Starting to rethink education.

There are different ways to think about life after a crisis. One is: ‘let’s try to get back to things as they were as quickly as possible’, another is: ‘we can’t go back to things as they were, this is an opportunity for fundamental change.’

The ‘get back to normal’ approach has its appeal; a desire for stability and security. But given the deep cracks in our society which have been exposed it must be clear that ‘things as they were’ is neither acceptable nor sustainable. So many layers of inequality have been revealed and so many assumptions called into question that there is an imperative for change.

What change though? We can each write our personal manifesto for a better world, making the case for particular initiatives we favour. However, what will bring social change is a collective shift in the consensus around what kind of common future we want. If we are to use the moment of crisis to re-evaluate our society, our economy and our democracy, we need to engage in a dialogue about what matters to us and what broad direction of travel we can agree on.

Without setting out a detailed programme, some of the elements of a possible consensus are starting to emerge and could be built on:

  • A general desire to ‘build back better’ in a way which is sustainable and life-enhancing.
  • A greater understanding of the reality of existing inequalities and injustices and their history together with a determination to work for greater equality and social justice.
  • A renewed valuing of the work that contributes to community resilience, health and flourishing and the vital importance of this ‘economy of care’ and the egalitarianism, solidarity and educational work which underpin it.
  • An understanding of the positive potential of an enabling state in protecting citizens and supporting them through economic and social change.
  • A recognition that when today’s crisis recedes, we will still face plenty of others which will require determined and concerted action on at least as great a scale.

Working together to build a better future is hard work and we won’t agree about everything. The dialogue will be political, but shouldn’t be the exclusive property of any single political party or movement. The process needs to be open and transparent and to allow for incremental progress, experimentation and a range of solutions at different levels.

We have had ‘national conversations’ before, but this one is more urgent than ever. We need to frame the questions and the debate in a way which is democratic and inclusive, and which could start to generate and build solutions in which everyone has a stake. This cannot be ‘business as usual’ or policy making by focus group.

Education has a part to play in supporting and informing this discussion as well as itself being a subject of debate. The purpose and organisation of education need to be revisited and this process has started with a number of consultations already contributing. There will be more and here are just a few current examples:

UNESCO Futures of Education

UNESCO has launched a global debate on how knowledge and learning can shape the future of humanity and the planet. It is framed in the context of persistent inequalities, social fragmentation, and political extremism which have brought many societies to a point of crisis, while accelerated climate change highlights the fragility of our planet. UNESCO notes that advances in digital communication, artificial intelligence, and biotechnology have great potential but that they also raise serious ethical and governance concerns, given that promises of innovation and technological change have an uneven record of contributing to human flourishing.

The Futures of Education project is founded on a belief in the transformative power of education: “knowledge and learning are humanity’s greatest renewable resources for responding to challenges and inventing alternatives. Yet, education does more than respond to a changing world. Education transforms the world.”

This idea is to mobilize the many rich ways of being and knowing, involving young people, educators, civil society, governments and other stakeholders, guided by an International Commission and reporting in November 2021 with a vision of what education and learning could become.

The appeal of this process is its global ambition and reach, but there is always a risk that this may lead to big talk and little action. The only way to shape it is to get involved, and resources are available here to support engagement this summer. In the UK, the Climate Commission will be running student focus groups in July and colleges, schools and universities could also organise forums to engage in this global consultation.

ASCL Blueprint for a Fairer Education System

ASCL, the UK school and college leaders union, has produced this blueprint to promote debate about how to ensure that all children and young people in our society can benefit from a high-quality education, noting that at the current rate of progress the ‘attainment gap’ will take more than 500 years to close.

“We think that one of the richest countries in the world in the 21st century can do better. Our Blueprint for a Fairer Education System will explore ways in which we might improve the life chances of all children and young people and narrow the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their non-disadvantaged peers at the end of secondary school.”

The questions asked include: What and how should children and young people be taught? How should teachers and leaders be identified, developed and supported? How should the education system be structured? How should the education system be funded? How should we judge if the system is doing what we want it to?

The call for evidence is now closed, but ASCL will be publish the blueprint in the autumn and this should prompt a lively debate. The submission from the Association of Colleges can be read here.

Independent Commission on the College of the Future

Focusing on the college sector in the UK, the Independent Commission on the College of the Future is asking two fundamental questions: What do we want and need from colleges in 10 years’ time? What changes are needed in order to achieve this?

This is set in the context of the seismic shifts which are happening across the UK, from demographic change, the climate emergency, the technological revolution and the changing demands of the labour market and it is premised on a belief that colleges are key to responding to these challenges.

The Commission’s progress report in November 2019 described colleges as being at the heart of an education ecosystem and addressed the role, scope and focus of colleges as an essential part of every community, the need for lifelong, flexible learning for the future and for innovation, sustainable funding and regulation to reinforce trust in the system.

The Commission continues to hear evidence and to deliberate, with a view to influencing the UK government’s agenda for Further Education.

Shaping the future.

Reviews, enquiries and commissions won’t in themselves solve our problems, but they can move our thinking forward, develop the ideas we need and start to gather people around a new consensus. The extraordinary time we are living through and the scale of the challenges we face require ambition and radicalism. We need to raise our sights and start sketching out the outlines of national and global education policies which can contribute to the wider agenda of human survival and flourishing.

In her wonderful book ‘Hope in the Dark‘, Rebecca Solnit offers many definitions of hope in a time of crisis, one of these is “the belief that what we do matters”. If we believe, as UNESCO does, that education can transform the world, then we must urgently realise that transformative potential as we need it more than ever and we have to hope that what we do can matter enough.

See also:

An A-Z for a world which has to change (March 2020)

Knowledge and education for the future (May 2020)

Decarbonising education (March 2020)

Rebecca Solnit on Hope (April 2020)

About Eddie Playfair

I am a Senior Policy Manager at the Association of Colleges (AoC) having previously been a college principal for 16 years and a teacher before that. I live in East London and I blog in a personal capacity about education and culture. I also tweet at @eddieplayfair
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5 Responses to Starting to rethink education.

  1. Tim Brighouse says:

    Thanks for clarifying the issues so well. It spurs me to redouble efforts to be more focused while acknowledging the broader picture in which the focus sits. .


  2. fred6368 says:

    Hi Eddie
    Thanks for this
    We Brainsrusting types are working on The Chocolate Cafe Manifesto (its where we meet) to look at Learning after Lockdown in Secondary Schools)
    We call it 50/50 Learning as we think social distancing will require 50% in school time so how might we design learning in the other 50%?
    I suggest that this “time-poor” education could become “Learning rich”
    Here are some ideas…
    Hope this helps


    • Thank you for your comment Fred and I will read the link you sent. I think that all programmes will need to be blended and that educators will need to be very skilled at getting the blend right between on-campus and on-line delivery and this will depend on the course, the students and the circumstances – but flexibility will be key. In post-16 education, I think the ratio could vary a lot and we wouldn’t necessarily expect it to be 50:50.
      There’s also the whole issue of what we should be teaching and how students should be helping to shape the curriculum, which I hardly touched on here but will return to in future posts.
      Do keep in touch. Very best wishes, Eddie.


      • fred6368 says:

        Ta! We’ve evolved 50/50 into a “continuum of attendance” based on individual learning programmes which I’ve done my whole life as a teacher / educator. I also worked for years at Becta developing various blended learning strategies & tools. Happy to chat


  3. Sally says:

    Very interesting. Excellent writing. Overwhelming challenge.


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