Not one or the other, but both

You know that politics has taken over from evidence when the expression of one viewpoint is accompanied by the need to denigrate another. This seems to be happening more and more and is not a good route to a better understanding of how we provide better educational opportunities for all.

A lot of what I discuss below focuses on changes we are currently experiencing, but the analysis can be equally applied to any set of changes to the educational system in recent years.

There appears to be a great divide between the “knowledge acquisition and the memorisation of facts” group on one side, and the “21st Century Skills” group on the other; between the Academies cure all ills on one side and the Academies cause all ills on the other; between the EBacc will improve education for all on one side and the EBacc will ruin our nation on the other*. I could go on. Both groups point to current cognitive research, technological development and world trends to support their viewpoint. We are all supposed to be either Hirsch or Robinson, and ne’er the twain shall meet. This seems to be the only way what should be an evidence based scientific discussion can go once it enters the political realm. People stop discussing the research, they just put forward the research that supports their position. This is not evidence-based education but opinion-based education. There is also the propensity to rubbish the views of opponents rather than provide support for their own. This would appear to me to be a sign of a lack of confidence in their own beliefs.

I think that the conversation we need to have (and it is a conversation, not a lecture) needs to accept a few principles:

We are all looking for the same outcome

Notwithstanding the few rabid Tea party supporting neocons wanting to sell the system to the highest bidder on one side and the few unreconstructed “there’s nothing wrong with the education system that a few more billion quid can’t solve” individuals on the other, most people are in education for the benefit of the children in it. There is little money to be earned from education by the individual working in it. This does, however, remind me of a meeting once were one of the participants asked to be excluded from the statement “well, we are all reasonable people here”. But then again, he was a lawyer.

However well meaning, not all change will succeed

Any change (and I mean ANY change) to the education system presents a risk to the development of the children within it. The risk of the change can never be assumed to be lower than the benefit to be gained from the change. This is not an argument for no change. It is an argument for honesty and dialogue. No-one (and I mean NO-ONE) knows what the final effect will be if all secondary schools convert to Academies. Some will improve because of it, some will stay the same and some will get worse. Those proposing the change believe that the overall impact will be positive, those who oppose it believe it will be negative. What is required of both groups is to have the honesty to say that it is only an overall impact, which means that some schools will get worse and consequently some students will have a worse experience than they would have and some will be better.

Educational system change is a long term event

Which is why the risk issue is important – if the change is the wrong one, we won’t know for a long time and it will then take a long time to correct the deficiencies of the change. Also, because of the long term the impact of other external events in that period make it very difficult to assess if the original change has been beneficial or detrimental. This has always been, and will always be the case, which is another reason why people should stop making absolutist claims for one form of system over another.

Change in the Education System affects children

Which means we need to be especially careful that the changes that we are going to make do not have a significant risk of adversely affecting their experience and outcomes. So, changing a failing school to an Academy – likely to improve outcomes, or at least unlikely to make things worse. Changing outstanding school to Academy – possibly slightly more risky but given that most outstanding schools have outstanding leaders then probably fairly low risk. Its the bunch in the middle that presents the highest risk. Less than outstanding leaders added to a complex change. That screams high risk to me.

So, back to 21st Century Skills vs Knowledge and Facts. Well, it won’t surprise you to know that its not one or the other, but both. But in different measures for different children at different ages in different contexts. But politicians think that’s too complicated for the public to understand.

Or perhaps its just too complicated for the politicians to understand?

*This is one of my favourite ones – essentially an argument about should we study History for nine years or for ten and a half years.