The following text is the talk I gave at the RSA yesterday. It’s what I wrote and intended to say, although of course on the day I improvised and lost bits. Anyway…
“I felt honoured to be asked to speak here today – honoured and more than a little terrified. And surprised. Surprised that people would come, would want to hear what I might have to say. That’s not a plea for sympathy or reassurance – you may yet regret your decision to be here, but to borrow from Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, “I’m not in Burnley any more.”
When I was little, I remember spending hours cutting pictures out of my Mum’s catalogues of things that I imagined might feature in my future. Handsome men staring wistfully into the distance. Pretty children. Soft furnishings. I took what I knew – home and family – and I imagined a future that had the same things in in, but with better cushions. This is how imagining a future works for most people – it is a slight improvement on the experience they already have. Imagining this present – speaking here – was nigh on impossible for me. London might as well have been Narnia.
In order to want something, you have to be able to imagine it. And sometimes, when you can’t see the full range of possibility, you need someone to imagine it for you. Someone with vision. Someone who believes in you. That someone becomes an imagineer of your future – an architect of dreams until you reach the point at which your experience expands enough to be able to imagine it for yourself. It seems to me that this is the role of a teacher and one of the purposes of our education system – to give children the tools by which they might imagine themselves into a future that once seemed impossible or inconceivable.
Imagining a future involves moving forwards. It sounds obvious but it is not. Our political system does not move in forward motion; it moves in a five year looping motion governed by general elections and a fear of what the electorate might tolerate in terms of risk. I’ve been astonished in recent months at the number of times I have heard the words “that is politically undo-able” from the mouths of ministers (both in and out of the shadows) and advisors. Not economically unviable, not wrong, not immoral. Just “politically undo-able”. This fearful looping motion is what drives our social and educational policy and in that frame of mind, the imagination is a luxury that could cost votes. Parliament is never going to be a place of creative risk. The culture of compliance is so strong there that MPs don’t even need to bother to listen to the substance of debate in order to know which way to vote. They do as they are told. In this culture, the status quo prevails.
An imaginative education system should aim to achieve that which has never been achieved before. It should be about designing possibility and turning that possibility into actuality. Instead we have a backward looking system that instills a fear of the future into our children. This is partly because if you want parents to vote for you, you have to convince them that there is a problem you can fix (but not a problem so substantial that they think you should have fixed it the last time you were in power). As a result, we tinker at the edges, instilling enough fear to ensure engagement without ever having to take radical action.