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

What could we be educating for in primary education?

Gorana Henry, Primary PGCE Programme Leader at IOE, UCL's Faculty of Education and Society

We know that the primary timetable is overcrowded, testing is embedded in almost every year of a child’s primary schooling (Wyse et al., 2022), and expectations of what teachers must cover grow ever greater. It feels like we are very much educating to meet accountability measures.

Our schools face huge tensions: leaders know what their children and communities need (Harmey & Moss, 2023), yet they are compelled to also satisfy an outdated accountability system. We have a very competent and creative workforce; however, the constant constraints, changes, lack of investment, outdated structures, out-of-touch decision-making and consistently negative media attention have resulted in the teaching workforce feeling that the profession is undervalued by society (Ofsted, 2019a).

Further fuel to the fire has been added by the drive towards subject ‘deep dives’ (Ofsted, 2019b). These have placed additional pressure on primary subject leaders, who are often asked to lead subjects which they are not experts in, for the entire primary age range. Quality continuing professional development (CPD) would surely help here. However, in already underfunded schools – where quality CPD has most likely been the casualty of budget balancing – schools have increasingly had to opt for off-the-shelf schemes, leading to a loss of autonomy and creativity for teachers and certainly less agency for pupils.

What should we be considering?

We know that more children are starting school with a delay in their language and communication skills, and developmental delay in other areas. There is also a lack of parental understanding of age-appropriate milestones.

We seem to be slow in addressing the fact that one in four young people feel they do not belong in school, and this figure is rising (see Riley et al., 2020). A number of disparities remain, for example low levels of racial literacy among school staff leading to many pupils and families feeling increasingly more isolated from the education system.

We don’t seem to have given adequate attention to the fact that children are spending more and more of their time online (Bergmann et al., 2022). Many are developing a sense of belonging and a connectedness to different online communities, particularly where they have been able to monetise their content and obtain a substantial following. The positioning of the School as a necessary step to getting a job no longer has relevance: young people are finding alternative and creative ways of making money.

On the other hand, many children are struggling to navigate and communicate within the online world, which often results in judgmental, unsafe and damaging experiences, and has a negative effect on their health, self-worth and wellbeing.

‘Many children are struggling to navigate and communicate within the online world, which often results in judgmental, unsafe and damaging experiences, and has a negative effect on their health, self-worth and wellbeing.’

If we continue to ignore aspects of education that today’s children need, we are at risk of more pupils disengaging from our education system. We need to consider how we can create spaces where children can feel that education isn’t being ‘done’ to them, but that they are active participants and contributors to collaborative learning approaches which are relevant to them.

What could we be educating for?

We must begin to think differently about systems of primary education, in order to support today’s complexities. It is time for a forward-facing shift.

  • We need to review the relevance of the curriculum and its organisation in light of technological advances, giving consideration to the knowledge and skills that our children will need in their futures.
  • We need a system that places value on creative, critical and analytical thinking skills – skills which are likely to become the most sought after in a world where many tasks are being automated.
  • To support this, we need to shift our focus from individual performance in tests, to providing opportunities for collaborative working that supports critical and creative thinking and problem-solving (see Wyse et al., 2022).
  • We need to facilitate our children’s competence as communicators, so that they can feel empowered to express themselves, to negotiate, reason, question and, crucially, to resolve conflict.
  • We need to listen to our children: their voice is a powerful indicator of what we are doing right and what we still need to develop in order to make learning meaningful.
  • Broadly speaking, we need all of our children to know why they matter, and to enable them to learn how they can contribute positively to the rapidly changing world culture- and why they should want to.

Meaningful change will need to start with all of us, with a period of unlearning and relearning. We can then a move towards a creative and collaborative interdisciplinary approach, supported by brave and principled leadership. But crucially, we will need policymakers to come onboard, return trust and agency to our educators, and finally make a meaningful investment into primary education.


Bergmann, C., Dimitrova, N., Alaslani, K., … & Mani, N. (2022). Young children’s screen time during the first COVID-19 lockdown in 12 countries. Scientific Reports, 12.

Harmey, S., & Moss, G. (2023). Learning disruption or learning loss: using evidence from unplanned closures to inform returning to school after COVID-19. Educational Review, 75(4), 637–656. 

Office for Standards in Education [Ofsted]. (2019a). Teacher well-being at work in schools and further education providers.

Office for Standards in Education [Ofsted]. (2019b). Inspecting the curriculum. 

Riley, K., Coates, M., & Allen, T. (2020). Place and belonging in school: Why it matters today. The Art of Possibilities & UCL, Institute of Education. 

Wyse, D., Bradbury, A., & Trollope, R. (2022). Assessment for children’s learning: A new future for primary education. Independent Commission on Assessment in Primary Education (ICAPE).