less writing, less pointless data-driven assessment, less time wasted on tasks to fill time: more choice, more creativity, more project-based experiences, more technology, more working remotely, more communal areas, more independent study, more time outside and we will start to see genuine change.

Bullshit jobs are going nowhere, but as automation and technology grows, at least we will have more spare time to enjoy actual life.

This is what we are educating for; the system must adapt.

Will Cowell teaches in a Secondary school in the North East and has been an English teacher for over a decade


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