The two worlds of education discourse


  • Education

Why is there such a gulf in understanding between popular discourse and the way educationalists see the world? 

On Monday, a packed RSA Great Room listened to Professor Robin Alexander and a panel of experts, including Barry Sheerman MP, Chair of the Education and Skills Select Committee, discuss the findings of the Cambridge Primary Review. The report, three years in gestation and three years in researching and writing, is the most comprehensive and far reaching review of primary education since the 1967 Plowden Report. So extensive was the consultation exercise undertaken by the research team and advisory panel it is hard to imagine anyone interested in primary education didn’t have the chance to get their voice heard. 

But when the report was published last week it was subject to a concerted critique by ministers, shadow ministers and most parts of the press. Not only that, but its key recommendations were systematically misrepresented. So, for example, the suggestion that English schools come into line with nearly all continental practice and not start formal teaching of a knowledge based curriculum until children are six was widely reported as being a recommendation that children don’t start school until that age. The recommendation that SATS in year six be dropped in favour of a less disruptive and narrow form of assessment was portrayed as a proposal to abandon any form of assessment, and the questioning of the utility of school league tables was seen by many as implying that schools have no external accountability, an interpretation the Review’s authors flatly deny. 

So, given the largely negative coverage of the report, after Robin Alexander had spoken I asked the audience of over 200 how many of them largely agreed with what he had said. Nearly everyone put up their hand, and literally no one (apart from one person who later revealed they were just being contrarian for the sake of it) said they disagreed with the main thrust of the report. 

I’m not suggesting our audience was a random sample; many were education professionals and, in line with the traditions of the RSA, there would no doubt have been a broadly progressive leaning. Nevertheless, the gulf between the view from inside and from outside the world of education is a real problem. It means, for example, that politicians can say whatever they like about schools (much of it negative) and few people outside education will believe those inside who try to give a more balanced picture. 

I have written before that I am dreading the quality of debate about schools that we will have to endure in the run-up to the General Election. In an attempt to get over some of the false dichotomies, I tried unsuccessfully to engage Tory spokesman Michael Gove in a debate about the core ideas underlying his eloquent and profound critique of most modern teaching practice.      

The RSA will continue to try to shed light on the complex and challenging issues facing our education system and the varied and often exciting ways schools are responding. Sadly, I fear ours will be a quiet voice drowned out in the crude and destructive slanging match we can expect to be played out on our airwaves between now and the election.

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