Teaching unions have abandoned one of their members to the fundamentalist mob, argues Gareth Sturdy in Spiked…

…This spineless conspiracy of silence on the part of the unions amounts to tacit support of the protesters’ outrageous demands, and also to a betrayal of the trade-union tradition of standing up for the liberty of the common worker against the forces of conservatism.

This silence is in marked contrast to the strident, near-constant noise made by the unions in recent months, demanding that schools are kept shut during the pandemic. They even had the cheek, during the Black Lives Matter protests last summer, to insist publicly that ‘silence is violence’. Not when it comes to teachers’ jobs, it seems…

Read the full article on Spiked.

After decades of neglect, educators and policymakers are belatedly realising just how important – and costly – the teaching of practical knowledge actually is, argues Gareth Sturdy in the Education Forum’s latest Teach Secondary column…

When I trained to be a physics teacher in the mid-1990s I never imagined that 25 years later I’d be working from a makeshift classroom at the back of a hair salon, surrounded by sinks and blow-dryers.

I’ve spent the last couple of years out of schools, mainly teaching hairdressing apprentices basic numeracy and literacy for Functional Skills qualifications in a work-based learning setting. It’s been a privilege, allowing me to meet many fantastic people who, despite struggling with the basics of primary-level learning, possess the acumen and skills needed to run very successful, fast-paced businesses.

And yet, I so often hear these people describe themselves as ‘failures’ at school. When I’ve asked my apprentices what they mean by this, they invariably give an answer along the lines of, “I wasn’t academic. So I’d sometimes get into trouble. I was just good with my hands. So I didn’t leave with many qualifications.” These conversations have made a deep impression on me, given my classroom background, and I soon came to realise that such narratives contained several PhDs’ worth of research questions.

How can someone spend over a decade in formal education, yet leave barely able to read or multiply? What do we actually mean by the word ‘academic’? Are teachers and students even talking about the same thing? Above all, to what extent is practical knowledge – that ‘being good with one’s hands’ – different from abstract, conceptual and propositional knowledge? Is there enough room for this approach to making sense of the world within the field of academic knowledge?

Read the full article on TeachWire, or watch the Education Forum debate that inspired it below…

A perfect storm of competing pressures threatens to shortcut critical thinking about curriculum, writes Alka Sehgal Cuthbert in Schools Week…

For some, Ofsted’s emphasis on a knowledge-rich curriculum for all students has represented a welcome change from filling in content to fit schemas of generic skills. For many, and especially for leaders tasked with previously unimaginable levels of monitoring, predicting and recording, it has been understandably bewildering.

Amid this upheaval in school expectations and practices, schools have now been tasked with a new social justice mission, and the effect is especially pronounced in subjects like English literature, whose purpose and content are too broad and, as a result, hotly debated.

English teachers are increasingly expected to use their reading lists to promote active anti-racism. That pressure finds its source in a political outlook that shifts the terms of the debate from its usual dichotomy – wavering between the poles of understanding/expression and rule-bound linguistics/literary techniques – to put its entire focus on representation.

But, while the rhetoric is persuasive, the concept of representation has a long and contested history. At its worst, the idea is used to portray readers as blank slates rather than imaginatively active participants. It is used to justify control over what they are given access to, and how…

Read the whole article on Schools Week.

Alka Sehgal Cuthbert argues that schools should pause, think and discuss before implementing new anti-racist policies

No doubt since the events of last summer, schools, or at least some heads and senior leadership teams, have felt a new urgency to show that their school is, in the words of one London school’s freshly penned anti-racist policy, a ‘consciously anti-racist school’. Our current state of public discourse does not really encourage us to think before we leap into some plan of action that we believe to be a no brainer – who could be against such a thing unless they were either racist themselves, or so tradition-bound that they are on the point of total social irrelevance? The crucial point for schools, or any educational institution, is that prior to endorsing and implementing an anti-racist policy, there should be the widest, most open discussion among all adults concerned, with the aim of creating the widest possible consensus. This means people need to hear the range of views and understandings available, and not only the one that currently dominates our media landscape. The point is not that the existence of racism, or need for anti-racism, has to be proven. No teacher I know is denying the existence of inequalities or personal prejudice. But today more than ever, meanings of political terms such as ‘systematic racism’ and ‘white privilege’ are contestable. Yet in some schools, these and other neologisms are being endorsed as incontrovertible facts. Teachers are being asked to accept a particular belief system as if it were the only way of understanding what both racism and anti-racism means.

To assume a consensus where none exists makes it hard for individual teachers who may disagree with some of the beliefs or assumptions involved to raise questions. Or if they have the courage to have that meeting, or send that email where they raise their doubts, they are met with a curt acknowledgement followed by stony silence. Objections are seen as private interpersonal disagreements rather than symptomatic of profoundly differing political values and therefore requiring public scrutiny. In times of socio-political stability, and a strong consensual culture, schools may have less need to pay such careful attention to political values, or to make the effort to provide conditions of good faith discussion. But today’s political and cultural contexts are very different, and such a consensus cannot be assumed.

We definitely do need to think more deeply, and be prepared to question everything – the existence or prevalence of ‘woke mobs’ as well as ‘white privilege’. We need to do this as citizens in general, and even more so as teachers or those working in educational institutions. And if the monitoring, predicting and recording that are a feature of contemporary school life leave staff with little time or energy, then maybe it’s those tasks that need to be trimmed or pruned to make room for proper discussions about questions that cut to the heart of what education should be, what it is, and where it might be heading.

What, for example, are we to make of an anti-racist policy that contains the now ubiquitous phrase ‘respect for diversity’ yet, a few sentences along, declares that it ‘is committed to identifying and removing discriminatory practices and any form of racism or racist behaviour’? Clearly there are limits to the kind of diversity the school is prepared to respect. This is fine, and I am not arguing for racism to be respected. But even apart from the fact that there is more than one intellectually respectable definition of racism, ‘identifying and removing’ does not sit well with the older aim of education which is to argue with, and persuade, and only in the last resort, discipline. It’s worth remembering Wittgenstein’s words, ‘At the end of reasons comes persuasion’.

A school’s policy on something which is important and affects the institutional norms in which teacher’s daily work in undertaken should have a semblance of logical consistency. Yet the following contradictory key policy statements at one school indicate this is not necessarily the case. Consider the following statements from one school’s policy:

            ‘To develop pupils’ self-confidence and independence so that they are well equipped to play an active role in society’

           ‘…if the behaviour is treated in isolation without taking into consideration the issues and effects of racism, this can be described as institutional racism.’

The first aim does have a large consensus – that’s why it seems obvious to the point of being a platitude.  The second aim effectively negates the principle of independence, certainly in relation to independence of thought. It is effectively saying that the only contextual features permissible when judging a particular act are those of ‘the issues and effects of racism’. Furthermore, it implies that to do otherwise – consider other non-race related circumstances of the pupil/s involved – would be evidence of institutional racism. Such a view does not have a similar level of consensus. This anti-racist policy, intentionally or not, limits the space for teachers to exercise their own professional judgment.

A similar prohibition of individual judgment is extended to pupils themselves when the policy states:

            ‘Pupils should never just be a ‘bystander’; a witness who sees or knows about racist behaviour to someone else and does nothing, supports the behaviour’

And this instruction is facilitated by providing ‘confidence boxes’ for anonymous reporting. The effect is to encourage conformity to an external rule rather than helping pupils to develop their own independent thought and judgement. Virtuous dispositions including independence of thinking, compassion, tolerance and perseverance are not things best taught propositionally; they need to be encouraged by adults who exemplify them in their words and acts. If curiosity, imagination, independent thought and judgment remain rhetorical, while the practical norms emphasise delegation of thought and judgement to external rule derived from self-appointed race or diversity experts, then the result is likely to engender conformism rather than education. Schools need rules, but which rules and to what ends are things that need the fullest, deepest thinking and discussion among those who are called upon to enforce them.

Alka Sehgal Cuthbert is an educator, researcher, writer and member of the Academy of Ideas Education Forum. She is co-editor of What Should Schools Teach? Disciplines, Subjects and the Pursuit of Truth and a founding signatory of the Don’t Divide Us campaign.

Education forum organiser Harley Richardson describes the unusual role that education played in medieval justice…

One testament to the power of education is that many people credit it with having ‘saved their life’. But whether that’s because knowledge and learning opened up a path to a rewarding career or because it helped someone escape difficult personal circumstances, ‘education saved my life’ is usually meant metaphorically. In medieval England, however, it was literal. Having an education – or at least being able to pretend you had one – really could save your life…

Read the full post on Learning Through the Ages.

The speed with which children were abandoned shows how little we value education, argues Education Forum organiser Gareth Sturdy in Spiked…

In the space of a year, the government’s response to Covid-19 has attacked the foundations and purposes of our education system. It has exposed the education establishment’s attachment to social mobility as mere pretension. It has eroded the distinction between home and school life, and has confused education with passing on information. But this transformation could only take place because for a long time now education has been built on sand. Now that those weak foundations have been swept aside, as a society we do not have coherent or even agreed ideas on what should replace them…

Read the full article on Spiked.

A national ‘great debate’ in England would be more effective than imposing free speech champions and threatening fines, writes Dennis Hayes for Times Higher Education…

You might be tempted to say that today’s announcements from the Department for Education (DfE) indicate that academics in England have lost the war for free speech and academic freedom. It is certainly startling that the government has felt the need to resort to threatening universities and students’ unions with fines if they don’t actively promote free speech. But the truth is that universities never even fought a skirmish in defence of free speech, never mind a war.

Instead, with the exception of some notable individuals, academics passively watched free speech and academic freedom disappear though institutional indifference and fear of challenging the political consensus on campus.

Institutional indifference begins at the most senior levels. This is not an attack on vice-chancellors. Many express strong support for free speech and academic freedom, both personally and in public. What they must ask themselves, however, is whether they know enough about what is happening at lower levels in their institutions to ensure that free speech and academic freedom are upheld…

Read the whole article at Times Higher Education. (Free registration required).

Reflecting on the shift to online learning during the pandemic, Education Forum founder Dennis Hayes argues that important arguments around online learning, face-to-face teaching, and the importance of education itself have still to be won.

If someone had said back in 2019 that most university teaching could go online within a few months, no one would have believed it. They would have been told that it would take years for academics and universities to prepare.

The pandemic of 2020 showed that it was possible to move teaching online fast. A pragmatic decision made necessary by a government lockdown changed university teaching almost overnight.

Some excellent university technicians facilitated huge technical changes to teaching. This was very impressive, but it was merely a technical shift that had no basis in professional or curricula development. The argument for online learning had not been won.

A few universities went ‘online only’, but others went for a blended approach. The blended universities recognised that students wanted face-to-face teaching. But this was another pragmatic decision aimed at keeping students and avoiding the conflicts that erupted over fees and accommodation costs at the online-only universities.

The blended approach worked, even if it meant only three hours on campus each week and ended only when the government imposed further lockdowns, but it had no basis in professional or curricula approaches. The argument for face-to-face teaching had not been won

Continue reading on University World News.

Jacob Reynolds, in the latest Education Forum column for Teach Secondary magazine, takes issue with the position adopted by some protest movements that if you’re not saying anything, you’re siding with the oppressors…

Amid the protests surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement last year, there’s one element I found especially interesting – the insistence that ‘silence is violence’.

I should state from the outset that I don’t bring this up out of any antagonism I have with the BLM movement. My reason for examining it here is that I believe this phrase neatly sums up a political philosophy found across many wildly different movements, from Extinction Rebellion to anti-lockdown protestors.

It’s the idea that when it comes to big political issues, there is only one way to think and one right answer.

It follows that the quiet work of reflection is at best unnecessary, and at worst, positively dangerous. It’s an attitude that perhaps chimes with the contemporary classroom where active, even noisy participation is in vogue. Silence might be enforced in the exam hall, but teachers who enforce silent reading in class are most likely seen by their peers as quaint relics from a bygone era.

Another increasingly common refrain in the world of education is that words can be as violent as actions, be it in the context of hurtful bullying or racist speech.

However, the newer ‘silence is violence’ dogma takes things a step further, in that it’s not just what you say, but what you don’t say that can now be seen as violent…

See TeachWire for the full article.

What Should Schools Teach? Disciplines, subjects and the pursuit of truth – edited by Education Forum members Alka Sehgal Cuthbert and Alex Standish as part of UCL Press’s Knowledge and the Curriculum book series – is now available in an expanded second addition.

In a special webinar to celebrate its publication, contributors Cosette Crisan, Michael Reiss, Christine Counsel, Alka Sehgal Cuthbert and Simon Toyne outlined the thinking behind their chapters, and UCL Professor of Curriulum Zongyi Deng responded with his thoughts on the book’s contribution to current educational discourse.

The video of the discussion can be seen on the UCL website.