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“The greatest injustice in Britain today is that your life is still largely determined not by your efforts and talents but by where you come from, who your parents are and what schools you attend”

Conservative Party Manifesto, 2017

With an expectation that 90 per cent of pupils will take the EBacc by 2025, whilst placing greater demands on elite universities and private schools to support the state sector, and ensuring all schools are fairly funded – with no school having its budget cut – the message from Theresa May couldn’t be clearer: we’re levelling the playing field; it’s time to deliver.

Running through this manifesto is a clear vision for English schooling. All pupils – regardless of geography, ethnicity or their parent’s wealth – should receive a broad, rigorous and well-funded education up until age 16. After this, they have the choice between taking a high-quality apprenticeship or undertaking further academic study, and going on to university. So whilst every child has different interests, strengths and ambitions, our level of expectations for them, and the quality of education they should receive, remains consistently high.

As a society, we have for too long tolerated a system which says that it is acceptable for a privileged child at a top private school in Berkshire to enjoy the rich diet of a traditional liberal education, whilst expecting much less for a poor child from Bradford or Burnley. Reforming primary school assessment will reduce teaching to the test and enable teachers to focus on teaching rich and broad content to their pupils. Furthermore, the aim to have 90 per cent of secondary school pupils taking the EBacc by 2025 will mean that we have the highest expectations for all of our young people.

With Brexit on the horizon, demanding that all our young people are literate, numerate, fluent in science, a humanity and a foreign language, should be the bare minimum we expect for the huge public investment we make in education. But more than this, the EBacc target commits us all to the principle that no matter what our young people decide to do after school, they will have the foundation of knowledge needed to go on and make the most of their talents and lead a fulfilling life. The creation of a curriculum fund to “encourage Britain’s leading cultural and scientific institutions, like the British Museum and others to help develop knowledge-rich materials for our schools” will raise standards, help teachers and introduce our children to some of this nation’s proudest institutions.

Of course, this will mean that a good number of schools will need to adjust their curriculum and staffing to ensure that they are meeting this target, but they have ample time to do so. Indeed, what is striking about this manifesto is the level stability it will provide. There will be no more tinkering with structures and the curriculum. (For all the noise that will be generated by the pledge to “lift the ban on the establishment of selective schools”, this does not impact on a headteacher’s ability to plan for the future, and should not be used as a smokescreen for failure). And this stability will be compounded with stability in school funding, with many schools receiving an increase in budgets – tackling years of unfairness – and not a single school seeing their budget cut, due to an injection of an additional £4 billion until 2022. So no more complaining about funding; let’s focus on what actually goes on inside the classroom.

To help classroom teachers – without whom none of this will ever be possible – there is a pledge to “provide greater support…in the preparation of lessons and marking” and to “bear down on unnecessary paperwork and the burden of Ofsted inspections”. Teachers go into the profession because they are passionate about their subject and want to change lives and pass their knowledge onto the next generation. Ill-thought out school initiatives, poor behaviour and preparing for Ofsted get in the way and ware teachers down. The Conservatives understand this, and will do everything they can to allow them to focus on enhancing their classroom practice.

So, in order to create “the world’s great meritocracy”, the message from the Conservative manifesto is clear: we need to do more for our young people. A Conservative government will offer stability, fairness and financial security, and a better deal for teachers. In turn, it’s time to deliver for every child in every corner of our nation.

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With Brexit on the horizon, British businesses are concerned about how they can attract skilled workers going forward, with 69 per cent of businesses not confident there will be enough people available in the future with the skills needed to fill high-skilled jobs (CBI/Pearson 2016). Statistics like this prickle the ears policymakers who are keen to ensure that any potential disruption to the influx of international talent to the UK labour market – as a result of tightened immigration rules – is mitigated through the enhanced education and training of British schoolchildren. This was evident in the recent Budget, where the Government pledged to overhaul technical education, implementing the recommendations of the Sainsbury Review in full. This included the streamlining of an estimated 13,000 technical qualifications down to 15 high quality technical education routes of “equal value” to A Levels, in order to better prepare school and college leavers for the changing job market.

It is clear, however, that policymakers need to work in tandem with businesses and educationists if Britain is to develop the skilled workers needed for future employment. To illustrate the point, let us take the skill of ‘critical thinking’. 89 per cent of employers rate character attributes such as critical thinking (see also: grit, creativity, resilience and confidence) as amongst the three most important factors in recruiting school/college leavers (CBI/Pearson 2016). Few employers would argue against the need for employees with the ability to generate new ways of looking at things and to analyse the best way forward when considering an array of options. Indeed, in an era of ‘fake news’ and the proliferation of news outlets, critical thinking is a desirable skill for all citizens. Yet despite the best efforts of schools over the past two decades to develop critical thinking skills amongst their pupils through a mixture of stand-alone classes and redevelopment of curricula to encourage the use of ‘higher order thinking skills’, the bulk of cognitive research points to a disappointing conclusion: that critical thinking critical thinking without context cannot be taught. As Daniel T. Willingham (2007: 8), professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Virginia states:

“People who have sought to teach critical thinking have assumed that it is a skill, like riding a bicycle, and that, like other skills, once you learn it, you can apply it in any situation. Research from cognitive science shows that thinking is not that sort of skill. The processes of thinking are intertwined with the content of thought (that is, domain knowledge)”

In short, critical thinking is something that you can only master in a specific domain. Consider for instance the assertion that ‘Donald Trump is the worst president in US history’. Whilst many of us may believe this to be true – and are able to make a superficial judgement based on the assimilation of various news stories (i.e. the opinions of others) over recent months – consider what knowledge one needs to possess be able to make your own well-considered judgement as to the validity of this statement. First you would need to understand what is meant by ‘worst’. Are we referring to their poll-ratings, ability to legislate, respect for minority rights, influence in the world, whether they won re-election, the rate of GDP growth etc.? Second, once you have come up with some barometers for success, you would need to overlay this with an understanding of the 43 previous holders of the role of president. It is clear, therefore, that the ability to think critically in a meaningful way as an individual requires specific knowledge; it is not a transferable ‘skill’ in itself.

To return to the central point – a problem at present is that corporates and influential business institutions, such as the CBI, publish reports with demands for better skills, such as critical thinking, amongst young people. These, in turn, are often translated into initiatives from Whitehall, requiring schools come up with a plan to address this particular need (though admittedly reform of the National Curriculum in 2013 stripped out much of the past focus on generic skills). This results in a range of school-based practices, such as the provision of standalone classes in critical thinking mentioned above. These interventions might help pupils to understand how to articulate an argument or to structure their method of inquiry, however a genuine ability to think critically requires pupils to be taught a body of knowledge which they can recall and weigh-up against other chunks of knowledge. Despite this truism, business reports fail to recognise this – when is the last time you saw a business calling for schools to implement a knowledge-rich curriculum, or provide funding for research into the teaching methods which best instil facts into a pupil’s long-term memory? Conversely, just 23 per cent of businesses see academic results as amongst the three most important factors in recruiting school/college leavers (CBI/Pearson 2016). This is despite the fact that external testing is the fairest and least discriminatory way to measure and compare a pupil’s ability to recall knowledge and use it in a critical manner (McIntosh 2015).

Policymakers need to work with both businesses and educationists if they are to identify the right policies to develop the skilled workers needed for the future. At the same time, businesses ought to work more closely with educationists to understand the critical path required for skills development amongst young people (their future workforce) to ensure their policy recommendations will truly meet their needs. Finally, educationists – and more specifically, schools – ought not to be swayed by glossy reports published by bodies such as the CBI lamenting a lack of generic skills; rather they ought to get on with their core business of imparting knowledge.

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