Judith Fremont-Barnes, head of Milton Abbey, calls for an overhaul of UK teaching styles

Judith Fremont-Barnes calls for education detox
Judith Fremont-Barnes

There has never been a more exciting time to be an educator. The pandemic has forced an explosion of innovation, necessitated creative problem-solving beyond our wildest dreams and seen communities rise up to meet challenges previously unimagined. The daily practice of teaching and learning, so often alarmingly squeezed out of national discourse, has been front and centre of mind. In our virtual common rooms and governors’ meetings, in our universities, government departments, and at your kitchen tables: how, why and what we learn, teach and assess have been dissected. Inequalities laid painfully bare, opportunities magnified. 

In their scramble to translate the curriculum online in March 2020, many educators had cause to question its relevance to the unpredictable, dynamic workscape of the immediate future. Employers have been crying out for the skills predicted five years ago by the Davos World Economic Forum Future of Jobs report as necessary to succeed in the 2020’s workplace. 

Creativity, complex problem-solving, negotiation, emotional intelligence, self-regulation, initiative, adaptability, the capacity to connect and collaborate: we aspire to all these for our children but traditional curriculum models have precious little time or space for growing such qualities. Critically, none of this is rewarded in the only measure we provide our children and their future employers: grades. 

Important as they are for opening doors, grades are not enough. Whether it’s a birth certificate, passport, their parents’ bank balance or their exam results sheet, we owe it to our students to ensure that they know that they are not defined by a piece of paper, nor that it gives them any guarantees. 

Just as concerning: the education that isn’t preparing our children for adult life, is breaking too many of them. We are putting young people, at the most sensitive time of their development, through a high challenge, high pressure environment of the sort at which most adults would quail. 

Too often, solutions are bolt-on. While I am sure there are intrinsic merits to baby yoga and mindfulness for teenagers, many interventions seem designed to protect children from environments that we recognise as toxic. Instead of looking for a magic fix, we as school leaders need to ensure that school is not toxic in the first place and that wellbeing is central. 

To achieve optimal outcomes, we need to make our schools into optimal learning environments and ensure that learning is defined in terms of social as well as academic development. We need to acknowledge that, since all learn differently, we must teach differently. One size tends to fit none. No-one in their right mind would undergo surgery on the promise that ‘the treatment might work for some people’, so why would we educate that way? We need to trust teachers to use their expert knowledge of children to design individualised and holistic programmes which support, stretch and challenge not just some, but all, according to the unique needs of each. 

Our practice needs to be rooted in neuroscientific and educational research, ensuring that the psychology of performance and self-regulation are embedded in our schools. When, how and what we assess at all levels needs to be reframed: children need to be part of this conversation. 

Vocational options need parity with traditional academic choices, to unlock the vast swathe of intelligences in children not yet measured or developed. Character education must be a central focus in and beyond the classroom. 

High challenge is vital – ambition and aspiration must be part of every child’s school experience – but this can, and must, be achieved in a context of moderate pressure. All aspects of achievement and endeavour need to be given equal status and celebration – in sport, music, art, drama, entrepreneurship, social skills, idea generation and practical skills. And schools need to work closely in partnership with parents, enabling a dynamic progress during these challenging years of child and teenage development. 

Respect, for the self, for others and for the environment, is fundamental to the heart of every school. It’s only when our children can understand and be kind to themselves that they can lead fulfilling lives of service and contribution in a diverse and ever-changing world, ready to tackle the big challenges ahead for their generation. 

And there needs to be joy: without which, why? 

We are indeed at a critical moment, as the phoenix-esque education system starts to shake off its pandemic ashes. What a triumph if we can forge from its fires a system more relevant, more rigorous, more enjoyable, so that all our children can flourish.


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