‘New blog – An open letter to the Secretary of State for Education’

An open letter to Damian Hinds MP

damien Hinds

Dear Secretary of State,

Congratulations on your new appointment from all of us at The Expansive Education Network.

We hope very much that you will wish to combine your passion for creating chances for all young people to excel with a desire to ensure that schools focus on much more than academic success.

Putting character and capabilities back into education

In 2014 the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Social Mobility which you once chaired reminded us that children who come from the least disadvantaged contexts need to develop some key capabilities if they are to thrive.

As your committee put it:

Research findings all point to the same conclusion: character counts. People who overcome adversity and realise their full potential tend to exhibit many of these traits. In simple terms, these traits can be thought of as a belief in one’s ability to achieve, an understanding of the relationship between effort and reward, the patience to pursue long-term goals, the perseverance to stick with the task at hand, and the ability to bounce back from life’s inevitable setbacks. These various attributes all fall under the broad heading of Character and Resilience.

The Department for Education’s relentless interest in ‘academic’ success in schools, as exemplified by its focus on measuring Progress 8, has shifted the debate away from character and resilience towards something much narrower to do with certain subjects on the curriculum. Perhaps unintentionally a determination to class some subjects as academic (maths and English, for example) and others as not (such as music), has further polarised the debate about what counts in school.

Making excellent progress in core subjects is, of course, crucial, and nothing I am saying here seeks to take away from that fact.

But cultivating character is equally important and, as the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Social Mobility reminded us, especially so when we are looking at factors which will influence the life chances of those who are least well off.

Can you help us change the tone of the debate as we all try and improve schools? Simply by using the conjunction ‘and’ in your speeches and writings you could do this, by talking about the need to improve standards in numeracy and resilience, academic success and character.

With Guy Claxton, I have been making the case for character for several decades. Recently, in Educating Ruby: what our children really need to learn, we imagine an imaginary girl called Ruby and describe a world in which she might be acquiring seven important capabilities at school – creativity, curiosity, collaboration, craftsmanship, confidence, and commitment – as well as the seven or more subjects you would expect to see on a typical timetable.

We wrote this book for parents and so, for ease of impact and memorability, we chose words beginning with the letter C. In the Expansive Education Network we use a more technical and educational language drawing on research to show how perseverance, self-regulation, self-belief, empathy and creative thinking matter and how schools can cultivate these in their students.

What’s the true purpose of education?

Almost exactly two years ago the Education Select Committee asked this question. At the Centre for Real-World Learning we worked with nine national bodies to see if common agreement could be reached – Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), City & Guilds, Comino Foundation, Centre for the Use of Research and Evidence in Education (CUREE), Mercers’ Company, PTA UK, Royal Academy of Engineers, Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) and Schools of Tomorrow.

Of the suggestions we made, two seem particularly important at the moment, that education should

  1. see capabilities and character as equally important as success in individual subjects, and
  2. make vocational and academic routes equally valued.

Can you help us change the conversation so that we begin to talk about these two twin aspirations for education – success in any test of character and success in examinations, a focus on ‘hand’ and ‘heart’ as well as on ‘head’ – as being equally desirable?

Researchers from across the world have shown how have shown how character and resilience, the twin themes of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Social Mobility report with which I began this letter, also contribute to success in examinations. And our own research into vocational pedagogy and apprenticeships has shown how, as you think about introducing T levels and developing more higher-level apprenticeships rigorous pedagogy will help to ensure high-quality teaching.

Avoiding false opposites

In short, can we try and avoid the over-simplification of education being either about knowledge and skills or about capabilities and character, academic or non-academic and focus instead high-quality learning to equip all young people to be successful throughout their lives.

Here in the UK we are at the forefront of thinking about the kinds of capabilities young people will need if they are truly to thrive. The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Social Mobility’s plea for character and resilience is an example of this. The fact that the OECD’s PISA test of Creative Thinking in 2021 will be based on work undertaken by the Centre for Real-World Learning is another illustration.

But at home such innovation can easily get drowned out by the noise of simplistic argumentation.

Please help us all to strike a more measured and balanced tone when it comes to talking about what schools need to do.

Bill Lucas

Professor Bill Lucas, Centre for Real-World Learning at the University of Winchester

 

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