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Blog post Part of special issue: What are we educating for?

What are we educating for? Education policymaking in England

Jo-Anne Baird, Professor of Educational Assessment at University of Oxford

Education represents no less than our vision of society, and the people in it. It represents values. How education policy is made tells us about whose values are prioritised, what sources of information and experience are deemed important and, in contrast, where the silences are. I focus on teacher education policy since teachers are widely deemed to be the important factor for improving quality in education systems. If we want the education system to ‘produce’ young people with the knowledge and higher-order thinking skills to thrive in the knowledge economy, we are going to need teachers who can foster this.

A raft of policymaking on teacher education has been conducted on a different footing with the teaching sector in England over the past few years, raising noteworthy features of the policy dynamic. All ‘providers’ are having to submit themselves for re-accreditation through Ofsted, and several failed – such as Durham University. The accreditation process requires compliance with the Core Content Framework, which now serves as a syllabus and reading list for teacher trainees. Devised by the Department for Education (DfE), the Core Content Framework was endorsed by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) as providing the ‘best available evidence’ that had been ‘interpreted with fidelity’. The EEF is now the knowledge broker who judges the best quality knowledge, working in conjunction with the DfE and Ofsted to incorporate this in policy.

I, and others, have written about the quality of the knowledge represented in the readings in the Core Content Framework (see Baird, 2022; Hordern & Brooks, 2023), but let me briefly illustrate some of the issues here with the reading list on assessment. The bemusing list has 14 items published between 1989 and 2018; all of which concern formative assessment and feedback. The list consists of eight journal articles, a book, three reports (for transparency, I am an author of one of the reports listed), an EEF toolkit and an Inaugural Lecture (inclusion of the latter appears rather parochial). The author surely has better articles that could have been selected. One report is an analysis of government consultation responses about workload. Overall, the list is a hotchpotch of writing that is aimed at policymakers, teachers or researchers and some of it is very outdated – debates about summative and formative assessment were really laid to rest some time ago.

To evaluate the quality of this selection, there is a prior question – what is the curriculum for? What are we trying to achieve here? Good classroom assessment is a powerful skill, but don’t teachers need to know about summative assessment too? After all, the results of such assessments are highly valued by Ofsted when it comes to school inspections, and they matter not a little to pupils and parents. Readings on how to evaluate research are absent. Overall, a reading list like this should be an indicative guide to the field, but this is a narrow focus and the quality criteria for the selections are hard to fathom. Even if you think peer review is for the birds, how the quality has been decided should be transparent if a claim for evidence-based quality is to be sustained.

‘Even if you think peer review is for the birds, how the quality has been decided should be transparent if a claim for evidence-based quality is to be sustained.’

How these selections were made, by whom and how they will be used are important, because they will shape teacher education in England. Feedback from the teacher education sector on the shape and content of the Core Content Framework largely went unheeded. Decisions were highly centralised (Brooks & Perryman, 2023). Consultations were held online with the chat facility disabled and no time was given for questions. Now, the initial teacher education reading lists presented by universities are constrained to only those readings on the Core Content Framework when going through the accreditation process. This represents considerable central control, with little intellectual debate regarding what and how teachers should learn.

Scripting teacher education in this way exhibits a particular model of teaching. The real world of education is messy; it happens in a wide variety of contexts, in which children bring different levels of knowledge and skill, there are varying resources and competing priorities. We need teachers who can adapt to this complexity, not automatons who can deliver a scripted lesson. The way in which teacher education policy is being made in England currently will undermine capacity, and teachers are already leaving in droves because of the alienating job design. How policy is made shapes the kind of education system we have and thereby determines what we are educating for.


References

Baird, J-A. (2022). On the use of cognitive science in teacher education in England. Vernon Wall Lecture. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/364667387_On_the_use_of_cognitive_science_in_teacher_education_in_England_This_is_a_pre-publication_of_the_article_Baird_J_2022_On_the_use_of_cognitive_science_in_teacher_education_in_England_BPS_Vernon-Wall_An

Brooks, C., & Perryman, J. (2023) Policy in the pandemic: Lost opportunities, returning to ‘normal’ and ratcheting up control. London Review of Education, 21(1). https://doi.org/10.14324/LRE.21.1.23

Hordern, J., & Brooks, C. (2023). The core content framework and the ‘new science’ of educational research. Oxford Review of Education, 49(6). https://doi.org/10.1080/03054985.2023.2182768