If this reads less like a blog than a promotion, so be it.
Cambridge Primary Review Trust maintains CPR’s maxim that what primary education needs is vision and evidence. Not one or the other, but both. For, as the CPR final report noted (Children, their World, their Education, pp 16-17):
The Cambridge Primary Review is firmly grounded in evidence … But not all educational questions are empirical. Many are ethical, for education is a fundamentally moral affair, while others move forward from evidence into territory which is more speculative … This, then, is the age-old distinction between ‘is’ and ‘ought’ questions, or questions of fact and value, or what in the Review we have called matters of evidence and vision, and we readily understand that knowing what is the case may provide no guide at all to determining what ought to be. Indeed, philosophers warn us, as a condition of argument at its most elementary level, of the dangers of making this leap. They even give such errant thinking a name: the naturalistic fallacy. To take two examples, just because primary children’s school lives have been dominated since Victorian days by the 3Rs, or during the same period most children have been taught by generalist class teachers, this does not mean that such practices are inherently right or that they ought to continue indefinitely.
Existing assumptions and practices are there, then, to be questioned for what they are – habits of thought and action which are so deeply ingrained that most people don’t pause to think about them … Equally, through the diligent use of evidence we can uncover the weaknesses of a particular aspect of education, but that evidence of itself may offer no clues to how to put things right. What may be needed is some lateral, not to say visionary, thinking.
So while the fashionable mantra ‘evidence-based practice’ properly reminds us of the need for educational decisions to be grounded as securely as possible in what is known about productive learning and teaching, it tells us rather less about the educational ends to which such learning and teaching should be directed; that is, by what criteria learning should be judged ‘productive’. Hence the extensive discussion of educational aims in the CPR final report, and the eight priorities to which much of CPRT’s work is directed. Turn that round though, and we see that aims and priorities on their own are not enough either, for grand ideas don’t morph into practical and effective teaching strategies without the application of experience and evidence.
Yet the evidence-vision relationship is complex too. Another example: education for sustainability matters because the evidence clearly shows that the current habits and practices of humankind will, if pursued unchecked, make life on much of our planet unsustainable. But for some, sustainability matters regardless of this evidence, because they believe as a moral imperative that the world we share should be respected and nourished rather than exploited for profit or convenience. And some people have held to this view for many centuries before others became alarmed by the evidence on climate change, environmental degradation and species extinction.
We hope that discussion of both dimensions – is/ought, fact/value, evidence/vision – will be provoked by the next round of research reviews that CPRT is pleased to announce today. So far we have published reports and briefings from three of these reviews. Two more from the first series are on their way, and another seven have just been agreed with their various authors. Here’s the full list.
- Wynne Harlen, Assessment, standards and quality of learning in primary education (published November 2014).
- Carol Robinson, Children, their voices and their experiences of school: what does the evidence tell us? (published December 2014)
- Usha Goswami, Children’s cognitive development and learning (published February 2015).
- Kate Pickett and Laura Vanderbloemen, Social and educational inequality: what does the evidence tell us and how can we close the gaps?
- David Hogan, Dennis Kwek and Peter Renshaw, Research on teaching: what do we know and how should we act?
- Douglas Bourn, Nicole Blum, Frances Hunt and Helen Lawson, Primary education for sustainability, global understanding and citizenship.
- Michael Jopling, Vulnerable children: circumstances, needs and provision in the primary phase.
- Carol Burnett, Digital futures: implications for learning and teaching in the primary school.
- Mel Ainscow, Alan Dyson and Lise Hopwood, Demographic change, migration and cultural diversity: implications for primary schooling.
- Olwen McNamara and Jean Murray, How should primary teachers be trained? Policy and evidence.
- Warwick Mansell, The systemic reform of primary education since 2008: what does the evidence tell us?
- Kathy Hall and Kamil Øzerk, Autonomy, accountability and quality assurance in primary education: England and other countries.
The first three reports above, on assessment, voice and learning, are updates of reports published by the Cambridge Primary Review. These are areas where because evidence has accumulated or policy has changed such revisiting is essential. I say ‘changed’ rather than ‘advanced’ because while evidence, properly assembled, respects and builds on what has gone before, the same can less frequently be said for policy, especially in education. To ‘advance’ implies both forward momentum and improvement, whereas all too often education policy offers neither, swinging pendulum-fashion back and forth between hackneyed value extremes or endlessly reinventing, retreading or renaming wheels that, more often than not, are not even round.
Some of the reviews not only revisit earlier CPR evidence but also invite back the same authors as in 2006-10. Wynne Harlen, Carol Robinson, Usha Goswami, Mel Ainscow, Alan Dyson, Olwen McNamara, Kathy Hall and Kamil Øzerk are all old CPR hands. Their length of engagement with the issues in question, far exceeding that of any ‘here today gone tomorrow’ minister, will be invaluable.
Other reviews in this series tackle issues that featured in CPR but have acquired even greater prominence since then. Such issues are broadly social as well as more specifically educational. Among them are the continuing digital revolution which, alongside its benefits, provokes anxieties about the way digital media dominate young children’s lives and the nature of the material to which they have access. Demographic change and migration, pervasive in the evidence collected by CPR, are even more highly charged politically now than they were then. They raise questions ranging from identity and social cohesion to the professional practicalities of handling, within a single classroom, many languages, cultures and faiths. Education for sustainability and global understanding is prominent of course, not just because it is increasingly urgent but also because it is prioritised in the UN’s post-2015 global education agenda. Then there’s the old, old division of wealth and opportunity that in the UK, and especially England, is exacerbated by government economic and welfare policies while education ministers scurry in with rather expensive sticking plasters to ‘close the gap’. Who better to assess the evidence on this particular theme than Kate Pickett, co-author of The Spirit Level?
Kate Pickett’s review uses international evidence. The one by Kathy Hall and Kamil Øzerk, both of whom work outside the UK, does so even more explicitly, for they are comparing England’s accountability and quality assurance regimes with those in other countries in order to establish whether, as we are regularly told, there is no alternative to what many see as the tyranny of testing, Ofsted and data, not to mention those ministerial threats about ‘coasting’ and enforced change in schools’ legal status. Linked with this is Warwick Mansell’s re-assessment of the trajectory of primary education policy as a whole over the past five years; a trajectory studied closely by CPR between 2006 and 2009 – indeed much too closely for the then government, which resorted to pretty questionable tactics in its attempt to neutralise CPR’s findings and smear CPR personnel.
As with the reports so far published, the new reports will be available for viewing, downloading or printing both in full and as three-page briefings. Between them, the twelve studies come to the heart of classroom life while exploring the wider world in which children grow up. Children, their world their education, in fact – and value.