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Narrative Work

Putting the Future of Education back on the Political Agenda

Building on our ‘How to Disagree Better about Education’ Report from earlier this year, PSHE Chief Executive Jonathan Baggaley explores why ambitious visions for education remain neglected in the political landscape, and what might be done to change that. This piece draws on and links to input from panellists at the Report launch event: Luke Tryl, UK Director of More in Common; Julie McCulloch, Director of Policy at ASCL; and Sarah Stein Lubrano, Head of Research at Future Narratives Lab.

The year before a general election is always a period of political parties jockeying for position, trying to establish certain topics as their home terrain, or open up debate on issues where they perceive advantage. A natural side effect of this process is that many subjects fall to the wayside, seen as not major priorities for campaigning, and therefore neglected in terms of major policy announcements and prominence in the public platform. This unfortunately, appears to be the fate of education in the current electoral cycle.

There have, of course, been some recent policy announcements, the most prominent being the Conservatives’ plan to replace A-Levels and ban mobile phones in schools, while Labour has focussed particularly on early years as part of its ‘Breaking down barriers to opportunity’ mission. And the politicians have certainly not skimped on ambitious rhetoric, with Rishi Sunak stating “If we want to change the direction of our country and build a better future for our children nothing is more important than making our education system the best it can be”, while Labour have declared that ‘Education is the key’ to their ‘greatest mission’.

More policy meat on these impressive sounding bones is certain to emerge as the election draws nearer. Zooming out however, and viewing both the actual policy announcements and the education debate more generally in the context of the parties’ overall platforms, it is hard to escape the conclusion that this is an area that has slipped down the pecking order of priorities. It sometimes feels like bold, ambitious visions about the future have been largely supplanted with reactive technical tweaks and fixes. 

This is not only a problem of education policy – the deeply concerning economic and geopolitical outlook has led party platforms to a general sense of caution across the board. And the focus on firefighting immediate problems rather than looking forwards has not been helped by the emergence of tangible crises such as the crumbling of school buildings across the country.

However, it could be argued that one of the reasons for the outbreak of so many problems has come from prior governments not looking further ahead, and focusing instead on short term problems over long term trends. The crisis in teacher and other staff recruitment is one of the starkest examples. As Julie McCulloch, Director of Policy at ASCL (the Association of School and College Leaders) put it  at our report launch event, recruitment of many types of staff in schools is ‘at absolute crisis point’, with vacancies being left unfilled, and potential staff ‘voting with their feet’:

Although measures are now being taken to address these vacancies, they will take time to have an impact. As many within the sector have pointed out, today’s crisis has been brewing for at least a decade, and is the clear result of a past failure to look far enough ahead and act accordingly. 

Another topic that is making headlines in the wider public realm and within the education sector is that of AI and its impact.  While discussions often centre around  safety and existential risk of future versions, education is a sphere where the rapid advances of AI have been felt most quickly, with fears that savvy students can use ChatGPT and other tools to ‘cheat’ on homework and other remote tasks. 

In reality, the impact of AI in education, as in society more broadly, is likely to be much greater and more varied than these immediate worries. As speakers at our event pointed out, along with other areas of concern such as misinformation, there are also opportunities emerging where AI could prove a useful tool in freeing up resources and addressing the current crunch on staff capacity:

If we are to promptly tackle these emerging threats – and take advantage of arising opportunities – policy will need to both address immediate challenges, while also keeping an eye on the longer term horizon. We must invest now in ways that will allow for positive outcomes further down the line.

We see this keenly in the PSHE education world. Though it is often necessary to ‘firefight’ new or emerging issues such as vaping or online economic fraud, there is also a need to focus on the long term. For example, successful efforts to halve the under-18 conception rate didn’t happen overnight, but were part of a joined up ten-year strategy involving various agencies and workstreams, with better sex education playing its part.

A Broken Debate

So how might we encourage a more future-focussed and ambitious approach to education, suitable to take on future challenges akin to (and including) the recruitment crisis, and the impact of AI?

To be fair to politicians, the low priority of more visionary approaches to education as a policy focus is partly the result of incentives. In an age of polycrisis at home and abroad, big picture vision can be hard to land among a public craving stability, certainty and realism. In addition to this, it has not helped that over the last two decades the education debate has been dominated by a simplistic binary framing that boils all issues down to two camps of traditional knowledge based approaches vs progressive skilled based ones.

As many have pointed out, this is a gross simplification of the real variety and depth of views, visions and approaches that exist in relation to education.

Surfacing this true diversity of perspectives was a central aim and feature of the ‘How to Disagree Better about Education’ Report, released earlier this year. This involved working with the Future Narratives Lab to interview a range of leading figures, from a wide spectrum of perspectives and backgrounds, delving into the roots of their opinions, and attempting to map and illustrate how they compared to one another.

What this process revealed was that while the fundamental opposition and even incompatibility of many of the differing perspectives on education in the UK are a reality, there is a much greater depth and richness of views than is generally recognised. And that even those views apparently at odds can overlap in surprising ways. It is here, in these spaces, where greater possibilities for future vision can emerge.

For example, one of the central battlegrounds of the polarised debate over education policy in recent decades has been the approach to examinations and testing.

On the surface, the debate on this issue split into two camps. Put simply, those who see ‘objective’ measurement and testing as the best way for talented young people to escape the limitations of their background and find success, against those who emphasise instead what is missed by standardised methods of testing, and how it can privilege some skills and capacities at the expense of others. 

This debate has been long and vociferous, and likely stems from what is an inherent and inevitable tension at the heart of how we think about education and its purpose. But when the foundational views of the different ‘sides’ are looked at more deeply, and charitably unpacked, they have more in common than they might realise. 

Though very different on the surface, it is possible to see these two camps as also sharing a core ambition to help students overcome disadvantages of their background, and be given a fair chance at fulfilling their potential.  Framed this way, a shared space starts to open up where the futile dichotomy of recent decades might be overcome, and bigger picture ambitions come into focus. 

In other areas, we found similar under-acknowledged aspects that might help provide the foundations for new approaches. Part of the aforementioned crisis of staff retention in schools has been the ever-increasing demands placed on them as institutions to hold together the ‘social fabric’ of an increasingly unequal and stressed society — something that only worsened during the pandemic.

Mapping out these areas brings to light the reality that education, alongside healthcare, remains by consensus one of the few truly universal services in the UK. This might seem on the face of it a banal observation, but it is precisely this underappreciation that perhaps helps explain the deficiency of big picture vision on the topic. If we are to reignite a sense of purpose and ambition in how we think about the subject, we could start by recognising the laudable – and historically special – consensus that every child should be educated from 4 through to 18 in all the skills and knowledge that they need for a successful and worthwhile life, at the expense of general taxation. Appreciating that this is what we are doing, seeing the overall picture rather than just the granular day-to-day challenges, can reveal the vast possibilities that education gives us to shape our collective future.

Getting Education back on the Agenda

All this said, such ambitions must themselves confront the reality of a rapidly approaching election in which the battleground appears likely to be over an increasingly narrow span of territory, largely that involving no substantial additional spending, which for an education sector stretched to breaking point is understandably a gloomy prospect. 

How should education institutions and organisations in this context attempt to push the parties towards more ambitious positions? In recent years, such efforts have tended to centre on carrying out public polling, looking to identify policies or approaches that ‘poll well’ amongst electorally significant groups, and then providing this as evidence to the parties that they should adopt them. 

Familiar and reliable an approach as polling is – on its own terms at least – its weakness lies in how it takes the current way that education is thought about and framed as a given, following the contemporary debate rather than leading a new one. Given the divided and unambitious state of the debate outlined above, this is unlikely to produce the step change in vision that is needed, and may risk reinforcing the current limitations. 

To transcend this, we need to start looking for new ways to talk about education, its purposes, its basis and its future, escaping the most typical frames, dead end dichotomies and familiar clichés. This should give educators new and exciting ways to talk about the crucial work they do, ways that look to the future, while being grounded in the challenges of today.

We hope that our research report starts to lay the foundation for this, but we appreciate it is no easy task, and will take patient and collaborative work to move forward. In future articles we’ll be talking about more ways in which this could be done, and we welcome the start of a broader conversation.

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This is the first in a series of articles based on our ‘How to Disagree Better About Education’ Report. Stay in touch and updated on the publication of succeeding blogs by signing up to our newsletter.

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