By Caroline Kearney, Education Analyst & Project Manager
Personally, I find that the English Secretary of State’s insistence upon discipline in the classroom sits a little uncomfortably with the recommendations put forward by the Making Education Work report, published this week. An independent advisory group of prominent business leaders, chaired by Professor Sir Roy Anderson, published the report, following their review of England’s education system. The importance of adopting a key competence approach in order to align the school curriculum to the future needs of the economy is one of the main recommendations of the report and reflects the objectives of KeyCoNet – the European Policy Network on Key Competences in School Education, managed by European Schoolnet. The report advises England to adopt a formal framework for key competences, making reference to the existing European framework, to include team working, interpersonal skills, and higher level reasoning skills, which are predicted to become increasingly important in the job market. Some of the report’s recommendations especially resonate with the work of KeyCoNet as well as other projects managed by European Schoolnet, as I explain briefly below.
Michael Gove, the current Secretary of State of Education in England, stated in his recent speech that: ‘’For many years commentators have lamented poor discipline, low standards, entrenched illiteracy, widespread innumeracy, the flight from rigour, and the embrace of soft subjects’’. For this reason since his administration came to power it has relentlessly put an emphasis on a ‘back to basics’ approach and a policy of no tolerance for bad behaviour. This strong focus on discipline in the classroom, with the aim of diminishing disruptive behaviour, seems somewhat at odds with the type of pedagogy necessary for competence based learning. While it is clear that a certain level of discipline is needed in the classroom to ensure that learning takes place, creating a classroom culture where any type of disruption is considered negative could prevent students from developing the very key competences, such as communication and interpersonal skills, much needed in today’s job market.
The literature reviews and case studies resulting from KeyCoNet’s work in the area provide clear evidence that developing students’ key competences requires a social, active and constructivist conception of learning. Key competence friendly approaches require a radical transformation of pedagogical practice aimed at being more innovative, collaborative, cross-curricular, project-based, ICT-enhanced, motivational and student-centred. Moreover, we know from research that transforming the physical learning environment into flexible spaces enabling diversified learning, as well as modifying the timetable, structure and organization of lessons can facilitate a key competence based approach in schools. It is however perhaps difficult to see how such a flexible environment could realistically be implemented in a school context in England where the pressing issue seems to be obtaining control of the classroom. Giving teachers and senior school management more power to punish students and enforce an authoritarian culture of discipline and fear, seems to go very much in the opposite direction. Whether one agrees that this is needed or not, it surely does not create the conditions conducive to foster the approach supported by the Anderson report. Michael Gove’s speech highlights the new freedoms given to teachers and head teachers to impose discipline in their schools. Surely empowering teachers however should not be at the cost of students’ empowerment. After all, we want students to take control of their own learning. The problem is, it is difficult to see how teachers and school management will buy into this new approach, if their primary concern is getting students to behave in a decent enough way to allow for any type of learning in the first place.
Encouragingly however, the Anderson report while acknowledging the importance of strengthening basic skills in reading, writing and arithmetic, argues for a more explicit focus on the teaching and assessment of ‘softer’ non-cognitive skills, including what many states in the US refer to as ‘the 4Cs’ (critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity). The report also recommends the establishment of an independent body, representing all key stakeholders and enjoying a cross party consensus, to help plan strategically for the long term needs of the English economy. This recommendation is very much supported by KeyCoNet which will also put forward its recommendations at the end of this year, including the need to address the lack of continuity caused by short-term education policies across successive governments. KeyCoNet therefore welcomes the new report, and hopes the English education system embraces its advice.