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What If? Twenty Years On

Twenty years ago, Ian Gilbert was asked to write an article for SHA (now ASCL). This is what he wrote, which makes us wonder what has changed since then?

  • What if the system in which we all work is not the best one for bringing the best out of young people? What if, for some young people at least, it is the worst possible system?
  • What if we are doing more harm than good to young people by putting them through a system that is not suitable for their specific needs?
  • What if, when we say that a young person leaves school with nothing, we were to realise that what they leave with may be far worse than nothing? That leaving school with nothing would be letting us off lightly?
  • What if poor teachers aren’t just bad at their job but actually doing harm? Not just ineffectual but destructive?
  • What if poor teaching were a crime? What if allowing poor teaching in a school of which you were the head were more of a crime? What if not knowing that the teaching was poor was more culpable than knowingly allowing it?
  • What if you were to ask of an interviewee, ‘Do you love children?’ Not simply teaching them, working with them, bringing the best out of them in a do-good social conscience sort of way but actually valuing them for who and what they are?
  • What if more secondary teachers realised that, first and foremost, they were there to teach children not subjects?
  • What if secondary schools were like primary schools?

Compact Boxes

  • What if dividing the world into compact boxes labelled, for example, history or art was the least effective way of seeing the world anyway?
  • What if the education system we have, which is the result of the application to education of industrialisation processes, has run its course and should go the way of the cotton mill or the coalmine?
  • What if forcing children to live with punishment or the threat of punishment wasn’t the best way of forcing them to behave? What if the behaviour we are forcing them to adopt isn’t the behaviour that best serves them or the future anyway, that what we are experiencing in school is not poor behaviour but a wider social change in behaviours?
  • What if the things we teach young people are not the things they need to learn? What if maths is not as important as, say, art or music? What if many people were to admit that if they had spent more time as a child learning to play the piano and less time learning algebra they would probably be spending more time as an adult playing the piano than they do using algebra?
  • What if the qualifications with which children leave school don’t actually count for very much beyond the world of education? What if they count for nothing? What if the skills developed in order to achieve those qualifications weren’t actually to count for anything in later life? What if those skills – writing neatly, spelling properly, sitting still, listening to instructions, doing as told, not questioning authority, being spoon fed – what if they actually mitigated against success beyond school?
  • What if we were to take on board the neurological fact that a brain is not fully mature until it is 20 to 25 years old? And that boys’ and girls’ brains mature in different ways at different times? And that there may be a two to three year spread in the different levels of neurological maturation between children of the same age? What if we asked where it was written that all 16 years olds are ready sit their exams on exactly the same day?

The Worst Possible Assessment Tool

  • What if exams were actually one of the worst possible methods for assessing what a young person is capable of achieving? What if, neurologically and psychologically, assessing people at 16 was the worst possible time to put a young person through such an ordeal?
  • What if the system was actually set up in order to sift one sort of person from another, as a social filter, yet that filter was now hopelessly out of date?
  • What if the highflying A-star students were the ones who were served most badly by schools? What if sending a child out into the world with a string of academic successes but no experience of dealing with failure was the worst we could do to that child?
  • What if the children leaving school with the most qualifications were the ones least suitable for success in the working world beyond school? And the ones with the least the most?
  • What if employers refused to recognise qualifications as a way of identifying suitable employees and chose instead, say, hair colour or number of vowels in their first name?
  • What if the issue is not the underachievement of boys but the overachievement of girls? What if we are teaching girls that working hard and writing neatly is the key to success when it isn’t? What if it is the key to serious mental harm in the long run?
  • What if a combination of teaching young people how to learn, offering them things to learn that were relevant to them and to society and combining that with the most effective use of the most up-to-date technology meant that more young people would benefit more with fewer teachers? What if the democratisation of knowledge meant the need for less subject specialists? That a caring generalist was better for the child than an uncaring specialist?
  • What if not allowing children to learn in a way that suits them best were a crime? What if an adult were to accuse you, as the headteacher, of criminal dereliction of your duty because your staff did not allow him to learn with something such as, say, Mindmaps?


  • What if the system took accepted that the IQ model of assessing intelligence which makes some people clever and some just, say, good with their hands could be an outdated model based on spurious research used in a misguided way for inappropriate reasons?
  • What if teachers worked on the premise that we all have great memories and that students forgetting what we have taught them is not a reflection on their memory, their ability or maybe even our teaching but on the fact that we have not taken the time to show them how to use the memories they have?
  • What if children were not only aware of their own abilities and preferences but also were to insist that their teachers helped them to learn accordingly at least for part of each lesson?
  • What if you were to take a willing but failing student from a lower ability group and work with that student one to one, offering him or her whatever help and support they needed to achieve from your best teachers? What if then that student achieved a better GCSE grade than he or she would have done otherwise? What if this served to prove that the system as it stands is desperately unsuitable for that student and thousands like them?
  • What if we acknowledged the irony of the fact that throughout their school career the child has to share the book, share the desk, share the equipment, share the computer, even share the teacher and then, right at the last minute, we throw them into an exam hall and tell them they are on their own? That we deny them one-to-one teaching but examine them in a one-to-one fashion?
  • What if we looked at a school that scored, say, 65% A-Cs at GCSE and asked if it felt happy that over a third of all its students had failed by the measure of success that has been set for them? What if we asked if that was an effective use of the time, effort, energy and public money – that over a third of all of it was wasted? What if it wasn’t just wasted but actually served to do harm to a young person? What if we saw, based on a national average of A-Cs at GCSE of just over 50%, that millions of pounds, millions of hours and thousands of adult lives had been spent in doing psychological harm to just under half the children in the country? What if a school were to hear itself saying not ‘We have a target this year of 55% A-Cs’ but ‘We are aiming to ensure that 45% of our students will fail this year’? What if a school were to set a goal of 100% A-Cs, whatever the cost, not in money, but to the system?

What If They Did Think For Themselves?

  • What if, after repeatedly telling young people to think for themselves, they actually did? What if they thought for themselves that the system was not appropriate for them and refused to play along with it anymore, not in a belligerent or aggressive way but just by saying no? What if all the students who were taught by incompetent teachers simply refused to go to that teacher’s lesson? What if they all just went to a good teacher’s lesson instead? What if every student in your school refused to go through the exam process believing it to be flawed?
  • What if all the teachers in the country were to say no – not in the form of any misguided industrial procedure but simply to highlight the fact that if the job involves working so hard so often then the processes behind the job must be wrong?
  • What if teaching something in which we don’t believe, in a system we feel may be fundamentally flawed, means we are actually teaching young people that beliefs, honesty and integrity are not relevant in adult life?
  • What if the union rep who told me recently that the majority of teachers, were they to have their time again, would not go back into teaching was right?
  • What if not enjoying our job is sending the message to young people that jobs are not to be enjoyed?
  • What if we were to ask ourselves about the specific purpose of the education system and whether that was different from the specific purpose of education? What if the two were incompatible? That serving the specific needs of the system meant that we ended up neglecting the specific needs of the child?
  • What if we asked, once we had identified the purpose of education, if we were achieving that goal for all of our students?
  • What if we put self-esteem – feeling capable and loveable – as our number one goal, more important than qualifications?
  • What if we were to identify the purpose of a life and then seek to equip young people with the skills necessary to achieve it?
  • What if we were to treat teaching not as a job but as the work of gods, whose every word and deed had some subsequent consequence that resonated for all time?
  • What if more of us acted strongly on what we felt most strongly about?
  • What if you were to put this article down now and go for a walk?

Makes you think doesn’t it.

To find out more about booking Ian Gilbert for your school, college or organisation call us on 01267 211432 or drop us an email on

About the author

Ian Gilbert

Ian is an award-winning writer, editor, speaker, innovator and the founder of Independent Thinking. He has lived and worked in Europe, the Middle East, South America and Asia and is privileged to have such a global view of education and education systems.

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