Reflections on ‘What are we educating for in Primary Education’

Paul Ashwin and Charles Clarke

Society for Research into Higher Education, 13th April 2023

Panellists: Gorana Henry, Dr Richard Kueh, HMI and Dr Marlon Moncrieffe

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 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 in primary education.

Richard Kueh argued that questions about the purposes of education were perennial because they had no single answer. Richard highlighted that there are least three possible themes at play in the sector relating to educational purposes. The first was instrumental educational purposes that relate to economic priorities. The second was education for the flourishing of humans and the joy that education can bring. The third was gaining access to humanity’s conversation and opening eyes and minds to the power of informed questioning. The tensions between these themes meant that there can be no singular answer to the question of what we are educating for. From an Ofsted perspective, this means that the inspectorate needs to have a conception of quality that is only as prescriptive as it minimally needs to be. It is important to recognise that Ofsted’s work starts from the context of the National Curriculum. Within this the Chief Inspector stresses the importance of the breadth of education offered to children in primary education so that they have access to a wide range of subjects and ways of thinking in order to provide a foundation for their future education. This plurality is taken very seriously by Ofsted as it works within the democratic structures that shape its work.

Gorana Henry emphasised the importance of children developing a sense of belonging in their primary education. She questioned the extent to which the language of identifying children who were ‘working below the standard’ stigmatised children. The importance of belonging also runs through to teachers, many of whom don’t feel a sense of belonging to the educational system. Gorana emphasised the importance of teachers developing a sense of agency. She argued this was being lost in the dominance of prescribed schemes of work that limited teacher thinking, a dominance that was exacerbated by teachers being asked to be subject leaders in subjects in which they were not experts. Being held accountable for these subjects in such circumstances increased the pressure to use these schemes of work. Gorana emphasised the importance of communication and primary education providing young people with the opportunity to experiment with and learn different forms of in-person and online communication. She highlighted the ways in which many young people were less practised in in-person communication since the Covid-19 pandemic and how this was leading to increased misunderstanding between young people in schools. Gorana emphasised the importance of inclusive communication, for example, by offering children the opportunity to explore communication linked to incidences of racism. A key role of primary education is to prepare children to navigate and participate in a changing and increasingly digital world culture.

Marlon Moncrieffe emphasised how educational purposes change over time. Whilst, it is to be hoped that policy makers would seek to support research-informed teaching, this was not always the case due to the power dynamics between policy makers, teachers and researchers. Marlon raised questions about the ways in which policy makers had preferred particular evidence brokers. The ways in which these preferred evidence brokers were funded by the Department for Education (DfE) raised questions about their independence. In contrast, Marlon highlighted the way in which evidence was brought to parliament from multiple experts, teachers and parents about the importance of decolonising the primary history curriculum and this had simply been rebuffed by the Government, although they may be some signs of hope in the review of the history curriculum announced by the DfE. It will all depend on whose voices are included and amplified and whose voices are excluded and silenced from this review. Marlon argued that primary education played a key role in producing adult citizens through cultural reproduction and this raises important questions about whose cultures are reproduced. How can we produce citizens if they are offered a culturally whitewashed version of history that ignores the histories of migration that have produced the democracy and society that we have today?

In the discussion, there was a sense that the primary curriculum has become increasingly narrow with very little time to relate what was being learned to the outside world. This was leading to the production of imaginary school subjects that were unconnected to the realities of the world. There was also a sense that whilst the time schools had to diverge from the curriculum had been squeezed, schools and teachers were increasingly being asked to provide basic care for children. These conflicting priorities were seen as fuelling the problems with teacher retention, with teachers asked to do an increasingly difficult job with very little space of the exercise of meaningful agency. This was related to a sense that the primary curriculum had collapsed into simply focusing on those aspects of the curriculum that were externally assessed. There was a recognition that assessment was loaded with many different functions. For some, assessment needs to change to allow space for children’s voices and the personalisation of assessment, whilst others were more focused on assessment having a clear object and not being onerous or excessive. So much of the current system seems to be driven by the fears of policy makers and school leaders rather than trusting teachers to offer a fulfilling education. Many of the challenges facing schools are related to structural issues related to the impact of austerity and Covid-19 on society as well as the fall in school rolls. There is an urgent need for greater time and space for schools to reconsider the purposes of education in dialogue with children and parents. Some advocated a return to a child-centred model of education that encourages teachers and schools to think differently about education and includes space for teacher development. Exploring and addressing these issues is crucial if primary education is to play a meaningful role in democratic socialisation into the diverse society in which we live.

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.