At last month’s Foundation for Education Development summit, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson revealed the government’s latest education agenda. While this roadmap to improve British schools and universities in the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic envisaged germane proposals to many issues, ranging from the £2.5-billion National Skills Fund to fund vocational training programs to promoting best practice sharing among schools via the so-called behaviour hubs, it overlooked some of the gravest challenges facing our education system. At no point did it stress or even allude to what Conservatives would have been expected to uphold: the principle that education should nurture critical thinking and a passion for lifelong learning, and not merely prepare students for the labour market.
Without doubt, this striking omission paid deference to the currently predominant – yet ruinous – competency-based approach to education. This teaching method prioritises teaching skills and competencies over helping students become independent learners and grasp new, and frequently complex, information and equates individuals to assets whose value is contingent on how much one invests in education and what skills comprise one’s portfolio. Although it is not without its distinct benefits, since it incentivises students to venture outside their comfort zone by savouring new subjects and extracurricular activities and hone their versatility, inflexible disregard for its deficiencies on the government’s part threatens to backfire.
Even before COVID-19 and the concomitant disruptions to traditional learning in the classroom, schools in the United Kingdom have experienced several problems. On one side, many recorded staff shortages, as the teacher-student ratio expanded by more than 13% in schools up and down the country between 2010 and 2018. On the other side, insufficient funding remains a persistent concern for schools in England and Scotland, with as many as 35% of English schools identified as substantially underfunded by the National Audit Office in 2017 and with Scotland curtailing its education expenditure by 20% between 2012 and 2018. Now, lockdowns threaten to unearth further cracks in our educational sector. Having resulted in plummeting academic performance and a digital learning regime that is only half as effective as in-person instruction, they placed the UK ahead of other European countries in the number of teaching months required to compensate for the pandemic-induced loss of learning. By November, Britain had already lost an equivalent to nearly three months of ordinary teaching time, whereas the world had only averaged at below two months.
This dire situation proves that British pupils were less prepared to resume their studies without interaction with teachers than their counterparts abroad. In other words, their capacity and desire to recreate and sustain the rigour and intensity of classroom learning proved inferior. Although students would have by definition been less productive at home, an environment that they rarely not associate with disciplined learning and that may harbour its distractions and pressures, this factor alone cannot explain the substantial decline in academic output observed. Something else must have been at play to exacerbate this loss, and I propose that this was our education system’s inflexible insistence on the competency-based approach to learning.
Connections between competency-based learning and adverse academic results are unsurprising. After all, if we misconstrue students as mere skillset portfolio holders, they will be less inclined to learn for the sake of learning and apply the required effort to tasks, which they deem irrelevant to their career aspirations. Studies demonstrate that this approach, thought to empower students to explore new fields and diversify knowledge, ends up suppressing their curiosity and fostering a sense of informational nihilism. Naturally, if learning is viewed as a means to a very particular end – securing a higher-paid job – recipients of such learning will be more predisposed to brush aside materials that do not align with their end-goal. As true curiosity presupposes learning for pleasure, it correspondingly contradicts the competency-based approach.
With less focus on critical thinking, the younger generations’ ability to think abstractly, contrive coherent arguments, and detect logical patterns in texts and among numbers likewise falls victim to competency-based education. With every generation that graduates, increasingly more pupils are struggling to navigate through logical reasoning exercises and produce eloquent, well-argued essays. Once again, the relationship between emphasising skill acquisition and reduced student cognitive abilities nationwide is relatively straightforward. Given that thinking is impossible to quantify and evidence on one’s CV, there is no reason why competency-based teaching would not side-line helping students enhance their capacity to process and analyse information as well as think creatively. Herein, emerging research on declining attention spans in students and their ineptitude at long-term planning, which tends to require greater imagination and more thorough contemplation of external factors and internal abilities, serves to vindicate this point.
Down the line, failure to perceive learning as a means to broaden the individual’s understanding of the human and natural environment has the following implications. Firstly, the apathy towards learning for learning’s own sake comes across in the fact that more than 50% of UK university graduates have professions that are unrelated to their degrees. While there is nothing inherently wrong about exploring new career tracks and changing professional preferences, it is alarming that such a significant proportion of university studies – many of which might have been funded with government loans – continue to exist, despite their little relevance to the wider world, and continue to admit more applicants than the academe is willing to absorb. Secondly, while British universities are insured from the high dropout rates recorded by German higher education sector by dint of charging enrolment fees, two-thirds of them have registered 5% greater dropout rates in recent years. Just as with the former case, this often leads to government loans, comprised of taxpayer money, being squandered and shows that applicants have poorer understanding of what subjects interest them with their content, as opposed to with the skills that studying this content teaches. Thirdly, those with aversion to long-term planning and worse cognitive abilities might disadvantage the nation’s economic development in the long run, as fewer individuals will have the necessary vision to facilitate this growth.
As its education policy record confirms, this government can set its priorities right. For instance, its initiative to persuade UK universities to embrace the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of anti-Semitism represents a welcome attempt at reining in hateful rhetoric on campuses. Remembering this, it could – and should – pursue further reform and mitigate the adverse side-effects of competency-based teaching. Many concerns will necessitate deep-seated and structural reforms. Government functionaries will need to devise a more nuanced metric to assess student performance nationwide than grades to allow teachers to critique pupil work and help them learn from their mistakes. Similar measures to prevent grade inflation should concern universities, where the number of first-class degrees increased by 80% between 2011 and 2019.
Furthermore, Westminster should promote reading lessons in schools, such that students either learn how to construct arguments and think critically by perusing challenging non-fiction texts or see examples of good behaviour (which the government has identified as an important policy area in its recent agenda) in novels. Lastly, our education system requires provisions for casting teachers not as service providers, but as mentors, who possess authority over pupils and commit time to discuss with students what they read, watch, and encounter in their daily lives. The latter should stimulate them to learn more on their own to share with and impress their mentors, while the former should instil the discipline required for responsible learning.
The competency-based approach to education has its distinct advantages, but its ongoing effect on child literacy and university studies makes it flawed and unsustainable. Treating students as assets with many skills, but limited creativity and capacity to think abstractly and convey their thoughts to others will not bode well for Britain. Consequently, Boris Johnson’s ambitious plan to build back better will not improve our education unless it genuinely confronts the structural challenges that competency-based learning presents to our educators and learners. The UK has a long way ahead to restore its international education brand, and this must start with provisions to cultivate the mind and nurture independent learning in our young generations.