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

Paul Ashwin and Charles Clarke

Society for Research into Higher Education, 29th March 2023

Panellists: Sharon Gladstone, Professor Nicola Walshe and Charles Clarke drawing on notes from Sir Mike Tomlinson.

Sun setting over the sea with sunrays seen through clouds.

Photograph: Image by Timo Volz on Unsplash

Note: 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 secondary education.

Charles Clarke drew on notes provided by Sir Mike Tomlinson who was unexpectedly unable to attend the seminar. Charles situated his comments in relation to the increase in the school leaving age in England from 10 in the 1880s through a series of changes to reach 18 in 2015. Charles felt there had been a drift in what we are educating for and that it was timely to ask sharp questions about what we trying to achieve through secondary education. From Mike’s notes, Charles highlighted three aspects of successful educational policies that Mike had encountered. These were policies that had an explicit, single goal; a clear, flexible budget to support the achievement of this goal; and a single member of the civil service responsible for the policy who worked with a small team. Mike’s notes also highlighted two other routes through which policies were made: through legislation, such as the creation of Ofsted, and through personal relationships. Mike provided two examples of the latter where a Minister had picked-up on ideas that Mike had suggested. These were creation of specialist schools and the creation of the Teacher Training Agency. Mike argued that there was a need to improve policy memory in order to learn from the past, particularly in terms of what has not worked. He also highlighted that it should not just be assumed that what is passed in legislation will simply be implemented by educational institutions. Mike highlighted the variability of research informing policy and contrasted the long timescales of research with the much shorter timescales involved in and policy making.

Sharon Gladstone situated her comments in relation to the impact that the Covid-19 pandemic had on secondary education. As a headteacher, she felt that policy was often done to those who worked in schools and that they were expected to ‘react and do’ rather than engage in shaping policies. She felt that ministers were not listening to views of educators and children but also highlighted the sense that education ministers and the Department for Education did not appear to be hearing each other. She felt there was a distrust between educators and policy makers and that policies were not informed by evidence. In order for policies to be successfully translated into effective educational practices, schools need collaboration, training, time and resources. Sharon emphasised the importance of collaboration and consultation between teachers, children, parents and employers. In terms of what we are educating for, Sharon emphasised the importance of empathy, care and respect and a connection to the community. She saw secondary education building on the foundations provided by primary education and developing deeper connections to knowledge and competencies in communication, problem solving and citizenship. She felt the quality of education offered by schools needed to be measured more effectively. Currently, schools live or die by their GCSE results, which encourages a very narrow focus on exam preparation. She felt there should be more flexibility and freedom for schools to fulfil children’s needs in a variety of ways so that they were prepared to engage with the world in meaningful ways and find a role for themselves in society.

Nicola Walshe emphasised the importance of secondary school students learning for the environment and developing a sense of agency and hope. They needed to understand and engage with the world around them including the impact of man-made climate change. She agreed with Sharon that the pandemic had a significant impact on schools and the learning of young people, with a disproportionate impact on those with the least. She highlighted evidence about the mental health challenges faced by young people, which schools were expected to support with little or no additional resources to do this. Nicola also highlighted the concerns with the shortage of secondary school teachers. In determining what we are educating for, in addition to schools and educators, Nicola highlighted the importance of involving subject associations and learned societies, higher education institutions and policy makers from across government not just education. She emphasised the importance of higher education institutions in providing a space for these different stakeholders to come together and develop national partnerships to improve education. As part of this, it is essential to provide spaces for the voices of young people to be heard. In working with young people on the climate change education, there is a real danger that this is a negative experience conveying a sense of hopelessness and fear without preparing young people to do something about it. We need to show them that a realistic, alternative sustainable future is possible and prepare them to contribute to achieving this vision.

In the discussions, it was suggested that part of the challenge facing secondary education was related to the dominance of a certain model of Multi-Academy Trusts, which wanted all teachers to teach in the same way rather than to reflect thoughtfully of the education that they were offering children. This coupled with the way in which preparing for GCSEs defined the curriculum for the whole of young people’s experience of secondary education had led to a lack of creativity in the education offered and a lack of engagement by young people and teachers. It needed to be recognised that there were always trade-offs to be made and that incremental change was likely to be more successful than revolutionary change. However, there was a sense that there had been a systematic de-professionalisation of the teaching profession by successive governments, which had exacerbated the shortages of teachers. It was felt that there was a need for a sense of educational renewal in which a variety of stakeholders come together to look again at what we are trying to achieve through secondary education. This should aim to develop a secondary education that takes the perspectives of young people seriously and helps to prepare them to engage hopefully and meaningfully with the many human and environmental challenges that face the world. It needs to use measurement and assessment in a reflexive manner that recognises the limitations of such measures and the serious unintended consequences of reifying the outcomes of any measurement system. To develop such an education requires a society-wide conversation about how we prepare young people to define their place in a fair and sustainable future.

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.