Reflections on ‘What are we educating for across the Educational System’

Paul Ashwin and Charles Clarke

Society for Research into Higher Education, 15th February 2023

Panellists: Professor Jo-Anne Baird, Lord Kenneth Baker and Professor Gert Biesta.

Sun setting over the sea with sunrays seen through clouds.

Photograph: Image by Timo Volz on Unsplash

NB: These notes are based on Paul and Charles’s reflections on this seminar and should not be taken as stating the views of the three panellists or those who attended the seminar. Rather they are a particular interpretation of the engaging discussions that took place during the seminar.

In this seminar we examined the question of what we are educating for across the whole of the educational system. This was to set the scene for the subsequent seminars on what are we educating for in Higher, Further and Vocational, Secondary, Primary and Early Years Education. The intention was to highlight disagreements in the purposes of education that often get obscured and flattened by the dominance of economic discourses in debates about educational questions.

Lord Baker began by showing that the 2016 pre-16 school compulsory curriculum is nearly identical to that of 1904. He showed how there has been a decline students taking technical and creative subjects and those taking qualifications relating to digital and green industries. These are precisely the subjects that students need if they are going to be properly prepared to contribute to society. He argued that there were large pockets of youth unemployment that needed to be addressed and outlined the success of University Technical Colleges in supporting students’ success in gaining access to higher education and the labour market whilst operating in areas with low educational achievement and high levels of unemployment. He argued that the Government was not listening to concerns about the outdated curriculum despite a large number of reports and committees reaching the same conclusions about the problems that it was causing.

Gert Biesta argued that we should be focusing on both what we are educating for and what we should be educating for. He argued that these had become increasingly political questions as the number of stakeholders interested in these questions had increased and as an increasing focus on the performance of education systems had led to a strong focus on comparison and competition. He argued that this was fuelled by a fear that some countries would get left behind. He argued that whilst the key question used to be what schools could do for their students, the use of metrics increasingly positioned students as needing to perform for their schools. He suggested that the debate between humanistic and economic agendas had been replaced by a debate between technicism (the management of objects) and its alternatives (the education of subjects). He argued that a rightful concern with social justice had led to a focus on the measurement of educational quality in order to ensure all students had access to the same quality of education. This had led to a focus on easily quantifiable educational outcomes, which presents a gap in educational performance that is caused by poverty as if it is an attainment gap that is the responsibility of educators. The narrowing of the view of what counts as a measure of education, has led to a narrowing of what counts as education and, as indicators of quality become mistaken for definitions of quality, an increasing focus on trivial measures of educational quality. Despite this, teachers still try to make education work for their students as they navigate the demands of accountability and inspection. It is also important to recognise that some teachers are seduced by the promise of technicism. In conclusion, he argued that, in a democratic society, everyone should have a say in determining what we are educating for but this should be done in a way that seeks to identify and support the public good rather than follow the populist logic of the market. We should be educating in order to help people to want to exist in the world in a grown-up way and, rather than following our desires, questioning what we desire in all aspects of our lives.

Jo-Anne Baird focused on the use of educational experts by policy makers. She examined two cases of the review of the market for Initial Teacher Training and how examination grades were determined following the decision to cancel public examinations during Covid-19. In the case of Initial Teacher Training, she argued this was based on a very narrow view of teacher education and a severe lack of engagement with the issues raised by the teacher education sector. In relation to the determination of grades in 2020, educational researchers were consulted on the algorithm used but not on whether it was right to use an algorithm to award grades. She argued that educational researchers were increasingly used in this way to provide evidence in relation to questions that are rigidly framed by the use of particular kinds of data modelling. She argued that both cases illustrated how policy makers in England increasingly listen to a small network of people from the same backgrounds and organisations, which means that the assumptions they hold in developing educational policies are not subject to critical questioning . This is in contrast to the more inclusive approaches to policy making in Scotland and Wales.

The subsequent discussions of those participating in the seminar highlighted the lack of meaningful dialogue between policy makers, educational practitioners and educational researchers in England. There was a clear sense that when discussions and consultations take place they tend to be of low quality and focused on policy makers seeking answers to very narrowly defined questions. Dissenting views are not engaged with but are rather dismissed as politically motivated.

In terms of how things might be different, there was a sense of a need to transform the curriculum to prepare students for the world as it is rather than how it was in the 1900s. This would involve a curriculum that takes students’ interests seriously, engages their bodies as well as their minds, and is clear about how it will enable them to contribute to, as well as raise critical questions about, society. Such an approach would offer a range of different educational pathways with the flexibility to move between them. It would require a much more thoughtful use of evidence and indicators to understand the successes and limitations of such an educational approach rather than focusing on comparing simplistic outcomes. It would require policy makers, educational practitioners, and researchers, as well as parents and students, to have a much more open and honest engagement about what is possible given the challenges faced in providing a meaningful and relevant education to all.

We gratefully acknowledge the funding from the ESRC Impact Acceleration Account, FASS Research Fund and Lancaster University for this seminar series. We also acknowledge the support of the British Educational Research Association and the hosting of the series by the Society for Research into Higher Education.