A word to the wise: what does it mean to be an educated school-leaver?


IOE Events.

Through our What if… debates we have endeavoured to tackle the big, longstanding debates in education. This month we took on perhaps the biggest of them all: ‘knowledge vs skills’. Recent commentaries have brought greater nuance to the question of whether the school curriculum should focus on building knowledge or on developing skills (or whether they are inextricable). Nevertheless, contrasting views persist on what the school curriculum should deliver.

We started with the question of how best to develop well-prepared and well-rounded school leavers. This meant looking at how the school curriculum can cultivate pupils’ knowledge, but also their understanding,  as well as other desirable dispositions and attributes, such as empathy and good judgement – qualities that when taken together might confer wisdom. What if…, as the title of the event went, our main objective in education was to build wisdom?

To tackle this question we assembled a panel with richly contrasting expertise and experience, in the form of: former political strategist turned teacher and school leader Peter Hyman; teacher educator David LambertTony Sewell CBE, champion of STEM learning for under-represented groups and Cat Scutt, College of Teaching lead on teacher development.

The panel concurred on the importance of all young people being enabled to access the ‘best that has been thought and said’ – and, crucially, on their being enabled to apply that knowledge (with some allusions there, perhaps, to Michael Young’s ‘Future 3’ heuristic and creating a knowledge curriculum based on engagement not adherence). Tony Sewell’s comments were powerful in highlighting how for some children this has been more by accident than design (including, in his own case, the happenstance of having a retired Latin teacher for a neighbour).

Where the speakers differed was on what importance to attach to other elements of what it might mean to ‘be educated’. Summing up these other elements for us was School 21’s (and Big Education’s) typology of ‘head, heart and hand’ and the school’s ethos of attending to each in equal measure. As Peter Hyman outlined, while the head is about knowledge, the heart concerns character and well-being, and the hand concerns creativity. Equipping young people with a sense of agency to transform the world for the better runs across these categories. For the panel, the question of whether the heart and the hand should be the purview of the main timetable or consigned to afterschool clubs remained an open one.

The curriculum, of course, doesn’t operate in a vacuum. A recurrent theme in the discussion was our national failure – from policy-makers to parents – to value knowledge as a good in itself (as opposed to its economic role). This brought us to the issue of accountability and the way in which it has compounded the narrowing of the curriculum. As we had also heard earlier in the week in a lecture from the Global Teacher of the Year, Andria Zafirakou, arts education has particularly suffered in this context. There is some irony in the fact that, when making their recruitment decisions, employers are starting to show less interest in the credentials (or ‘bits of paper’) that the education system currently supplies its graduates with.

Ofsted’s plans to pay greater attention to breadth and balance in schools’ curricula (and mark down ‘exam factories’) have the potential to counteract these trends. David Lambert raised the accompanying matter of teachers’ responsibility for what they are teaching as well as how they are teaching it, and the need for them to take greater ownership – control – of the curriculum in this regard. Having started with a focus on pupils’ wisdom, we’d now arrived at the matter of teachers’ wisdom. As Cat Scutt observed, professional practice is influenced by fashions. The College of Teaching is trying to lessen the swing of the pendulum between knowledge and skills in the case of curriculum practice, to enable teachers to make their own measured judgement on the what as well as the how.

But Ofsted also doesn’t operate in a vacuum, and, as our speakers pointed out, the wider incentives for schools remain towards maximising exam results. In asking his question to the panel a pupil in our audience himself admitted to focusing on grades rather than learning. Straight from the horse’s mouth. This sets us up nicely for our next debate …on school accountability.

Watch/listen back to the debate in full here.

Find out more and register for our upcoming debate on school accountability on 13 February, What if… we struck a different balance between school autonomy and regulation?, here.


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Posted in Education policy, IOE debates, Teaching, learning, curriculum & assessment

Enquiring minds: building a picture of how children learn to understand subjects


Arthur Chapman. 

Over the last year and a half or so, my colleagues and I in the UCL Institute of Education’s  Subject Specialism Research Group have been thinking together about schooling and about how children develop and build their knowledge. We have been doing this in collaboration with colleagues from research groups in Karlstad and Helsinki, drawing on differing curricular experiences and traditions of thinking about schools and schooling – work that began to bear fruit in the London Review of Education and that we continue this week through an open seminar at the Institute.

We are fortunate to be engaging in enquiries into subjects and knowing subjects at a time of curriculum innovation and renewal apparent, for example, in the Chartered College’s journal Impact and in Ofsted’s curriculum research. All of this is very encouraging – particularly in contrast with the enthusiasm for generic competencies and the breaking down of‘subject silos’ that was Read more ›

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Posted in Teaching, learning, curriculum & assessment

Higher Education Policy Institute report on access: the debate rages on

Lindsey Macmillan, Matt Dickson, Simon Burgess.

We appreciate the response by Iain Mansfield on WonkHE to the widespread criticism of his paper on selective schooling. However, the points we made about the dataset used and the methods employed remain.

A major critique that has yet to be answered is the inappropriate comparisons made when analysing progression to HE. The key part of the argument about the effectiveness of selective schools is hinged on analysis that is far too simple to support the strong statements made. Mansfield returns to the 39% vs 23% rates of progression from selective compared to non-selective areas in his response. The fact that he again attributes these large differences in progression rates directly to the schooling systems, rather than other factors involved that muddy the waters, is a basic stats mistake. The comparison group of all non-selective areas is wrong. If instead the Read more ›

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Posted in Further higher and lifelong education

Grammar schools and access to universities: HEPI report not an accurate or complete picture

Lindsey Macmillan, Matt Dickson, Simon Burgess.

HEPI Occasional Paper out today claims that “grammar schools … play a significant role in supporting social mobility”. This is based on two statements in the paper: firstly, that a high proportion of disadvantaged pupils attend grammar schools, and secondly, that areas with selective systems are better at progressing children into elite universities.

The striking claim is in stark contrast to much of the rest of the evidence, including our own. On closer inspection, the report’s claim relies on faulty data and inappropriate statistical methods. Read more ›

Posted in Education policy, Evidence-based policy, Further higher and lifelong education

Are educational networks the new panacea for system reform? Here’s how to ensure a more thoughtful approach


Melanie Ehren. 

In the last decade many countries have introduced policies to mandate or incentivise school networks. Examples are teaching school alliances and Multi-Academy Trusts in England, regional improvement consortia in Wales, area-learning communities in Northern Ireland, and networks for inclusive education in the Netherlands.

Network governance and school-to-school collaboration seems to be the new panacea for educational improvement. Even the OECD is advocating network governance as an effective strategy for school improvement and to tackle complex educational challenges in child development.

The introduction of networks has not been without problems, but most of these can be attributed to policies that failed to ensure that the conditions for effective collaboration between Read more ›

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Posted in accountability and inspection, Leadership and management
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This blog is written by academics at the UCL Institute of Education.

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