Do you feel like you learnt everything you actually needed to know to navigate life after you finished school through a system of trial and error? How to change a light bulb, how to do a tax return, the fact that Winston Churchill wasn’t exactly a noble hero who saved the West from fascism.
Our curriculum is still failing to give young people an education that prepares them for the real world, focusing instead on outdated lesson plans and the subjects that schools need to check off government target boxes. Imagine a world that focused less on churning out good GCSE results for Ofsted ratings and more on giving teenagers the tools they need to function in a society. Behold: the alternative curriculum.
LISTEN: "School's Out, What Now" – a podcast about UK education from the VENT Documentaries series, produced by VICE UK and the young people of Brent.
MATHS BUT ACTUALLY USEFUL
Maths is one of those subjects that most people either love or hate depending on a) how they good are at it and b) if they're planning on doing an engineering degree or becoming an astrophysicist or something mad like that. For the rest of us, maths lessons after Year 9 usually feel like endless pointless algebra and trigonometry equations that will have absolutely no practical use once you’ve finished regurgitating them onto your exam paper.
But what about maths lessons that give people a better understanding of dealing with the realities of life, instead of the current system which means that everyone just has to figure all the financial and practical things as they go along (mostly by way of numerous errors). Imagine being taught how to do your taxes, or how to manage your personal finances so that you don’t end up in crippling debt spread across 18 Klarna accounts.
Daniel Mayman, an independent financial consultant at Sterling & Law suggests starting with greater emphasis on the simple concept of percentages: “Our whole financial universe is predicated on percentages to a greater degree – interest, repayment, short and long term savings are all things that start with percentages. What is a pension, how does that work? What's personal taxation – again, percentage based. What happens if you can’t repay your debt? These are all important questions that affect your life going forward."
HISTORY BUT ACTUALLY ACCURATE
Did you find yourself deep into your twenties before you realised that the fact that "the sun never set over the British Empire" was a bad thing, and that the British Empire was in fact one of the worst things to happen in the modern history of the world?
As it stands, history education in the UK is pretty much just three years of learning about The Royal Bloodlines alongside four years of World War II, with a month of decontextualised black history thrown in if you’re lucky. This British stiff upper-lip approach to its own history of imperialism had led to a population that has at no point really reckoned with its own destructive legacy.
“I was never taught to inquire or criticise the ramifications and reality of colonisation and its aftermath”, says Kaleke Kolawole, a civil servant in spectrum policy who works alongside the Decolonising SOAS working group. “It is essential to teach the reality of colonisation, to teach children how to criticise sources and information, to challenge thoughts, bias and history.”
“There's a lot of people who think that decolonising is just simply replacing,” explains Lavinya Stennett, founder of The Black Curriculum. “I do think that at some point there needs to be some replacement, but before that there needs to be the opening of a discussion and thinking about the value of the contributions that are already there. Comparing and contrasting [historical figures], and chipping back the idea that we have to start with really powerful white male figures; understanding that we can draw on different kinds of examples to create a different context”.
Toslima Khatun, a PhD candidate & researcher at SOAS, agrees. “I don't think learning about World War II is a bad thing, especially with the rise of the far right that we're seeing now. I just think it should be more inclusive. You should take into account that there were black lives, East Asian lives, American and Latinx lives and Indian lives that were involved. The defeat of Nazi Germany could not have happened without these people, and without their deaths”.
BUILT-IN SUSTAINABILITY EDUCATION
It’s safe to say that at this point most teenagers are pretty aware of climate change and the urgent need for action before the sky somehow catches on fire, but how do we teach sustainability in a way that will mean we have future scientists and designers equipped to deal with the challenges ahead, and the (hopefully) imminent green technology revolution?
“Sustainability is about understanding how we can do things – as an individual, as a community, and as a society at large – that doesn't just protect the environment, but harmonises our relationship with the system around us”, says Leyla Acaroglu, founder of The UnSchool. “It looks at the social, economic and environmental impacts of our actions”.
It’s clear the time for sustainability as a separate lesson for the Shambala kids who want to wear hemp clothing to school is over. “I don't think segregating sustainability out into its own chunky thing is necessarily a good thing – it doesn't work” says Leyla when I ask about how sustainability could be taught in schools, suggesting that it should feature heavily in science and design teaching. “The legacy issue of environmentalism is that it's been disaggregated from the reality. We don't teach people systems and how the world is interconnected in a very fundamental, practical way. Understanding [that] is science, and design is part of the solution.”
SEX EDUCATION BUT ACTUALLY EDUCATIONAL
Let’s cut to the chase here: your school-gained sex education probably sucked. For me, it consisted of one hour in year 10 where we practiced putting condoms on dildos (which we all found very funny), alongside being shown graphic images of what some common STIs looked like (which we also found very funny and also super fucking gross).
There's a well-documented gap between what schools have been providing in terms of sex education and what young people actually need in order to have healthier and safer relationships with both other people’s bodies and their own. It needs to go beyond heteronormative conversations around pregnancy and contraception and expand to cover consent, porn, social media, same-sex relationships and gender identity.
Some good news! From September 2020, relationships and sex education (RSE) will be compulsory in all schools, with updated recommended guidance that a number of organisations such as the Terrence Higgins Trust have been working on for the past few years.
When I speak to Chris Simmons from THT, he tells me the next big challenge is making sure teachers have the necessary skills to provide better guidance and support. “Relationships and sex education ideally would be integrated into the wider curriculum instead of seen as one lump lesson,” he says, suggesting that English lessons could be a great way of incorporating subjects such as gender identity and sexual orientation into the conversation through more inclusive book choices. On that note...
ENGLISH LITERATURE BEYOND THE WESTERN CANON
I loved English simply because I love(d) reading, but also because I had an incredible English teacher and we got to study Shrek as part of our GCSE coursework (I can’t remember what the angle was here and also did anyone else do this? Please DM me). But even I can admit that between Shakespeare, Dickens and Steinbeck the scope for incorporating more diverse voices and narratives into our understanding of Great Literature is... large. Teachers: pick a book out of the western literary canon challenge! Not only dead white men have stories worth telling.
“English shouldn't just be about learning books, it should also teach you about different cultures and their traditions,” says Lavinya. “Colonisation is a mode of thought, and it's broken up our lives into these different compartments – history, geography, art, music – but in life, all these things are very interconnected and interrelated.”
SCIENCE AS RECREATIONAL DRUGS EDUCATION
You know those pictures of drugs under a microscope that were reblogged loads on Tumblr at one point? They were cool. What if chemistry teachers brought more of that Fear and Loathing energy into the classroom. Maybe it’s just me, but I feel like most teenagers would be more interested in science if there were drugs involved (not literally) than gravitational theories, and maybe if chemistry had used drugs to teach me about compounds I would probably now as an adult be way more informed about both chemistry and drugs. This kind of knowledge seems particularly relevant in this new world order where pharmaceuticals are more popular with teenagers and everyone from tech-bros to finance bros are micro-dosing acid to "enhance" their productivity.
Unfortunately this vision is still far too farsighted. “Drugs are already in the science curriculum, but the trouble is that [they’re] only taught in relation to individual pathology, and the bad effects of drugs on your body” explains Harry Shapiro, the director of Drugwise. “To try and introduce an alternative view is politically tricky. Given how much concern there is about mental health problems among young people, and the fact that mental health services are pretty much broken, there would probably be a concern that this initiative might promote the idea of self-medication, which has already happened with drugs like Xanax,” he adds.
Until drugs are incorporated into society through legal means, teenagers will probably still be taught about them via that video of a horse being injected with a shit ton of tranquilliser as a warning about the dangers of ketamine.
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