Expansive thoughts from an old to a new year

Who said that we should develop:

‘a clear, widely-owned and stable statement of the outcome that all schools are asked to deliver. This should go beyond the merely academic, into the behaviours and attitudes schools should foster in everything they do. It should be the basis on which we judge all new policy ideas, schools and the structures we set up to monitor them’?

Someone from the outdoor education sector? An academic with a grudge against the current Secretary of State for Education in England? A lobbyist for the self-esteem movement?

I’ll give you a clue. It was published in November 2012. It was from a surprising source. And it was not much reported on in the education press.

Are you getting warmer? Or do you give in? Let me put you out of your misery.

A powerful new educational voice

It was the UK’s Confederation for British Industry, better known as the CBI, in a report unremarkably called: First steps: A new approach for our schools. I say unremarkably for two reasons. Everyone assumes theirs is a ‘new’ way. And the claim that it is merely ‘first steps’ is modestly tentative and developmental rather than the kind of assertive approach one expects.

First Steps is not saying that it has all the answers. The report also has a sub-title and perhaps it is this which gives a clue into its authors’ interestingly persuasive tone. The subtitle is ‘ambition [noun] a desire and determination to achieve success’.

This is a brilliant and insightful report and you can get it here. Its arguments are compelling and deeply in tune with the aims of the Expansive Education Network. It suggests that we need to be clear about the dispositions and wider capabilities which all schools should be cultivating and then be riogorus about assessing these. It expands the sphere of influence of school explicitly to include other stakeholders and deliberately to suggest that we need to engage parents better to improve students’ learning. It is a clarion call for an end to short-termism and curriculum tinkering and it is a bold and evidence-based argument for a broader conception of school.

The real lesson from Singapore

Singapore is currently cited by the many in the DfE as the place we should aspire to educationally because of its results in core subjects. But the CBI is too clever to fall for this kind of simple educational system ‘tourism’. It goes deeper preferring to cite in detail the aims of the Singaporean system:

‘The person who is schooled in the Singapore education system embodies the desired outcomes of education. He has a good sense of self-awareness, a sound moral compass, and the necessary skills and knowledge to take on challenges of the future. He is responsible to his family, community and nation. He appreciates the beauty of the world around him, possesses a healthy mind and body, and has a zest for life. In sum, he is:

  • A confident person who has a strong sense of right and wrong, is adaptable and resilient, knows himself, is discerning in judgment, thinks independently and critically, and communicates effectively
  • A self-directed learner who takes responsibility for his own learning, who questions, reflects and perseveres in the pursuit of learning
  • An active contributor who is able to work effectively in teams, exercises initiative, takes calculated risks, is innovative and strives for excellence
  • A concerned citizen who is rooted to Singapore, has a strong civic consciousness, is informed, and takes an active role in bettering the lives of others around him.

In recent years the balance of teaching has shifted to reduce the amount of subject matter taught and to increase the learning of life-long skills, the building of character and competencies such as critical thinking and creativity.’

For two compelling reasons Singapore’s description of its education system’s desirable outcomes is a wonderful piece of writing, especially for an Education Ministry.

First it understands that in the 21st century it is certain dispositions (or competencies – the language does not matter) which will determine success and happiness in life.

Secondly it recognises that the balance of focus needs to change in schools, reducing subject content and increasing our focus on the cultivation of certain important wider skills.

For expansive educators the debate is not whether a shift towards dispositions for learning should happen but how best to do it now.

And we believe that, by engaging teachers as learners and enquirers we are most likely to produce better outcomes and embed change at the classroom level.

As the World Bank’s 2020 education strategy, also quoted by the CBI, puts it:

‘education enhances people’s ability to make informed decisions, be better parents, sustain a livelihood, adopt new technologies, cope with shocks, and be responsible citizens and effective stewards of the natural environment.’

We agree!