The recent headline that St Andrew’s University had introduced compulsory modules on sustainability, diversity, consent and good academic practice was met by a good deal of public consternation and suspicion.
At the heart of the concerns voiced in the media was the statement that, in order to matriculate, students had to agree with several statements, one of which involved accepting “personal guilt.”
St Andrew’s may be in the vanguard, but are not alone in treading this path, despite the reaction from academics, students and politicians who described the report variously as “grim policing of thought and behaviour” and “the antithesis of what university should be.”
The statement that ”Acknowledging your personal guilt is a useful start point in overcoming unconscious bias” in particular, was seen as contrary to free speech and, according to one academic, nothing less than a form of indoctrination.
There is little doubt that the feature didn’t read well. The word “mandatory” and phrase “accept personal guilt” rang alarm bells and were seen as yet another manifestation of “woke” culture, another Orwellian strike against the very bastions of intellectual thought and freedom.
“It begs the question: why should it be mandatory at tertiary level and not earlier?”
In its defence, the university suggested that the students had requested the modules and they had been in place for several years now, and that they were developed to align with St Andrews’ strategic priorities of diversity, inclusion, social responsibility and good academic practice.
If, indeed, these requirements are so important, as St Andrew’s clearly thinks they are, it begs the question: why should they be mandatory at tertiary level and not earlier? Schools, will of course say “we do all this”, wheeling out their PSHE and RSE curricula, and their school values as evidence.
And of course they do, within the confines of their curriculum and resources. As PSHE continues to be a catch-all for new government initiatives thrown at schools to sort out, the pressures are ever greater. Schools are struggling to accommodate it or find appropriate staff to teach it.
“Persuading students to think holistically when so much of their education is about self and personal attainment is a challenge.”
It is not easy. “Asking students to distinguish right from wrong,” for instance, requires a clear vision to avoid it either being laced with bias or being a mere fudge: where for instance, does membership of Extinction Rebellion sit? Or tax avoidance? Even driving a diesel car?
Likewise, the challenge of persuading students to think holistically when so much of their education is about self, personal attainment and getting the best grades possible to enhance their “life chances”. The contradictions don’t sit easily.
In this, schools and universities are not that dissimilar. Even where core values are spoken about in assemblies and championed in reward systems it is never enough because it sits outside the high-accountability system we have. Something more fundamental is needed than a clip-on lesson or two taught in isolation to change the path of travel.
That is the challenge: How do we change the messaging that should underpin our learning? For as we talk up mission statements, and haggle over the values and ethics that sit at the heart of our institutions, the reality is that the words are often little more than mere compliance, a tick in a box.
“Something more fundamental is needed than a clip-on lesson or two taught in isolation.”
We need to re-set our curriculum. That means starting at age four and going down that other fork in the road with the promise of a different destination.
On the one hand, we could reshape every subject to reflect the values and attitudes we already profess to champion in education in order to ensure everything we teach is properly grounded in our values.
On the other, we could abandon our attachment to traditional subjects and move towards a new way of teaching and learning. This would be one based more on skills, on inter-related knowledge, collaboration and the relevance and applicability of what we teach.
In practical terms, this may start by something as simple as introducing social studies with its multi-disciplinary approach, drawing together strands of history, geography, anthropology, economics, philosophy – into our junior schools.
“This may start by something as simple as introducing social studies into junior schools.”
In secondary schools, it might be the often discussed move away from GCSEs, to allow more opportunity for subjects to be able to reflect the behaviours and attitudes taught in PSHE. For instance, you could have geography looking at the subject through the prism of the economic doughnut, the socio-economic impact of climate change or the scarcity of resources such as water.
At A-level, we are already hampered by the reduction of the curriculum to often just three core subjects, often knowledge-rich to the point of gagging, insular and jealously guarded and with little potential for overlap. The International Baccalaureate, preferable in respect of the breadth it offers, is still tied to subject boundaries that we remain hemmed within.
“A-level subjects are often knowledge-rich to the point of gagging.”
To narrow the gulf between the sciences and the humanities to create a broader-based curriculum we need to look at what we teach and the values and mission statements we give voice to, and make them our bedrock. For too long schools have been marking children by the wrong scorecard, one determined by the shape and priorities of the curriculum.
St Andrew’s response might seem a little draconian, but they are right to call out their students on the need to be educated in the round and to assert that values and attitudes matter.