Children have no choice but to be part of an educational experiment

Having worked in the education policy arena for a decade I feel it is high time to comment openly on some of the key features of what really goes on (at least from my perspective).

This could all be summarised in trying to answer the question: “should children be part of an educational experiment?”

What do I mean?

At all levels of an education system there are interest groups who want something specific out of it. This ranges from the children themselves, to their parents or carers, to their teachers, to the operators and managers of the ‘bits’ of system, and finally to the political representatives who are used by us all to help make key choices between overall priorities in the use of scarce resources. In order to know which features of the system can function in the best way to suit these variety of interests, some sort of experimentation is required. Fact of life. Where this becomes difficult is when it is your child or grandchild who is being experimented on. In medicine this is usually brutally straight forward in terms of a matter of life and death. They take the new treatment and hopefully get better. Within education the real benefits are more complicated.

Firstly. How do we know the outcomes of education for children? It is notoriously difficult to measure this fairly and accurately, assuming you know what you are measuring in the first place. The Education Endowment Foundation is applying ‘toolkit’ criteria to proposals that it funds for new approaches to teaching groups of a 100 or more children, especially those from a less privileged background. This is not a hard and fast science.

Secondly. What methodological and ethical issues are there in experimenting with a child’s education? The recently published ‘Geek Manifesto’ has advocated evidence-based experiments in education with controls to ensure that this is done as scientifically as possible. This is not new. Arguably all of education is an experiment. What matters is those upon whom the experimentation is being done and those who are acting as the intermediaries i.e. the teachers, parents and carers. They need to have some sense of control given the issues in my first point about measurement of outcomes.

Finally. Is this what we really want from an education system? This of course begs the question, what do we mean by ‘education’ and ‘system’? A whole committee meeting can spend hours discussing this one if you let them loose on it! Political parties make (sometimes rash) promises about education as a tool to gain the support of the electorate, though they would put it another way. The best teachers live and breathe education 24/7 and if they rise in the system to headships then they are rightly respected for their determined visions and successful operational leadership, in many cases supported by able governors. Parents are becoming more actively involved in their children’s schools and now increasingly universities, just as they no longer sit and obediently listen to their doctor’s diagnoses. Education has become a truly social activity rather than a top down prescription to remedy a specific national problem i.e. an industrial skills shortage, the health of the troops, an increase in intellectual capital and knowledge base etc.

So what is the answer to the original question? It probably is: “children have no choice, they are part of an educational experiment whether they like it or not.” 

I don’t find this a satisfying answer so would love someone to provide an alternative – PLEASE!