Reimagining schools at the Battle of Ideas

Education Forum organiser Harley Richardson spoke on the ‘Reimagining schools’ panel at the Battle of Ideas festival, which took place in Westminster on Saturday 9th and Sunday 10th October...

Pandemic or no pandemic, I think it’s always worth asking could schools be done differently? Could be they be done better? There’s still plenty of scope to experiment – we’ve hardly exhausted all the possibilities. But the sorts of schools we imagine will be shaped by our answer to the question – what do we think schools are for?

And people have been grappling with that question ever since education came into being, ever since civilisations evolved beyond the struggle for mere survival and people had choice about what to teach. One answer has been what the Ancient Greeks called a liberal education – which has taken many forms over the centuries but in essence involves passing on what we know about the world – the best that has been thought and known, no less. Or, perhaps, a ‘broad and balanced curriculum’, to coin a phrase. Why? Because such knowledge is interesting in its own right, it enriches our lives, helps us get a better purchase on the world.

But, you might object – learning stuff for the sake of it is a luxury, an indulgence. Why should schools teach children stuff they don’t need to know? And that’s true – that’s what makes a ‘liberal education’ liberal, it’s what we learn in our free time, in the broadest sense of the phrase. The free time for children to be educated, as opposed to working up a chimney for a living. This idea is actually encoded rather beautifully in the word ‘school’ – which derives from the Ancient Greek word for ‘leisure’.

But this leisure, this unnecessary aspect of education is more than an indulgence, it’s what creates possibilities, it’s what enables us to see beyond the immediate. It’s what has made space for the intellectual and material breakthroughs that have moved society forward and created more freedom and free time for us all.

But this liberating potential of education is also unnerving. We don’t know where it will take us. It comes with no guarantees. It’s a leap of faith, in people and what they will do with knowledge. Do we have that faith? Those who don’t, inevitably try to control and direct education.

Read the full speech at Learning through the ages.