The Great Education Debate


We have failed to address underachievement by poorer pupils – We must be skills-orientated, not qualifications-focused – Policy is too often down to anecdote rather than evidence – We need more trust in the teaching profession. These are just some of the

The secretary of state has too much power.

We must be skills-orientated, not qualifications-focused.

Policy is too often down to anecdote rather than evidence.

We need more trust in the teaching profession.

These are just some of the challenges facing our current system of education according to two respected educationalists.

Dr Andreas Schleicher, the deputy director for education and skills at the influential Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), and Sir Tim Brighouse have contributed their views as part of the Great Education Debate project.

Launched last week by the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), the initiative is seeking to build a consensus about the future travel of education.

In an article entitled We Must Be Able to Compete in a Global Education System – submitted to mark the launch of the Debate – Dr Schleicher argues that the “premium in education needs to shift from qualifications-focused education upfront to skills-orientated learning throughout life”.

He writes: “Our data shows that skill development is far more effective if the world of learning and the world of work are linked.

“Compared to purely government-designed curricula taught exclusively in schools, learning in the workplace allows people to develop ‘hard’ skills on modern equipment, and ‘soft’ skills, such as teamwork, communication and negotiation, through real-world experience.”

Dr Schleicher continues: “Labour demand in the industrialised world shows amazing changes over the last decades. The steepest decline in skill demand is no longer in the area of manual skills, but in routine cognitive skills, memorising something and expecting that’s going to help us later in life.”

He argues that success has become increasingly about “creativity, critical-thinking, problem-solving and judgement” as well as ways of working including collaboration and teamwork.

He adds: “The past was about delivered wisdom, the future is about user-generated wisdom … the past was curriculum-centred, the future is learner-centred.

“School systems need to recognise that individuals learn differently and differently at different stages of their lives.”

Meanwhile, in a paper entitled Improved National Decision-making about Policy and Practice for Schools, Sir Tim Brighouse argues that gradual changes in education policy over the last 70 years have led to an “unhealthy imbalance” in the respective influences on schools.

He contends that there is now too much power at a national level, “especially in the hands of the secretary of state” and that policy decisions often owe “too much to anecdote and not enough to weighing the evidence”.

Sir Tim identifies “an undermining of the teacher’s voice and role in matters which are properly professional rather than political – especially in the curriculum and how to teach”.

He says this began in the 1970s when political rhetoric first began to discuss “whether we could rely on teachers to teach effectively” and the government’s role in influencing curriculum.

Sir Tim, visiting professor at the Institute of Education and former chief advisor for London schools, says that this has resulted in: 

  • A gradual erosion of professional trust.

  • An overly prescriptive and centralised national curriculum.

  • More high-stakes tests exams and school inspections.

  • A tendency for secretaries of state and their department to “micro-manage”.

Sir Tim is also worried that the promotion of market competition between schools by the use of league tables has led to a focus on a “very narrow range of school outcomes”.

In addition, he also criticises a “failure to make enough progress in addressing issues of underachievement among children from disadvantaged backgrounds”.

Sir Tim sets out five “test questions” which would improve national decision-making if they were to be applied to policy. 

They include how a proposal would improve children’s life chances as well as promote the skills and quality of, and trust in, the profession.

They also ask for the evidence to support the policy, whether it will increase or decrease power at the centre, and whether it will promote collaboration and “guard against” market forces.

Get involved in the Great Education Debate

The Great Education Debate is taking place over the next six months, during which time more educationalists will be contributing articles under the themes of the purpose of education, leadership, teaching and learning, structures, admissions and accountability.

Teachers are invited to suggest topics for discussion and have their say. The Association of School and College Leaders plans to collate the findings into an interim report to be published at its annual conference in March 2014.

General secretary Brian Lightman said: “We need to take stock, look objectively and without political bias at the evidence of what is working and what is not, define the areas of consensus and set out a vision which will go beyond this and the next Parliament.” 

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