‘The Education Debate’: a review of The Policy Press’s roundtable event

Lorenza Antonucci

Lorenza Antonucci

With education taking a prominent position in public debates, The Policy Press’s choice of dedicating a roundtable of Thinking Futures (the Festival of Social Science and Law of the University of Bristol) to ‘The Education Debate’ was a particularly timely one. The event saw lively participation from the audience, stimulated by the pertinent questions of the chair Alison Shaw (Director of The Policy Press) and the concise and straight-to-the-point interventions of the three speakers: Professor Rosamund Sutherland (Graduate School of Education, University of Bristol), Professor Stephen Ball (Institute of Education, University of London) and Annie Hudson (Strategic Director, Children & Young People’s Services, Bristol City Council).

While the format covered a wide range of topics in education, one issue became the overarching focus of the discussion: the social role of education. As Janette Finch wrote back in 1984, educational institutions, beyond their pedagogic function, are de facto involved in delivering social provisions and addressing the social needs of the pupils. In this respect, Annie Hudson’s intervention underlined how schools can make a difference, for example, in their use of the ‘Pupil Premium’, a specific tool available to schools to address the needs of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds. In Hudson’s words it became apparent how life inside and outside schools is profoundly interconnected. Sutherland’s intervention reminded us of the precise role of education: the idea that children should gain knowledge in school that they would not get from anywhere else, in particular not from their family – what Doyal and Gough called the human need of ‘critical autonomy’. Sutherland remarked also on the declining potential of schools in facilitating social change, testified by the gap in achievement between children in middle class families and children eligible for free school meals. Ball put forward a slightly different perspective around the idea that inequality is implicated in the overall economy and social structures – and, therefore, there is an issue of what schools can effectively do within this system. Drawing on his critical approach to education, Ball supported the idea of a systematic (almost inevitable) disadvantage within education policy.

Here the debate touched upon a crucial issue in contemporary education: should we use education policy to address inequality or should we abandon this idea to support more radical changes in our social structures? The divergence came up again in discussing  the relationship between higher education and social mobility, an issue which seemed to attract great interest from the audience. Here, Ball is clearly opposed to the policy idea of putting more people into higher education to improve their employment outcomes. Ball strongly affirmed that higher education plays no role for social mobility and that the social mobility experienced by the baby boomers’ generation was rather generated by the creation of public employment. On this point, Sutherland still supported the idea of a social function of education, insisting on the principle that the choice to enter in higher education should still be possible for those from lower socio-economic backgrounds.

Some questions which came up in the discussion keep on haunting me: is there a contradiction between the centralisation of the National Curriculum and the fragmentation of educational provisions at the local level? Can we combine Sutherland’s idea on the social role of education with Ball’s scepticism? Even if education cannot improve the social position of students from lower socio-economic backgrounds, can we still address the social expectations of those students who embark on educational routes?

In the end, like in every good debate, we go home with more questions than definitive answers – the ‘debate after the debate’ can continue on Twitter in the hashtag #educationdebate.

Lorenza Antonucci, PhD researcher, School for Policy Studies, University of Bristol. Lorenza has been awarded the first Policy Press studentship for her research on student welfare and well-being in higher education in Sweden, Italy and England.

1 Response to “‘The Education Debate’: a review of The Policy Press’s roundtable event”



  1. 1 Are policies for NEETs still working for young people? | Discover Society Trackback on May 5, 2015 at 11:24 pm

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s




Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Twitter Updates

Archives

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print.

The work on the Policy Press blog is licensed under a Creative Commons licence.