Creating a ‘powerful knowledge’ curriculum in schools

May 10, 2016

“Education itself will oil the wheels of industry and will bring a new efficiency, the fruit of modern knowledge, to aid the ancient skill of farm and field”

So spoke Rab Butler, introducing his Education Act in 1944. His argument was that education for all, regardless of background, is necessary for advancement. Although no one today argues against the principle of universal state education, the way in which it is delivered (the pedagogy) and the content of such education (the curriculum) are still hotly contested.

Professor Michael Young is one of the UK’s most prominent education theorists and academics. His book, “Knowledge and the Future School”, proposes a ‘return to knowledge’ in school curricula for all children.

We are delighted to be joined by Professor Young and a high quality panel to discuss the role of ‘powerful knowledge’ in schools today;

  • Professor Michael Young, Emeritus Professor of Education with the School of Lifelong Education & International Development at the Institute of Education
  • Professor Tim Oates CBE, Group Director of Assessment Research and Development, Cambridge Assessment
  • Carolyn Roberts, Head, Thomas Tallis School and ASCL Honorary Secretary
  • Chair: Gerard Kelly, former editor, TES

Following remarks from the panel there will be a moderated discussion led by the chair, and audience Q+A

We are pleased to be hosting this event in partnership with ASCL.

Report

Policy Exchange hosted a public event on the topic of “powerful knowledge” in association with the Association of College and School Leaders. The phrase comes from Professor Michael Young, one of the UK’s foremost academics on the subject of the curriculum, and is defined as knowledge which is central to a formal discipline of work – and is widely accepted by enough people to be constituted as the truth of that discipline. It is, in other words, formal knowledge of a subject, which enables people to learn more – as opposed to what he terms common knowledge which comes from ever day lived experiences.

The debate over powerful knowledge – or indeed any knowledge – in the curriculum (as opposed to learning by theme, or across subjects, or a greater emphasis on skills) is a hotly contested one in education. Traditionally, it has been the political right which has emphasised knowledge – in particular, the work of Michael Gove and Nick Gibb in the National Curriculum review recently emphasised an increase in knowledge. Yet as both Michael Young and Tim Oates of Cambridge University, another of the panellists, argued at the event, this is counter intuitive because it is knowledge that enables social mobility and better outcomes for all – and therefore ought to be natural territory for the Left. As Tim Oates strikingly put it, “if you don’t have powerful knowledge, it is incredibly predictive of bad life outcomes”. Even though such knowledge is often characterised as “rote learning”, actually embedding such knowledge in the brain also benefits people because it frees up working memory (as opposed to long term memory) for higher order – and more creative – thinking.

Carolyn Roberts, Headteacher of Thomas Tallis School and ASCL Honorary Secretary, spelled out what this means for schools and policymakers. The curriculum – as in what schools should teach – should not be defined solely by government and by exam boards. But the national curriculum itself should be left as a stable as possible. Unlike in recent times, teachers ought to be empowered and trusted to develop their own models of how best to teach young people – which means emphasising strong quality models of teacher training and recruitment and ongoing development.

The event was a stimulating discussion on an important topic to a packed audience, and was live-streamed to over 200 people across the UK and internationally. A video of the whole session and highlighted clips will shortly be on our website. In advance of the discussion, Jonathan Simons and Leora Cruddas of ASCL wrote a piece for the TES on “why a knowledge curriculum has been captured by the Right”.

 

Transcript

Creating a ‘Powerful Knowledge’ Curriculum in Schools

Introduction: James Frayne, Director of Policy, Policy Exchange

Good evening everybody, and thank you for coming this evening to this discussion that we’re hosting in partnership with ASCL, continuing the series of events that we’re doing over the course of the next few weeks. My name’s James Frayne, I’m Director of Policy here at Policy Exchange. Some of you will know Jonathan Simons, who was supposed to be hosting this evening, but he is currently flat on his back with a terrible [0:21 back pain], so sadly can’t make it so I’m stepping in for this evening. He will be watching on livestream, which I’ll explain in a moment, though.

So firstly then on logistics, for those people that want to tweet the hashtag is going to be PXKnowledge and then with the help of Cambridge Assessment we’re going to be periscoping, so live streaming this evening’s event and people following on Twitter can basically access that livestream by going on to Cambridge Assessment’s page and clicking on the link.

So I think the size of the audience here tonight really reflects the interest that there is in the subject and also in the great quality of the guests that we’ve got this evening, that Gerard will introduce in a moment. The issue of knowledge in the curriculum, so what young people should be excepted to know and when, is becoming a central part of the education debate and is something which is becoming increasingly interesting for us here at Policy Exchange. So it’s increasingly clear that the debate that we’re going to have around structures is going to continue for the foreseeable future. It was possible that that debate was going to go to bed but it would seem that that’s going to rumble on for the foreseeable future. But it looks like increasingly the debate around education is going to be focussed much more on what actually gets taught in schools rather than just on structures.

So that, to us, I think is incredibly welcome and there’ll be a division, no doubt, amongst us all, on what the right structure should be. I personally would welcome different structure and would also welcome a knowledge-based approach in the classroom but regardless of the approach that we take and regardless of which way the debate goes on knowledge, I think it’s going to be fantastic for parents and teachers across the country if there is a serious debate around knowledge, because it often seems to me that the debate around education takes place far above the heads of ordinary parents. Whether or not a school is a free school or an academy is much less interesting to what their child actually gets taught. So if we have a proper, national debate on this I think that can only be good for the debate generally.

I just realised that I should have said at the very outset that I’m just doing the intro tonight. It will be chaired by Gerard Kelly, as you know, he’s former editor of the Times Higher Education, he’s going to be introducing everybody in a moment, but just before I pass over to Gerard, a couple of things. Firstly to say last year I think some of you will know we hosted a very interesting event with ED Hirsch, who’s one of the leading proponents of knowledge-based curriculums. We have a series of essays based on his work at the back of the room, and I’d also like to just say a couple of thank yous.

Again, thank you to ASCL for their support tonight and also [3:13] for their support. And with that in mind, can I pass over to Gerard and ask you all to give him a welcome and we’ll get going.

<Applause>

Gerard King, former Editor of Times Higher Education Supplement

Thank you. This evening, as James said, we’re here to talk about powerful knowledge and creating a powerful knowledge curriculum in schools. Now I suspect I’m probably the only person in the room who was clueless about powerful knowledge before I came and did a bit of reading about it. I thought it was something to do with Jane Fonda, but it turns out it’s a bit more serious than that and it’s very essential to what could happen, or should happen perhaps, in our schools, and I suppose the big issues around powerful knowledge are basically what is it, why is it important and why is it so contested? And to help us answer those questions I’m delighted to introduce Professor Michael Young, Tim Oates and Carolyn Roberts.

Professor Young is Emeritus Professor of Education at the Institute of Education and one of the foremost academics in the UK on curriculum design. He is author of Knowledge and the Future School, which argues for powerful knowledge for all pupils as a curriculum principle for any school, arguing that the question of knowledge is intimately linked to the issue of social justice and access to powerful knowledge is a necessary component of the education for pupils.

Tim is the Director of the Assessment, Research and Development at Cambridge Assessment. He’s advised the UK government for many years on curriculum and assessment policy, including chairing the expert panel that reviewed the national curriculum between 2010 and 2013.

Carolyn Roberts has a proper job. She’s the head teacher at Thomas Tallis School in London and ASCL Honorary Secretary. She’s the co-author, with Michael Young, of Knowledge and the Future School.

So the format for this evening is pretty straightforward. Michael’s going to talk for 15 minutes about powerful knowledge. Then Tim and Carolyn will respond for seven to eight minutes. I will then interview them and ask them a few questions and then we’ll throw the session open to the audience. So with that, Michael, over to you.

Michael Young, Emeritus Professor of Education with the School of Lifelong Education & International Development at the Institute of Education

Thank you very much, Gerard. I’d like to thank Policy Exchange and indeed the Association for School and College Leaders not only for establishing this event, and both organisations I think have played a big role in actually bringing something that hasn’t always been on the educational agenda across the education community, onto it; and for inviting me to contribute.

I would like to say that I can’t think of anybody else who I would rather have on a panel I was sharing, so I feel very grateful, and I’m sure by the end of the evening I shall feel the same about the audience. There, that’s a promise for you!

My theme is just slightly different from the title. I want to talk about a powerful knowledge curriculum, to make it clear, for all. The small difference is important to me for two reasons. First, many schools offer a version of powerful knowledge for some or even all of their students; the difficult pedagogic and political issues arise when the principle is extended to all pupils. Secondly, the idea of powerful knowledge for all reminds us that the argument is not just about the curriculum, but it’s an argument about social justice.

So why has the idea of powerful knowledge captured the imagination of many in education, far more than anyone who was involved in actually coining the phrase in the first place expected? And secondly, why has the idea divided people so sharply across party-political lines? I gave a talk in about 2011 and a colleague and old friend of mine afterwards suggested that he thought it was somewhat strange that here’s Michael Young, a life-long labour voter, who was speaking as if he was one of Michael Gove’s speech writers. Well, I have never written a speech for Michael Gove and very talented people do, I’m sure, but nevertheless it symbolises I think the issue, which is I think exciting and promising if one can make use of it.

If you accept the idea that there is better knowledge in any form of enquiry, then this knowledge must be an entitlement for all pupils. How could anyone, for instance, in a democratic society, not want the best knowledge we have to be the basis for a curriculum for all. I feel very strongly about this because I spent many years working in South Africa, where in fact they had 18 different curricula for different types of pupil and different departments and so forth, and that was frightening and disastrous.

Despite that, many of those on what I might call the educational left and what I believe Michael Gove used to call the blob, actually see the idea of powerful knowledge as masking the elitist origins of the academic curriculum, and therefore in fact perpetuating inequalities. I’ll come back to that a little bit later. I wanted to start though by outlining what I see as the principles for any curriculum and how they relate to the idea of powerful knowledge. First, all curricula organise knowledge very differently from our everyday knowledge, the knowledge that pupils bring to school. They’re different in terms of the structure of knowledge and in terms of its purposes. Our everyday knowledge is tied to contexts with which we are familiar and need in order to live with each other in a society to solve the daily problems we have. The curriculum is very different. It’s different in structure, it has distinct boundaries and rules which act as constraints on what we know, it’s different in purpose. Unlike everyday knowledge, the curriculum doesn’t treat the world as an extension of our experience. It treats the world as an object of enquiry; it treats the concepts of the curriculum of an object of enquiry, and therefore potentially a source of knowledge.

Take the City, for example. London children know much about their city. However, this knowledge is quite different to the knowledge of cities that a geography teacher knows. The former is not displaced by the latter but it massively extends it in ways that most children would find impossible if they didn’t go to school. It’s the same for literature, history, astronomy, you name it. Any, I think, of the academic subjects. We can contrast the everyday knowledge, which is particular and tied to pupils’ experience, on the one hand, with the knowledge they acquire at school, which takes them beyond that experience, and for me anyway that difference is the essence of the power of powerful knowledge and it’s expressed in very different ways in different subjects, whether you talk about maths or about dance, to take two that might be seen as extremes.

So access to powerful knowledge based in the structure and the content of subjects means pupils are not trapped by the limits of their experience. That in a sense I think is the rational for why we have schools. However, the power of powerful knowledge, to generalise, to predict, to envisage possibilities, as the sociologist Basil Bernstein said, to ‘imagine the unthought and the not yet thought has its downside It is alien to many pupils and for some hard to acquire.’  That is why with the best of intensions curriculum developments going back into the seventies, from the Schools Council to the Royal Society of Arts more recently, have tried to develop a curriculum that they hoped would be less alien for low achievers. They assumed that the subject-based academic curriculum was only suitable for a small section of each cohort. In other words it was in some way intrinsically elitist and discriminatory. The issue they did not consider was that the consequence for those who followed courses which lacked the conceptual content of the mainstream curriculum would not be a resource for enabling the students to generalise and progress in their learning. It was as if there was real science for some but only for some.

I think, looking back on it, they addressed the low achievement problem as a curriculum problem of what to teach, when, though difficult, they should have addressed it as a pedagogic problem. This differentiation of curricula has been associated with two kinds of assumptions. One is the distribution of the ability to engage in academic subjects, which historically many have assumed was in fact innate and unequally distributed; therefore you have to have a differentiated curriculum. The other is the belief expressed rather evocatively by the French sociologist Pierre Bordieu that in fact the curriculum itself is essentially arbitrary and a form of symbolic violence on many kids, and therefore its content is educationally unimportant. Those on the right tend to favour the first explanation; those on the left tend to favour the second, but they come curiously together by providing a rational that nothing can change.

The idea of powerful knowledge implies, I think, a very different view of both knowledge and of human nature. First that knowledge is not arbitrary, and it’s not just tied to the interests of those with power. It’s tied to the rules and norms of specialist communities who specialise in particular fields of knowledge.

Secondly, we have no grounds for claiming that some human beings are born with limited ability to acquire powerful knowledge. I find the alternative preferable, drawing on the French psychologist who otherwise I would have found rather unattractive, Jacques Lecoq. His argument is that all human beings are born with a desire for knowledge. It’s societies that differentiate knowledge and people. This is of course not to deny that in an unequal society, the wealthy have the resources to ensure that their children have access to powerful knowledge unequally.

Last week I received an email quite out of the blue from a teacher I did not know who was a special needs coordinator in an academy in the north of England. She wrote to me and I’m paraphrasing, this is what she said. She said I’m reading your book Knowledge and the Future School, and at our school we are working in line with its ideas, in particular the idea of powerful knowledge for all. She noted, interestingly, that in our book we make no reference to special needs at all. The curriculum of her school, she wrote, is based on the principle that there is better knowledge, which is the right of all children, but to have a curriculum which is differentiated by types of children, whether defined in terms of disabilities or any other attribute such as social class, only perpetuates inequalities. She ended her email by saying, ‘We have no SEN or inclusion department, no withdrawal from timetable and no alternative pathways with less powerful knowledge-based courses.’

I know nothing, other than the emails I got, about the school or the teacher, although she writes an extremely interesting blog which I can put anybody in touch with if they want to. However, I was deeply moved by reading this email. Until I received it, I’d always thought that addressing the special needs issue was the weak link in the powerful knowledge argument. And now here’s somebody who’s telling me that it may be the basis for dealing with the problem that I thought was the weak link. I don’t for a moment want to play down the pedagogic challenges that the idea of powerful knowledge for all presents to teachers or to imply that it is some easy, quick-fix solution to raising attainment. The distribution of school access, success and failure is related to much wider issues of social inequality and access to resources; particularly how specialist subject teachers are distributed.

Furthermore, acquiring new knowledge is always difficult and for some more difficult than others, and actually convincing students that it’s worth the difficulty is one of the problems that teachers face. Furthermore, and this is a criticism that the community I come from of educational researchers, we know little about how best to structure knowledge to make it more accessible. The sociologist Basil Bernstein suggested, and I think rightly, three questions about subjects. One, he asked how is it selected? Two, he asked how is it sequenced? Three, he asked how is it paced to the terms and years of schooling? Now these, I think, are all important questions but the amount of research on them is next to zero and unfortunately the Educational Endowment Foundation, with its devotion to randomised controlled trials, is not, at the moment, showing any signs of being a help. I hope things will change.

OK. What I suggested earlier was that in fact the assumption that all human beings are born with the desire for knowledge. If you think of it, that must be a basic assumption for us, because in fact even bringing up children, let along teaching, would be impossible unless in fact we made that assumption about young people. But the idea of a desire for knowledge immediately implies a notion of knowledge that isn’t something that we find written about a lot. It is not lists of facts or even lists of concepts, although both are very important. It is a relationship between knowledge and knowers. Now what I think is interesting is that this relationship has been a feature of all societies but has been transformed in the last two centuries, which actually needs to transform how we actually think about knowledge an education. One way it’s been transformed is the emergence and expansion of what I call specialist communities of enquiry. In every field this has led to a massive growth of knowledge, which could not remotely have been predicted at the beginning of the nineteenth century.

There’s a great book which I happened to pick up, because I’m not a historian, by David Wootton, called The Invention of Science and I do recommend it. What he documents is that at least in the Western world it was not until the sixteenth century that people realised that there could be new knowledge. Quite something actually, that. The other development and the other thing which I found intriguing about the book is that the real breakthrough was not Galileo and Newton; the real breakthrough was in fact people discovering the Americas, because suddenly people realised you could do something and out of what you did you got new knowledge. It is a great book, I do recommend it.

The other development which I want to emphasise about the relationship to knowledge and knowers is the expansion and specialisation of pedagogy because that’s in a sense what we’re centrally concerned with here. We’re concerned with the relation to the curriculum. And this is of course an exercise in the transmission of knowledge from generation to generation but it becomes an ever more complex issue, because as in fact research expands and we get much more research, the question of the relationship, what Bernstein called the re-contextualisation of new knowledge being produced and making that knowledge accessible becomes an ever more complex and tricky process. And as it has become more complex, we seem, if anything, to do less research on how to engage with it.

I was thinking when I was writing this about, I read a biography recently of Matthew Arnold, and I suddenly realised that he could be seen as the first proponent of the idea of powerful knowledge for all. He didn’t use the term, of course. His famous phrase for what should constitute a curriculum was, ‘the best that has been thought and said’ but if you think about it, they were not so very different. But what he was clear about was that that was not something for the elite, it was something for all.

However, the other side of Matthew Arnold was that despite Newton, despite Darwin, despite Clark Maxwell, despite any of the scientists, when Matthew Arnold started thinking about what the powerful knowledge for all should be, he turned to the ancient societies of Greece and Rome for his sources of knowledge. Now today it’s the relationship, and one that has been somewhat fractured by policies of both governments, it’s not a political question, the relationship between the subject specialists in the schools and the communities of researchers in the universities. It’s that relationship that underpins the authority that we can claim for subjects in the school curriculum.

Finally, powerful knowledge is not just a curriculum principle. It is also very much a pedagogic principle. I think it’s akin to the idea of justice for lawyers. It defines what it is to be a teacher. Whether we refer to marking and the assessing of pupils’ work, writing reports, selecting text, responding to questions in class, in each of these you need to ask the question, ‘In what way does my response as a teacher to those things actually extend the knowledge of the pupil?’ That’s something we don’t often do. It’s not about control, although [22:12 maybe] control is involved, it’s not about bringing the community in, it’s about are we extending knowledge, because that is what is distinctive about, or ought to be distinctive about schools.

For the most part we trust the professional work of teachers, just as we trust that of doctors and lawyers. Trust is maybe easier for you and me, but it’s not so easy for governments under strong political and economic pressures, and inevitably I suppose they turn to what can crudely be described as industrial models of standardisation and testing to back up, or in some cases replace, their lack of trust.

However, what works for mass production has its limits. The desire for knowledge cannot be standardised and only weakly interpreted from test results. Powerful knowledge as a curriculum principle is a long-term and not a short-term goal, and it has implications across the education system as a whole that I think that those groups who debated the idea have hardly begun to think about. We’ve had discussion after discussion with Christine about high impact upon leadership, absolutely critically on the role of heads and heads of department, all kinds of things like that, that in a sense it works its way through, because if you don’t think about it in those terms then it will become some little technical job with people picking up a few extra facts.

Furthermore, if what one reads from the predictions of economists about the kind of work future a country like ours has, then we have no alternative but to take that question of powerful knowledge for all very, very seriously indeed. Thank you.

<Applause>

Gerard Kelly

Thank you Michael. Tim, do you want to go next?

Professor Tim Oates CBE, Group Director of Assessment Research and Development, Cambridge Assessment

Yes, thank you, and tonight’s not going to be an evening of radical disagreement I think, from my part in respect to what Michael is proposing and has proposed in a whole series of very, very important papers.

OK, all knowledge is relative. Children no longer need to remember things. 21st century skills must be the foundation of all contemporary curricula.

I’ve heard all of those things recently, many of them repeated. The trouble with those statements is that they fly in the face of modern epistemic theory, and they fly in the face of empirical evidence regarding equity and high attainment in education. They sound modern, don’t they? But in fact they’re profoundly retrograde, because they are profoundly unscientific. They’re at odds with the best science that we have regarding the structure and form of knowledge and they’re at odds with the best science we have about high-quality education systems.

A curriculum which ignores core content, core constructs, and this is a key part of some of Michael’s analysis, a curriculum which ignores core content in disciplines makes that curriculum more, not less prone to arbitrary ideologically-laden interference. And that’s an interesting counterintuitive implication of Michael’s analysis. If you want a lot of politically driven intervention constantly in a curriculum, fill it full of contemporary stuff. I’ll leave you with that.

A few more points. One of the things that Michael and I have discussed around the thesis of powerful knowledge is the erroneous contradiction, the false opposition of knowledge and skills. Now why have knowledge and skills been constructed as an opposition? I think we need to ask this. Why do we see this in paper after paper, in argument after argument? What’s going on that people assert this? Well I’m afraid my conclusion is quite simple, possibly too reductivist, I don’t know.  I think this opposition has been appropriated for the purposes of internal conflicts in the education community. It’s about which people can … they can fight over it. And it’s caused a polarisation in the debates which is entirely at odds with the kind of bodies of theory which I have described, and has been very, very counterproductive.

So if I was John White, of course I’m not, then I’d be really attacking Michael because he’s failing to articulate the hegemonic relationships around knowledge. But what I’d say to John, in defence of Michael, is the distributional issues about knowledge, who has it, who has access to it, should not be confused with the value of specific knowledge, and John’s thesis confuses those two things. It confuses who said something and who’s created the knowledge with what the content of that knowledge actually is. Now I’m not being naïve. Of course knowledge is value laden. Of course it’s created under certain conditions. Of course people create some knowledge and not other knowledge and there are choices in that and those are determined by the economic and political circumstances of the time in which that knowledge is created, but to confuse the two things again is to fly in the face of what we know about modern epistemic theory. Knowledge is external to us. That sounds very odd, because it is knowledge of the world, it is knowledge of things outside us. To confuse the authority of the teacher with the authority of the knowledge to which they give access is a very, very dangerous confusion. The quality of knowledge of the natural world should not be confused with the qualities of the person who originated it, and that’s one of the problems with John’s thesis.

I know knowledge of the social domain is a bit more problematic. I think the same thing applies. I can go into the detail of critical realism, but I won’t.

OK, to finish, Gerard’s getting nervous, first of all, quickly, constructivism is a theory of mind not a model of the curriculum. It’s very useful in terms of understanding how people know things, but it gave rise to discovery learning and it gave rise to individualised learning; forms which have been very dysfunctional in our education system. Michael’s work brings us to a very important insight that a lot of the knowledge and the learning at school is counterintuitive to young people. It’s contrary to their lived experience. And the distinctiveness of these hard-won scientific concepts needs to be addressed in the curriculum. They are difficult to acquire because they are counterintuitive. The world looks pretty flat to me. I know that cholera is caused by bad air, don’t we all know that? The majority of what we ask people to acquire whilst at school is counterintuitive to their lived experience. It’s tough. So there’s theoretical opposition, there’s false knowledge/skills opposition, there’s also practical opposition though to powerful knowledge, because there’s not enough space in the curriculum. So of course people are arguing for skills but trying to find space. They’ve rendered a lot of knowledge, very, very generic and therefore pretty useless.

A couple of final things which need to be elaborated, which aren’t in the exegesis we heard this evening – there are absurd notions of remembering and cognitive processing in the skills/knowledge opposition. Basically moving things into long-term memory and remembering them frees up the working memory, it makes education far more efficient for individual children. They can achieve and acquire more. They can do more higher-order thinking of they actually remember things. They need to remember concepts, principles, fundamental operations and core knowledge. Reading’s a skill, writing’s a skill, observation and recording in science is a skill. Observation in science is theory-laden. You need to know what you’re looking for. Knowledge/skill oppositions are absurd. Of course balances can be explored in education. Values and knowledge are always components of effective performance and many breakdowns in skill can be traced to breakdowns in underpinning knowledge.

The final thing is this, in the same institution that Michael works in, the Institute of Education, John Bonner and Tom Schiller have done fantastic work on personal capitals, through the longitudinal surveys they’ve seen that the kind of things which Michael is advocating in powerful knowledge are explanatory of later life success. Of course they are alongside things which John calls personal capitals, the ability to communicate with others, the ability to organise information and so on, but they exist alongside each other, not in opposition.

The final, final point, and it really is, is this.

Gerard Kelly

Cheating!

Tim Oates

It really is this, OK? This is the last one, but it’s of enormous consequence to anybody managing a curriculum. If you believe in powerful knowledge, if you believe in the exegesis and you look at the evidence, it has enormous implications for how frequently you change your national curriculum. If you believe in powerful knowledge, and core content of specific disciplines, you don’t change your national curriculum every ten years, not all of it. You refine it as human knowledge evolves. And I assure you, the major paradigms in all the major disciplines, geography, history, biology, core elements of other disciplines, change far less frequently than most people argue. And that brings fantastic stability of the kind that schools are just crying out for, in terms of producing effective learning which gives people access to powerful knowledge.

<Applause>

Gerard Kelly

Carolyn, yes, but no final finals from you!

Carolyn Roberts, Head, Thomas Tallis School and ASCL Honorary Secretary

I’m going to speak standing up because I’m a head teacher and I can only speak standing up. I can’t actually speak sitting down!

<Laughter>

Often when a head teacher talks in these discussions, they talk from a position of being able to mould a school entirely, and so the first thing I’m going to say to you is to tell you about the three schools of which I’ve been head. The first one was a rebranded school, it was a new school but it was a rebranded school and so I started a new school with the same teachers and 800 of the same pupils in Hartlepool that had been a failing school beforehand. So when we talk about new schools we don’t always talk about starting schools with only one year group. The second school I was in was completely different to that, and that was a very successful big comprehensive school, a real  comprehensive school, given its place in the world by John Dunford who’s sitting here in the audience at the moment, and could only be described as a confident school, a very successful school, a very sort-after school, and I spent my nine years as head there doing various things and one of the things that I did was to get people to think about the foundations for the curriculum and what the curriculum really meant, but also trying to keep the local authority at bay and so when someone asked us a while ago, those of us who’d been head of the school, what it was that we were really pleased about in the time that we’d been head, the thing that I said was we kept people at bay, because this was at a time, between 2005 and 2013, when the local authority were really keen for results to go like that. And I was in a position of a very successful school by any standards where the results were going like that, but other schools’ results were going like that, and that’s a really difficult position to be in, and the knowledge and skills debate was a very sharp context for us at that time. And it was incidentally to bolster myself up against the attacks of the local authority on us that I used to do lunch duty sitting at the back of the boys’ gym reading Michael’s book page by page every day to give me ways of arguing about what we were going to do in future.

The third school where I’ve been head, this is my third year, now, is a very interesting school, once again a really large comprehensive school but a school that has got two defining characteristics: one of them is a very long, forty-year commitment to creativity and the arts in a really big way, a very successful way; and the other aspect of it is the way that the accountability measures of the last few years have undermined that school’s success and that school’s curriculum. And I’ve spent the last two-and-a-half years now, I will spend the next five years, rebuilding that curriculum in order to make sure the children get solid learning, long-term learning and learning which will enable them to live more successful lives in the future. So when someone asked me just before we started here what does a powerful knowledge curriculum in school look like, do you run your school on  powerful knowledge curriculum, well the answer is yes, but it’s a hell of a lot harder than it sounds!

And so what I do is, bearing in mind that Hirsch said that the curriculum was about protecting and preserving democracy, what I do is to try and put together principles upon which a solid and sustainable school is based, and I’ve got ten principles but I won’t go through all of them. This is what we work on at school and this is what we worked on in my last school and it’s what we were feeling our way towards in my first school, which is that knowledge is worthwhile in itself and so children ought to know that. But schools share powerful knowledge on behalf of society so we teach them what they need to know to make sense of and to improve the world. They need that knowledge in order to interpret and improve the world. It enables them to grow into useful citizens. It enables them to grow into citizens who understand one another. It’s fair and just that all children should have access to this kind of learning and this kind of knowledge and actually the debate that Michael’s been having with the [37:23 SENCO] is a really useful one and it’s a debate I’ve been having for two years with the special needs department in my current school.

And then to just pick up something that Tim said at the very end there. Adult authority is really important in this. There’s a lot of the context of the knowledge and skills debate and the curricula of the past 10 or 15 years in which the impact of student behaviour has been underplayed on what happened to the curriculum, so it’s really important that schools are model communities in which teachers are valued and children can learn within a stable environment. So pedagogy links adult authority, powerful knowledge and our sharing of it in the world.

And so finally … I used to do an annual lecture for PGCE students at the University of Northumbria, and it was on the national curriculum. I did it for years and years so I became quite familiar with the way that the national curriculum changed every year, so I had to do new slides every year ‘cause it was always changing. But one of the things which I talked about a lot was one of the early values of the national curriculum, which was that it was a curriculum that tended towards a just and sustainable democracy, and that seemed to me to be a really, really important point, which was almost completely lost. People didn’t understand the democratic imperative of the national curriculum.

We have to put together in our schools day by day model communities in which young people can grow and develop and be nurtured, in which we push them out at the other end to play a useful part in the world, we have to put together those communities in which young people can understand the world and change it for the better and the curriculum is the key to that.

So … leave us alone, as Tim said, change the curriculum rarely, but think really hard about what we need of teachers and really hard about the way we measure schools in order for us to be given the time to actually get this right.

<Applause>

Gerard Kelly

Thank you Carolyn. Before I ask the panel a few searching, I hope probing, questions, I just wanted to check the temperature of the room. How many powerful knowledge sceptics are there tonight out there? Don’t be shy – hands up. Very few, so most of you are … you’ve got the script, know the theme tune, you’re all on board with it? Yeah. Right. OK.

So I suppose some of the most searching, well I don’t know if it’s searching but most common criticism which both Tim and Michael alluded to was that actually knowledge, yes, it’s essential, but it’s not sufficient. I think Ken Baker came out with something this week basically saying the same thing. What do you say to that? It’s too limited as an aim when you’re talking about a curriculum.

Michael Young

I think the problem with that criticism is the narrowness of the interpretation of knowledge. That in fact if you’re serious about knowledge, it isn’t just something there which has to be learnt; it’s actually itself a community which people are encouraged to debate and argue with and so forth, so it is actually the basis of the kind of democracy that in fact Carolyn was speaking about and a kind of respect for authority that any school needs. So many of the things that in fact people say not enough are because they’ve already boxed knowledge into a little section which in fact is mistaken. So that would be my answer.

Gerard Kelly

Tim, do you want to add anything to that?

Tim Oates

Yeah, I mean many of the criticisms of the kind that you describe, when you probe the understanding of knowledge that the critic has, they have a very impoverished concept. So when we talk about knowledge in the education community, and in the research community, it’s of knowing how as well as knowing what. If you analyse effective performance in respect to things like medics, knowledge is intertwined into performance in a way which is completely contrary to this incredibly impoverished view of knowledge as a series of discreet things to be remembered.

And it’s clear when people are attempting to describe other educational systems, they often paint really extreme characters of other systems, focussed exclusively on rote learning alone, focussed only on articulating traditional knowledge.

Gerard Kelly

Basically the critics have got it wrong and they just don’t understand what it’s about or how broad it is, how inclusive it is?

Tim Oates

You have to look at the understanding of the idea of knowledge that many of the critics of the powerful knowledge thesis poses, and when you look at that, you find something very wanting and very at odds with both our international understandings and modern epistemic theory.

Gerard Kelly

And you mentioned that actually you’re not anti-skills, it’s a false debate, so I won’t go there yet.

Tim Oates

Absolutely.

Gerard Kelly

Carolyn, another question that is often asked of powerful knowledge is actually that it stifles creativity, that the powerful knowledge curriculum does not pay due attention to the creative disciplines in school. You mentioned that your school was very proud of its creative heritage and I guess … well, what would you say to that?

Carolyn Roberts

Well that’s just completely wrong. <Laughs>

Gerard Kelly

You can equivocate if you like!

Carolyn Roberts

<Laughs> Two parts to an answer. Firstly the academic disciplines that would be characterised as being part of the arts, as being part of creativity, have a hugely important knowledge base, and actually a good art teacher, a good drama teacher, a good dance teacher, will be someone who is self-consciously always learning about what they do and therefore often much better at transmitting a love of learning and a love of knowledge than someone who hasn’t looked at what’s happening in the world of [44:18 maths] since they were 21. So there’s that and then there are the other things which we used to call the hidden curriculum, when I was [44:27 IA] and that’s to do with the personal characteristics that schools develop in young people. So of course knowledge isn’t the whole story, but we do the other stuff in our communities in any case. Politicians don’t know enough about schools to know what else it is that we do apart from teach people in classrooms.

Tim Oates

OK. Can I just add, I can be a fantastically creative liver surgeon. I know nothing about it but I could be extremely creative. It’s really important that when you look at what we define as creative activity by young people, what they’re doing is finding patterns, structures, they’re gaining insights. To do that, they need to marshal things, they need to know things, the level of technique and the level of knowledge, and this again, a false opposition between the acquisition of powerful knowledge and creative activity in schools.

Gerard Kelly

Clearly you’ve been involved in the new curriculum, Tim in particular, and I don’t know if you have Michael or not, but do you think there’s enough powerful knowledge in there? The new curriculum, the one that the government is rolling out at the moment, do you think there’s enough attention paid to powerful knowledge?

Michael Young

<Pause> I’m not sure that you can use this as a grid for actually identifying … I don’t think that’s… what was striking me when I was … two things striking me when my colleagues responded. One was that we need to give some thought to how the subject specialists are educated in their subjects before they come to school, and do they have the knowledge of how that subject relates to the world, how it progresses, a whole lot of things that they often are ill-prepared to engage with, which in fact pupils could engage with, and I think that is an issue which we do not seriously address.

I think the issue about creativity, I’m very worried about the fashion for creativity, deeply worried. I think it’s part of something that in fact Christine you’ve written about, it’s part of this obsession, and I’m not sure where it comes from, for genericism, for actually thinking that there are these generic capabilities that can be abstracted from any content and then mapped back on to the content. I think it’s very, very misleading because there’s no creativity that actually develops in that kind of way at all. In a sense you actually have to stay with the content of a particular thing, whether it’s history or physics or whatever it is, and when you do –

Gerard Kelly

Or dance or music.

Michael Young

Or dance or music, exactly, and I was hearing, Kevin will remember, a really, really interesting talk which worried me about art education, what’s happening to art teaching in schools. I know absolutely nothing about art teaching in schools but what I gathered was that in a sense gradually there was a shift from thinking to doing, that in fact the emphasis was increasingly on what the student did and not putting the student in any kind of relationship to art in the broader sense of where it’s come from and why and so forth. And therefore they were ill-equipped to actually move into a professional or academic, whatever, world as well. So I do think that the genericism is something that we have to find a way of tackling, because when it comes to it, it’s actually a form of accountability, not a form of curricula knowledge. It’s a neat form of accountability and we have to resist it.

Gerard Kelly

I think some of the fear about, especially from those subjects that fear that they are being squeezed out of the curriculum by the new curriculum and by this kind of agenda, is that there is a priority, a hierarchy of subjects, and that the less regarded subjects, because they’re less regarded, will be less well taught.

That’s a perfectly valid fear, isn’t it?

Michael Young

That’s a fear but that’s a different kind of thing. That’s a completely different issue. That’s an issue that  I think is related to the misplaced view that schools are about preparing people for an economy, and that somehow or other STEM is the solution to the economy and the more you focus on STEM, in a way, the less it will actually do what you want it to do. The interesting thing, there’s a brilliant book by David Baker, who does an interesting comparison. He’s very critical of human capital theory, which is where this comes from, and he’s saying actually that in fact human capital theory is actually exactly the same as the Marxists, that both of them actually see schools as sources for an economy, one that the economy will collapse and one that it will grow, and there’s no focus on in a sense what are the schools for?

Carolyn Roberts

For me the issue is less abstract and more pressing than that. It’s that the smaller subjects, if we want to call them that, aren’t being pushed out by anything other than accountability measures, and it’s accountability measures that rule our lives and that is insufficiently understood, so the fear of accountability measures, the terror of what the GCSE results might look like, and whichever whim we’ll be measured by the next year is what drives a cautious and narrow curriculum. And it’s a brave school that preserves compulsory languages or compulsory drama in that circumstance.

Gerard Kelly

Is that what you would advise, Tim? You would not bow to accountability measures.

Tim Oates

I’m going to take that back to your original question, which is what do we think we’ve got with the national curriculum which was implemented recently. So first of all it’s very important to, s I’ve said many times, not to confuse the national curriculum with the school curriculum. The school curriculum can be exiting, motivating, chock full of the context which will motivate particular children in particular circumstances, but I think Michael’s analysis shows that you include a description of that in a national curriculum at your peril. That’s really very, very important.

The other thing which is an implication which Michael and I have not unpacked perhaps enough, but we’re doing a lot of work on in Cambridge, is the extent to which we are talking about foundational knowledge. We’re not talking about presenting the totality of human knowledge to a child immediately. There were certain foundational building blocks which are very challenging which young people have to acquire and build one on the other as they move towards more elaborated knowledge and discipline areas. Some of these, such as an understanding of energy, all the evidence about young people aged 10 and 12, they find these things unbelievably difficult and the learning is often full of misconceptions. So the idea of foundational building blocks is absolutely fundamental to the curriculum and I do hope that that’s something which we paid a great deal of attention to in the formulation of the curriculum which has now been implemented.

Gerard Kelly

OK. There’s another area I want to explore which is about misguided disciples, people who’ve got an incomplete or wrong view of any kind of new thinking. So you start with a Martin Luther, before you know it you’re knee deep in Anabaptists.

<Laughter>

People just get the wrong idea, so for instance Hirsch, obviously your thinking is aligned to his, do you think his work and your work has been misrepresented, and if so, how? What are the most common ways in which it’s misrepresented?

Michael Young

I’d just start by … I didn’t manage to come to the talks that Hirsch gave when he was here, but I did read a little bit about his earlier history in the democratic movement in the United States, and whatever else you’d say about Hirsch, he’s not a kind of classic conservative, and it’s worth saying, but that’s not …

Gerard Kelly

Michael, let me just say, he was interviewed a few months ago by the TES, I don’t know if you saw it, so he was basically asked about pedagogy and basically what he thought about how children should be taught, and he basically said he was agnostic. There are people who were going around at the time saying, ‘As Hirsch makes clear,’ I quote, ‘a traditional teaching of knowledge, not progressive methods, foster a child’s self-esteem.’ And he said in response to that, ‘It would be astonishing to me if there are schools that are just pumping knowledge into kids by rote as if they were learning the Koran. The truth is you can have a defined curriculum and use all sorts of progressive methods to deliver it. If the kids get the results and you can prove it works, then do it. Who cares how you deliver it as long as it gets into the minds of the children and they’re happy.’ Do you agree?

Michael Young

No.

<Laughter>

Gerard Kelly

Explain why!

Michael Young

I’d just like to say very briefly two things. One, to echo and to emphasise the point that Tim made about the relationship between a national curriculum specified and the school curriculum interpreting the national curriculum in their context. I think first of all that is a very, very important and therefore very often schools, and I think there was indication for this with what Carolyn was saying, and I was very struck by it when I think your heard your General Secretary’s idea about different types of schools, if you are a confident school then you won’t treat the national curriculum as if it’s your curriculum. You will actually have a curriculum for interpreting the national curriculum. But if you’re not a confident school, the only thing you do is to try and follow it as if it was, and I think that’s quite an important thing.

Misguided … the other thing I wanted to say is –

Gerard Kelly

Why is Hirsch wrong? Why do you think Hirsch is wrong?

Michael Young

Where I think Hirsch is wrong is because I actually think that the pedagogy is a distinct, it’s obviously not separate from curriculum but it is actually a very important theoretical practice. We don’t do all that much teaching research on it, and to be able to say it doesn’t matter how they teach as long as you’ve got the curriculum right, I think actually is misguided, because people are not going to take pedagogy seriously. I get worried, and I think there’s some truth in the Gove criticism here, that in a sense that some people took pedagogy so seriously they’ve forgotten about the curriculum and the difficulty is holding the two I think, because if you focus only on the curriculum and forget about pedagogy you just get memorisation and regurgitation. If you get only pedagogy, you get happy days but you don’t learn anything, and I think holding the two … I think we have to accept the fact that it’s first of all really difficult and secondly that we’ve got to trust our teachers more if we want them to actually take on the difficult things, ‘cause we trust other professions but we aren’t very good at trusting teachers.

Carolyn Roberts

I’d like to make two points and I hope they’re not too tangential. I don’t think they are. It’s quite tricky in schools to define for a teaching staff what curriculum thinking actually is, because teachers, by necessity, conflate the national curriculum with the school curriculum, but most of all the exam board specification, so that’s what drives the curriculum content and we do it backwards and we say let’s strip everything out, let’s look at what we want to teach from year 7 upwards, this is really important, we’ve got no presuppositions, you can teach what you like, and the first thing that a head of department does is to reach for the ‘A’ level specification and work backwards from there. So that’s a real issue and that’s to do with accountability. There’s nothing wrong with schooling that can’t be laid at the door of crass accountability measures.

And the other misconception, which no one’s touched on yet, but Michael said that we weren’t Gove and that’s very true … is that powerful knowledge is not the same as the EBac. There’s a feeling out there that schools that are really going for the knowledge-based curriculum and all the people who tweet and other things all the time and blog and all that stuff, there’s I think a mistake being made that the EBac, that if you cover the EBac, well then you’ve got the knowledge debate right, and they’re actually two different things.

Gerard Kelly

Tim, would you agree with that?

Tim Oates

Yes, and I want to go back also to the history of Hirsch.

I’ll come back to the EBac issues I think and about how you steer education systems. So anybody interested in ED Hirsch, just read his history. He became interested in all this stuff, which is a real divergence from the work that he was doing for many, many years, because he was really bothered about the fact that certain groups, particularly young black males in the States, just couldn’t have access to the kind of literature that he was teaching them because they just didn’t understand the … they had no knowledge of the signals, the cultural signifiers in the text, and so on and so on. It was a profoundly progressive analysis based on equity, so forget all this … he was indeed appropriated then by a whole series of groups, sometimes misrepresented but certainly his origins are very interesting and it’s worthwhile reading about him.

The fact that he says he’s agnostic about pedagogy, that is just probably a defensive statement.

Gerard Kelly

It was his words.

Tim Oates

Yeah, I know, but in this kind of setting you say you can be agnostic about it ‘cause you just don’t want to talk about the detail of it and don’t want to be vulnerable about the –

Gerard Kelly

Well he just said that pedagogy is highly variable, is very context-dependent.

Tim Oates

That’s good, that’s good. And the key thing there is would I argue that anything goes in terms of pedagogy? No. And Lucy Crehan, who’s in the audience, has done some really lovely work comparing different systems, and there’s a great exchange in one of the chapters where a Canadian kid, the comment on doing the maths wrong is, ‘You’ve been terribly creative.’ Whereas in a Confucian setting it’s, ‘That’s not right. You need to put more effort into understanding it.’ And that is very liberating, that second view, because it means that with more effort that mathematics is accessible to anyone, which is exactly what Michael was actually saying about a truly liberatory curriculum and liberatory pedagogy, really, really important, so I think some forms of pedagogy are tied very much to models of learning which are antithetical to the powerful knowledge thesis. That’s a real problem.

Gerard Kelly

Let’s move on to talk a little bit, before I expand the discussion out to the audience, about the politics, because Robin Alexander said, for instance, among others, that a lot of this drive towards a powerful knowledge curriculum is based on what he called PISA panic, that basically you look at all these high performing jurisdictions, Singapore, China, and you get the wrong lessons from them, basically that ah, it’s because they’ve got a knowledge-based, powerful knowledge curriculum and actually it’s a lot to do with cultural factors. I paraphrase madly by saying it’s a surfeit of tiger mothers, it’s nothing to do with … or little to do with powerful knowledge. What do you say to that?

Michael Young

Robin Alexander doesn’t like being challenged too much. He thinks he’s king of primary education and he’s certainly the leading researcher in that field, and therefore I can understand that he feels a bit upset. I’ve never met him so it’s not really a personal thing, but nevertheless it does strike me … one of the things that I’ve always been, and I’d love to do some proper research on this, I’ve always been puzzled by is that in fact the enormous differences between the private and the state primary curriculum from the age of five or six, that in fact the private primary curriculum, which as you know is called the preparatory schools, they actually see no reason why you shouldn’t engage pupils with subjects at the age of six or seven or even earlier, and that’s been part of their history for obvious practical reasons, not because they’ve had any great theory or anything, but they are preparing people for a common entrance examination, to get to the public schools and get their kids in, because if they don’t they won’t recruit next time. So it’s not wonderful about them but it is just true. But I do think that, it does make me wonder, the history of why the primary education for the majority, for the mass of people in this country actually postpones access to knowledge, and I’ve found it very un-researched indeed area, and I just raise it. I have no particular brief for global explanations in relation to PISA. The relationship between a knowledge-led curriculum and PISA seems to be tangential given the kind of tests, but that’s a separate issue. I mean in fact you would train them in generic skills if you wanted them to do well at PISA and nobody is in fact saying that.

I came to this from two quite different routes. Academic, not political and in a sense I came to it partly from the work I was doing in the nineties on vocational education, because what absolutely hit me was that in fact unlike in countries like Germany, in fact as soon as you towards a vocational course here it’s assumed that you don’t need to think. It’s assumed that you only do. And the competence model developed, and that’s what we had for NVQs and the slightly more liberal version of CNVQs, GNVQs and so forth, and that was where I started, I think. And the other part, the other factor, and trying to actually say well, what’s the knowledge of a vocation? If it’s vocational education, then it must have a core knowledge component. The other part that influenced me enormously, I was talking a little bit to [65:39] about it, was in fact the experience of being a consultant in South Africa in the 1990s and actually seeing what happened when they tried to introduce a broad-based outcomes curriculum that was democratic and you couldn’t take issue with it, but in fact it was completely useless for the teachers. They didn’t know what to do with it, because there was no knowledge specification in that curriculum at all. And in a sense it was hardly an advance on apartheid although politically it was.

Gerard Kelly

Sadly absent and missed Professor Alexander, Tim, also goes on to point out that most national curriculum are based on essential knowledge in key subjects, basket cases and successes alike. So singing up to powerful knowledge or things like that, what Michael calls curricular justice I think, isn’t so important as the conditions and practices with which the curriculum can be delivered. Is he right?

Tim Oates

I’d agree very much with the drift of that analysis, but there is another nuance around it, around Robin’s analysis, which I do take some exception to. It is absolutely critical, as he says, to understand the cultural characteristics and setting of education and it explains a lot about the difference between different systems and the way in which learning unfolds. But I want culture to be more than just an object of curiosity for researchers undertaking cultural analysis. Unlike Robin, I think that the idea of deliberately making the culture in your school object of policy and management is really critical, and that we can learn from the form of culture in schools in other national settings for the type of culture and expectations we have in our own schools in England. I argue a sense for far more attention than has been paid to culture in the past.

Gerard Kelly

And Michael, especially given your background on the left, I wanted to ask you, why do you think the left has ceded this territory. Why is powerful knowledge been abandoned to the right?

Michael Young

I asked myself that question many times, and I have lost friends and colleagues, good friends who I have a lot of affection and respect for, who have taken a totally opposite view and it’s been a painful experience to me; very, very, very, very, and I certainly wouldn’t want to generalise too much from the small expression that I have. I think that there is a kind of romanticism on the left which basically thinks that at some point or other capitalism will collapse and that therefore we don’t need to think about what happens on the way there. Now capitalism has not shown a lot of likelihood doing that. It’s changed and all kinds of things but I think that’s part of it. I’m very, very taken by, some of you have read Paul Mason’s new book on post-capitalism. If you haven’t read it, it’s a rivetingly good read. You might not agree with it, but it’s a rivetingly good read. One of the things he does mention, and it’s brave of him this, at every point where the working class look as though they were becoming powerful, they ducked out and went for compromise. That in fact in a sense Marx got that completely wrong, actually, sadly, or not, or whatever you like to think. So that’s a factor.

Gerard Kelly

I’m sure the Mensheviks would agree, would they?

Michael Young

<Laughs> Yes I think they would, they would agree you see! They’re the only ones, yes they would! So I think obviously it’s unfair to label the left as a whole but I think we may get a difference in the new younger left, but people who’ve spent a long time … let me put it another way, people on the left who’ve basically seen their identities as critics, as critics of a system that in fact is unfair, an nobody would disagree with the fact that we have an unfair, unequal system. And the idea that you might be able to come up with something that was not just a criticism but an alternative was actually too much for them. They couldn’t make that step. Or to put it crudely, and a slight throw off if you’ll excuse me, they read too much Foucault.

Gerard Kelly

Caroline, you want to say something?

Carolyn Roberts

Yeah, I’d like to put a bit of context behind this business of why the left is in the position that it is, and speaking as a socialist and a feminist I would just like to plant my colours firmly there. Left wing teachers have often been attracted to and very committed to, and done long service in, very difficult schools in difficult areas, and that’s really important to recognise that. Now Rob Coe from Durham University can’t be persuaded to say much that’s very clear that a school can translate into immediate action, but what he –

<Laughter>

No, no, and I’m absolutely not criticising him for that –

Michael Young

I think that’s the most cutting remark I’ve heard in years, Carolyn!

Carolyn Roberts

But what he does say, and I educated all three of his children incidentally, is that children learn things when they’ve got to think really hard. That’s about all he’ll be committed to. Children learn when they’ve got to think really hard. Now if you are teaching in an area historically where the link between education and any kind of success in life is hard to see, well then it’s really hard to overcome the natural adolescent reluctance to think really hard. And therefore if you are simultaneously being pressed to put results up like that, you’ve got to do things in which adolescents cannot really have to think really hard, and therefore the left became attached to qualifications and a way of teaching and specifications that didn’t mean that children had to think really hard, because it’s really hard work doing that! It’s hard doing that, you’ve got to be a brilliant teacher to do that. And it gets wearing after 30 years, and so there’s a context to understand, which is what I referred to earlier, which is that we underplay the importance of behaviour and community, what you were talking about in terms of school culture in this whole powerful knowledge debate. It’s really important.

Gerard Kelly

Tim, you want to say something, and then I’ll go over to the audience.

Tim Oates

So this issue of appropriation by particular political communities I think is fascinating because if you go back to the discourse around the Workers’ Education Association during the 1920s and 1930s, then what you’ve heard this evening is in those texts. It was all about giving access to the curriculum of those who attended only certain institutions. And so I’ve asked myself this question and asked a lot of people the same question and looked at a lot of literature. Where would I put my finger? I would put my finger on a very odd mixture of post-modernist theory and theory around the structure of knowledge. And John White … John’s not here tonight so it’s unfair to talk about him I guess, but John …

Gerard Kelly

Robin Coe, sorry Robert Coe, Robin Alexander, we’ve trashed them all! You might as well continue in similar vein!

Carolyn Roberts

Fan of Coe, fan of Coe!

<Laghter>

Tim Oates

So lack of equity in the social relations which give rise to particular knowledge is not a basis for criticising the content of that knowledge, and it’s been terribly, terribly [74:44]. To talk about bourgeois knowledge, it’s legitimate because many of our great natural scientists during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were incredibly privileged individuals, leading incredibly privileged lives, but 240 volts really hurts! That’s just the way it is! Resistance behaves the way it wants to behave. It is powerful knowledge, and if you don’t have it, it actually is highly predictive of bad life outcomes.

Gerard Kelly

Michael, just one –

Michael Young

It was just one point which I think Carolyn touched on and I wanted just to say again from the point of view of the left, and that was I think my experience in South Africa was quite a help to me in learning this: that in fact we can be democratic about access but the actual activity of teaching is not a democratic one. It’s one between somebody who knows and somebody who doesn’t know but wants to know, and there’s an authority relationship of a particular kind, and I think that is tricky for if you are a democrat. If you’re on the left, you go for Paulo Freire, lovely man, great, learnt a lot, not always treated very accurately, but he gives you a feeling that in a sense that if you want democracy you have a democratic system, whereas actually the pedagogy in the school is not going to be a democracy in the process, and I think that was something that the left found extremely difficult and I went through that myself, so I can speak … when I read Pedagogy of the Oppressed I thought it was the most wonderful book I’d ever read, but that was a long time ago.

Tim Oates

And Gabriel Heller Sahlgren in Real Finnish Lessons, people miss this often ‘cause they read over it, he quotes Hannah Arendt in The Crisis of Education, 1954. Hannah Arendt’s position in liberatory politics, very interesting. Quote: ‘The problem with education in the modern world lies in the fact that by its very nature, it cannot forgo either authority or tradition, and yet must proceed in a world that’s neither structured by authority nor held together by tradition.’ It’s a brilliant quote.

Gerard Kelly

Well with that, let me ask the audience. I’ve wittered on enough. Questions?

Unknown speaker [77:22]

Thank you all three presenters for some fascinating presentations. Carolyn, you mentioned that one of the enormous problems in curriculum planning in schools is the growing vogue for tracking back from assessment objectives and imaging that that is curriculum planning. I’d strongly agree that. I’ve been in many, many schools where you find that people will proudly present to you that your year 7s can answer a four-mark describe answer and a six-mark explain answer, and they’re busy doing that for five years, because these proxy genres that have been invented for GCSE are deemed to be the curriculum. Now you mentioned accountability culture and laid a lot of blame at the door of the accountability culture. Well maybe … but how far is the problem also a lack of knowledge in schools, in teachers and senior leaders, about curricula, about the relationship between the domain of the curriculum and the test, so that we don’t necessarily have capacity in our collective professional knowledge to think about curricula.

Carolyn Roberts

Yes, absolutely. Where shall I start? It’s really hard, if you set aside a training day for example, for people to sit in their departments and think about the curriculum and what should be in it, what they’d want to teach in a dream world. You’ve almost got to confiscate any kind of written information from the exam boards, ‘cause otherwise they just won’t think about it. They just won’t think about it. I have a question which I ask at interview, towards the end of the interview, I say to teachers, ‘What are you reading at the moment?’ And if they can give me a reasonable answer, even if it’s a children’s book to their six-year-old, or detective fiction or the latest thing about their own subject, those are all better answers than ‘I’m really reading about key stage 3, life after the levels’. I don’t want to know that! I really don’t want to know that. I want to know what they’re doing to understand their subject better and to keep their knowledge levels up.

And the third problem is to do with the fact that some of the brightest and the best young teachers now have absolutely no conception of what designing your own curriculum is. And actually I say young teachers, I am by no means a spring chicken and yet (I hear the cries of oh surely not …)

<Laughter>

But yet, I was only able to carry on thinking about the curriculum and thinking about what I wanted to teach because I was an RE specialist, so I could invent it for myself everywhere I went, whereas it’s almost gone, it’s a skill that needs to be retaught and we haven’t got time in school to reteach it.

Tim Oates

You and I have discussed history. I was with some physicists recently. These are leading physicists from a leading research laboratory in Cambridge, and they were going through the ‘A’ level syllabus for physics and they said, ‘Don’t need that, don’t need that, don’t need that, don’t need that … yeah, need that, don’t need that, don’t need that.’ The point is that yes, absolutely our qualifications drive the curriculum, in exactly the reductivist way you describe and accountability has adversely affected curriculum development. And the problem is that what we then put into qualifications is not necessarily mobilised by the same kind of approach to powerful knowledge which Michael’s actually advocating.

So in Cambridge Assessment we develop qualifications, we always emphasise the constructs, what are the constructs and how do they help somebody progress in education onto the next stage or into society and so on? And unfortunately our qualifications in many cases have been appropriated by specifications which incorporate things of very dubious provenance, of the kind that you describe, because of those proxy genres.

Gerard Kelly

Any more questions? There’s Sir John Dunford there, looking regal.

Sir John Dunford, Chair of Whole Education

Thank you! Thank you very much indeed for those presentations. I’m really wearing my hat tonight as Chair of Whole Education and so I want to bring a note of optimism to the proceedings because Whole Education is a network of schools that really is exploring that space between the size of the school curriculum and the size of the bit you’ve got to do that’s driven by accountability and syllabuses and so on, and they’re recognising that in that space, and I’m partly talking too because of my work around disadvantaged kids with Pupil Premium, that I think it is particularly important for disadvantaged children to have a both and curriculum. A rigorous curriculum, yes, but a curriculum that embraces both knowledge and skills and personal qualities and plans the development of those in a planned way, and actually primary schools are better at doing that than secondary schools, because of the way they’re structured. In secondary schools you’ve got a child having fourteen different teachers, you’ve got to really plan it very carefully. So my question to the panel is do you accept that if you regard the pedagogy, if you like, of this both and curriculum as a warp and a weft, you don’t give up teaching knowledge while you teach skills; you map the teaching of the skills onto the teaching of knowledge and then you can do both.

Michael Young

Well, this may sound a slightly theoretical answer, it’s a long time since I’ve taught. I used to teach chemistry many years ago in a secondary school, but I think the issue is important but in fact the separation is misplaced, because there are no skills that are knowledge-free. There is not anything that one could do worthwhile in a school that in fact is teaching skills and similarly there is no knowledge you can acquire without skills. In a sense the divide is a problem and in a sense once we get beyond it, we start thinking about different fields, whether they are design and technology or ancient Greek or whatever it is, we can see knowledge and skills in relation to whatever the field is, and I think that’s the step I would want to take, I really would. And I don’t think we would desperately disagree at all on that, but I think that it goes back to the totally misplaced notion, because schools don’t do that anymore and even if they did … but somehow that they’re preparing for the labour market. Now there isn’t a labour market for young people now. There isn’t, except in part-time occasional work, zero hour, things like that, there isn’t a labour market. You’re preparing people for a very uncertain future and the knowledge agenda that doesn’t actually take skills seriously I think will fail itself. That’s my response.

Gerard Kelly

Anybody got a sceptical question?

Unknown speaker [85:22]

I think that Hirsch is a good bloke and I think Michael Gove is a good bloke, but the problem that I have is that the cultural argument has never really been won for powerful knowledge, the political argument’s never really been won, and so you have this situation where the Tory government have created these [85:41] within schools but the way that it works itself out at the coalface, no matter what way you spin it, at the end of the day I think Carolyn’s right that what it’s reduced to effectively is the teachers teaching to the test, because they feel under pressure with the assessment measures, and so that leads me to a question – it might be a ridiculous question, but when you look at what a school is for, is there not a disjuncture between the original [86:12 aim] of role allocation, where we have these exams, we try to get them into particular jobs, universities, etc. and the Matthew Arnold idea of the best that’s been thought and said? Is it possible to create an education system where we can teach the best that’s thought and said and known without the bizarre pressure where the thing that’s supposed to measure that [86:37 IA] the process of passing on that knowledge?

Gerard Kelly

So basically how can you have a powerful knowledge curriculum if teachers feel powerless?

Carolyn Roberts

I dunno!

<Laughter>

Because that made me muse about where we’ve got to, for example, with key stage 3, so everyone’s using this ghastly phrase, ‘life after levels’ and what we’re meant to be doing with key stage 3, and so we had a fancy system where departments are setting up the threshold concepts that move children from one lot of learning to the next and that’s how we’ll measure the kind of success that’s happening, but if you take your eye off teachers for a second they go back to levelling things, because they think that’ll protect them against the wrath to come at the end of year. And it’s a really difficult positon to be in. We’re not talking yet about teacher recruitment and the issue with teacher recruitment, because everything that we want to do relies on three things, clever, committed and available teachers. So I dunno.

Gerard Kelly

Do you have an answer, Tim?

Tim Oates

I’m going to come back to John, actually, just briefly. I think in your both and, I think you’re absolutely right and it’s the and that I emphasised in a paper a while ago. The framework of knowledge, skills and personal qualities, that’s absolutely critical as an audit tool for any curriculum, whether it’s in this country or anywhere else. And I think you have to ask in what balance do they exist, how are they distributed and what instruments guarantee that they are delivered. And I think that’s a really good way of looking at things. And of course over time how you sequence acquisition as you move through those three pillars as it were. I don’t think that necessary implies very complex cross-curriculum approaches actually, which are often typically unmanageable either in primary or in secondary. And the best way of illustrating that is reading. Reading is cross-curricular by its very nature. There’s nothing as narrowing as not being able to read. You have to read some things, and you can look at the breadth of what people read. And I want to go back to something I said which we haven’t highlighted, Helena Badzi’s work on working memory. It is right that in certain settings and in certain national systems, and I think it is right in ours too, that kids should remember their times tables, they should be able to recall them automatically. Why? Because it frees up the working memory for higher analytical thinking. If you haven’t got those automatically located in cognition, you have to work it out every time and it prevents you from getting access to the higher order work which we know is critical in terms of real educational progression.

But John, yes, we should never lose sight of those three and we need to look at how they are combined in well-designed curricula and how they’re sequenced.

Gerard Kelly

I think we’ve got time for just two more questions so I think the lady there.

Unknown Speaker [89:52]

I’m from an education charity called City Year and I agree with what’s been said about having a balance between skills and knowledge, and part of what we do in schools is help children face their challenges and barrier with academic and we them in the right mindset so they can acquire knowledge. We work mostly with their emotional and social side and I feel like it’s worked well in intrinsically motivating children to wanting to learn. It’s made them want to gain knowledge and I feel like it’s something that should be implemented in schools, but it isn’t implemented in all schools. How do you feel about implementing social and emotional learning in schools and do you think it will work?

Michael Young

I get worried about the emphasis on emotional learning for two reasons. One is that learning anything, if you are involved in it, is emotional, that in fact there isn’t something separate called emotional learning, and I think that it actually is often seen as a solution to kids who’ve found it difficult to learn, and therefore it may actually exaggerate the problems that they are in. So I think it has to be addressed in a way that actually looks at pedagogy as a whole and asks the questions about the relationship between the teacher and their classes in that way, rather than something that’s been hived out by an academic discipline, something like emotional intelligence as well as ordinary intelligence. I am unhappy about that, quite honestly.

Carolyn Roberts

I’ll make one comment about that. Yes, it’s really important, but you predicate a deficit model there. Social and emotional aspects of learning ought to be dealt with by the way that a school runs and the way that a school cares for its students. It shouldn’t have to be done separately.

Martin [92:23]

I think for me, one of the most important things said tonight was said quite early, which was that if a national curriculum or a total school curriculum is designed appropriately, it ought to be one which is appropriate for all children and learners and this was passed by a bit. I’m assuming we’re talking from early years at least to the end of lower secondary. I think that this is, in terms of practical policy directions, one of the most important things said tonight, and it’s clearly off the radar. How do we get it back on?

Gerard Kelly

I’m not exactly clear. So you’re basing your –

Michael Young

I’m clear.

Gerard Kelly

Oh, you are? OK.

Michael Young

How do we restore, or actually build one for the very first time.

Gerard

And lady here, you wanted a question?

Unknown speaker [93:43]

I think Carolyn and Tim have touched on this slightly. You mentioned how you would find it quite daunting, or some teachers find it daunting to make a knowledge-based curriculum. Does that not boil down to teachers who are entering the profession having quite shoddy subject knowledge because it’s not a priority in ICT? And I do think it’s unachievable, I believe in knowledge completely but I think it’s unachievable in ICT, purely because you as the tutors have … they very much endorsed progressive ideals of education in their university practice, so you have a disjuncture between teachers who believe in knowledge and university providers and trainers who want to produce teachers of really high quality but don’t value knowledge explicitly as much as they value skills in pedagogy and behaviour management.

Gerard Kelly

OK, so Michael if you answer the how do we bring knowledge [94:40 forward] back onto the agenda, and one of you say about ICT. Michael?

Michael Young

I’d rather leave the others to say something about future education but I’d just like to pick up on, if I’ve understood the point you make, I think in a sense what you were saying was that in fact you picked up something which we all, I think, agree with, but I said at the beginning – that in fact the debate must be about a powerful knowledge curriculum for all pupils and in fact we haven’t really examined that element of it as much as we should and I think in so far as I’ve been involved in the powerful knowledge debate, writing and so forth, I think that that has been neglected. Focus has been on what is this thing, powerful knowledge, rather than for instance the issue which I just touched on in my talk: if a school takes on the issue of powerful knowledge seriously, it’s then got to ask in fact, how are teachers in their practice in the classroom extending pupil’s knowledge in what they do? It’s not just curriculum, it’s actually focussing on, in a sense, and I think it shifts it, it becomes a question about practice and about the criteria for good professional practice, as much as it does about curriculum. And I think if we made that shift, it would be quite an important step, if I’ve understood you right.

That was why I was so impressed with that email I got because clearly in some kind of way –

Gerard Kelly

The special needs teacher?

Michael Young

Yes, they were trying to do this with kids who clearly … they were refusing to accept the categorisation that those pupils came with.

Gerard Kelly

And shoddy ICT?

Carolyn Roberts

I think it’s a bit unfair to lay that entirely at the door of the universities. One goes shopping for a bright young thing to take on to the staff and you find yourself a bright young head of department with a Cambridge degree perhaps, and then you discover, because that young person in her late twenties, that actually what that person knows is what they’ve been examined on during the course of their school life and not much else in between. And so I think the problem, one of the problems that we face is what we did to education for the last twenty years. So it’s not that the universities are necessarily anti knowledge and not understanding enough. It’s that we’ve been producing people coming through schools who can past tests but who don’t know how to pursue knowledge for its own purposes for the rest of their lives.

Gerard Kelly

Thank you. Sadly we’ve run out of time, [97:42 IA]. I’d like to thank Michael and Tim and Carolyn. I’d also like to thank ASCL and Policy Exchange for hosting this evening. Thank you all for turning up on a rather wet Tuesday afternoon, and I hope you have a good evening. Thank you.

<Applause>

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Jonathan Simons

Jonathan Simons
Director of Policy and Advocacy, Varkey Foundation Read Full Bio

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