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How to Disagree Better About Education

Overview of the Project

Education debates in the UK today are dominated by binary and divisive framings that crowd out the true variety of perspectives and philosophies in play. Future Narratives Lab worked with the PSHE Association to map out and analyse narratives around education, interviewing national and international experts, culminating in the publication of the ‘How to Disagree Better about Education’ report.

On this page you can find:

  • A summary of the research process and a form to request a copy of the report
  • Four diagrams summarising key findings from the research
  • Recordings from a launch event held in June 2023, featuring panellists from More in Common, TES Magazine and the Association of School and College Leaders.
  • Link to the first in a series of blogs on these findings.

Research and Report

Divisive narratives in education capture the most attention. They emphasise difference, focussing on the most tendentious areas of controversy and distracting attention from areas where novel approaches might be found.

By interviewing a range of figures with deep knowledge of the relevant UK and international context on how they see the contemporary education system, collecting their views and their perspectives on opposing ones, and then analysing and mapping the underlying logics, values and interrelations between them, we gained a richer and more accurate picture of what we actually think about education today, and where we truly differ. Interviewees included:

  • ​​Mary Bousted, General Secretary of the National Education Union (NEU)
  • Andreas Schleicher, Director for Education and Skills, Special Advisor on Education Policy to the Secretary-General, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)
  • Samantha Twiselton, Director of Sheffield Institute of Education, and Advisory Panellist of Sheffield Hallam University and the Department for Education (DfE)

To access the full report, fill out the form to the right. 

Key Highlights & Findings

Starting with an exploration of the different fundamental perspectives on the purposes of education, the report then goes on to focus on three main topics: the allocation of agency in education, examination and equality among students, and contested views around cohesion.

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This included many organisations interested in preparing students for work and for an increasingly automated world, including businesses and employers as well as the OECD and the CBI. Their perspective is often informed by a concern that traditional educational methods and approaches may be at risk of obsolescence, as the skills required in a future jobs market may be very different from those that have previously been prioritised in schools.
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In the UK, the Royal Society of Arts and the late Ken Robinson have often been proponents of this view, which sees education as a means for students to explore their interests, grow their creativity, learn the interpersonal skills that will not only help them at work but enable them to have meaningful relationships, and ultimately achieve what the ancient Greeks might have called Eudaimonia: a truly fulfilling life. The importance of creative subjects and the arts are often stressed, as are efforts to include and prioritise learning about areas not traditionally seen as part of the education curriculum, such as personal health, civic life and values.
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According to this philosophy, underprivileged students can best be helped by being provided with key knowledge and cultural referents that will allow them not only to do well in exams and in technical areas like reading, writing, maths, and science, but also in informal contexts like job interviews, where they will come to share the same cultural referents as others. Exams are an instrument for achieving equality of opportunity because they provide objective measurement so that those who might otherwise be discriminated against can prove their worth. Many of those with this point of view also tend to value education as a means for instilling discipline and character.
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This perspective emphasises the unique role and importance of teachers, and their ability to do their job well. Teachers’ unions may be seen as obvious proponents, as well as others who are most committed to maintaining, and where possible improving, the resources available, over any particular teaching philosophy. It supports and encourages extended provision like food for underprivileged students, mental health care, checks on homes in cases of suspected abuse, and more.

Perspectives on Education

In a divided climate, we were particularly keen to make sure we included interviews with individuals from as wide a variety of perspectives as possible and sought out interviewees from across the spectrum.

One of our early findings was that these perspectives were not straightforwardly mapped onto traditional political spectrums or ideological definitions – instead we observed four different broad overlapping groups, each that could be defined by a primary way of thinking about the purpose of education.

Allocation of Agency

Two of the most common subjects of passionate debate in education have been the appropriate level of student discipline and ideas around ‘free schools’. Another way to frame such debates is to see them — and the viewpoints at play within them — as fundamentally about agency: who should have it, who needs more, who has too much, and what we should do to correct any perceived imbalance.

Viewed this way, it allows for a useful interface between seemingly distant conversations — and the comparison and contrast within particular viewpoints of where agency is valued and emphasised — and where it is ignored.

Examination and Equality

There is the basic idea that one of the primary purposes of education should be to allow young people to fulfil their true potential, and in particular to help them to escape the shackles that their background may have given them, whether those of bias, culture, disadvantage or class. On this basic point of purpose, there is near universal agreement.

Where divergence starts is on what the main barriers are to such escape, and thus what should be prioritised in seeking to overcome them. The chart on the left illustrates roughly how these two views might be understood.

Cohesion Contested

Our third area seeks to uncover beliefs around another area of expectation related to education’s contribution to our wider society — what role does it have to play in tying that society together?

In this area, we found two perspectives that again are often misconstrued (and presented) as being a simple political dichotomy, but once considered in more depth can be seen as concerns that animate people across a range of different political perspectives and values. Again, the artificial way in which these are divided excludes an important, even pivotal area of consensus, which if surfaced could play a crucial role as a foundation for more imaginative dialogue and debate.

Launch Event

The report launch on 8th of June 2023 included a panel discussion with Luke Tryl, UK Director of More in Common; Julie McCulloch, Director of Policy at ASCL; Sarah Stein Lubrano, Head of Research at Future Narratives Lab; Loic Menzies from Sheffield Institute of Education and Jesus College Cambridge; and Helen Amass from Tes Magazine who chaired the event.  

Clips from the discussion can be viewed by scrolling through below, while full audio recording can be accessed here.

Blog and Updates

A series of articles based on the ‘How to Disagree Better About Education’ Report will be published in the coming months. The first of these blogs can be found on the website of Fully Human, which is the research and development arm of the PSHE Association.

For further updates on this project, sign up to our newsletter here. To learn more about our other projects, head to our work page.

Future Narratives Lab

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E: info@futurenarrativeslab.org