Battle in Print: For subject-centred education: 3. the limits of ‘evidence’

Mark Taylor, 22 October 2010

These six essays are written by members of the Institute of Ideas’ Education Forum. They make the case for subject-centred education. Whilst the Lib-Con coalition nominally supports a return to subject-centred teaching, there’s in fact little coherence or sense of direction to their educational strategy. More specifically, we believe subject-centred education should be defended as a method of transmitting knowledge and understanding to new generations. It should be driven by an aspiration to create a society of truly educated citizens, and foster greater intellectual autonomy and freedom for everybody.

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3. The limits of ‘evidence’

The Lib-Con government should be congratulated for seeking to re-invigorate education. It has recreated the Department for Education and spoken up for academic subjects and ‘the art of deep thought’. Its approach offers a welcome new moral clarity about the value of education.

Indeed, this clarity was lacking during the New Labour period, with its hopelessly diverse range of educational innovations. The argument members of the Education Forum made against New Labour was that education was getting lost in a morass of research-led evidence about ‘what works’. The concept of education itself become entirely confused. Gathering ever more evidence was, in this context, an exercise in moral displacement. It avoided the arguments that had to be made for education.

Teaching as an evidence-based profession

Taking the new Coalition’s talk of moral purpose at face value doesn’t mean we think everything has changed. It seems set to continue with academies, and even want to extend the ‘free’ schools programme. After all, says the Coalition, Swedish and American evidence shows it’s ‘effective’ – the new educational mantra. It also wants to continue educational ‘partnerships’, seeing good schools as educational ‘tugboats’ to rising standards for all. The method is to seek ‘evidence’ for educational initiatives just as New Labour did, but with an international twist. This is problematic. It represents an avoidance of the responsibility to convince teachers and wider public the purpose of education is to provide the next generation with the intellectual framework to understand the world they will soon inherit.

The Coalition has inherited a sad situation in education, and rightly sought new approaches. However, the policy context it works in transforms teaching into an ‘evidence-based profession’. This uncontested shift in teacher professionalism is presented as necessary and progressive. It’s seen as the ‘best practice’ for ‘outcome-based learning’. Often, it’s presented as a welcome professionalisation of teachers’ activities, as teachers are now better informed by the latest research evidence, often generated by university researchers.

The emphasis on ‘research evidence’ masks the real outcome of the current situation in education. The intellectual continuity between subject-based teacher education in universities and subject-based student education in schools has been destroyed. However, the Coalition’s plan to put academics in charge of examination boards is a welcome development that goes against the general trend to discontinuity. 

An inability to justify educational strategy

It’s disconcerting that the more specific statements of Government suggest they’re less interested in education for its own sake than they admit. Indeed, far from kicking away the crutch of evidence as the only possible support for making educational ‘interventions’, they’ve actually tried to strengthen it. Whilst New Labour relentlessly searched for data to widen the range of educational measurements at home and inside the classroom, they merely flirted with Scandinavian models of success abroad.

The Coalition’s ‘nouveau’ appeal to international evidence is an example of how they‘ve gone even further, reflecting a desperation in justifying their educational policies. They’ve called for a widened international data set from Singapore, USA, Canada, Taiwan and South Korea as the basis for their school improvement programme. So, is this international outlook – mirrored in the IGCSE qualification and Education Secretary Michael Gove’s call for a ‘properly international curriculum’ – an enlightened approach?  Or is it more of a continuation of the deference to data pioneered by New Labour?  Their recent excitement about the McKinsey international data (generated by New Labour’s original education evidence guru Michael Barber) on school system ‘performativity’ suggests the latter.

Either way, educators should be wary of the political tendency to seek authority for intervention through multiplying the sources of evidence. Instead, they should start a genuine conversation with the public and teachers. Until then, teachers and parents who New Labour attempted to manage by citing ‘the evidence’ for Assessment For Learning, personalised learning and parenting classes, may again be hemmed in by international evidence showing everything is better elsewhere.

Ultimately, this short-circuiting of any wider conversation about education either avoids the real intellectual issues, or serves as an evidence-based assertion of the values of skills of pedagogy and psychology. The evidence-based approach avoids the fundamental problem: education requires no justification beyond itself. Nobody should reject good quality educational evidence, but equally, nobody should think education needs evidence to be justified. There’s simply no sense in seeking what we might call an ‘evidence-based moral purpose’. We might argue over what an educated, civilised, person needs to know, and even give cosmopolitan examples to illustrate our position, but no amount of empirical evidence will ever resolve this moral question or indeed convince those who are hostile to the truth of our definition.

Not more evidence; better ideas

In response to the evidence overload, some have argued for a return to traditional subjects. But times are different now. Subjects can’t just be asserted as valid to a generation of teachers brought up on quick-fix pedagogical solutions. After all, many academics and teachers have progressed through their careers by endorsing criticisms of the idea all students can obtain real knowledge. They’ve supplanted this with a new ‘wisdom’ of learning, which sees education as a process without the need for fixed subject-centred knowledge. In this context, any new appeals to promote subjects will not be understood.

Indeed, the Education Secretary seems intent on leading us into a new evidence quagmire. He recently told head teachers: ‘We need more evidence-based policy making, and for that to work we need more evidence.’  But this ‘evidence gathering’ will not solve the problem. Educational inspiration can only be rebuilt through winning the political argument with parents, teachers and children for the creative place of academic subjects in a truly liberal education. Currently, the quest for evidence at home and abroad shortcuts this conversation. It typically reduces educational discourse to a series of evidence-based platitudes.

It would be good to live in a society that understood - without evidence - that the key to education was good subject teaching and the abstract knowledge that accrues through critical dialogue with teachers. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Efforts to widen the empirical evidence base – even if they’re well meant attempts to rationalise policy intervention - fail to address the political and philosophical challenge posed by the fact that we have a generation of teachers and academics who’ve failed to defend their own subjects.

The current obsession with the expansion of ‘evidence’ is an expression of a lack of confidence in the traditions today’s politicians were born into. An expression of this is the breakdown of the intellectual connection between public and politicians. This creates a cultural climate where teachers lack confidence about communicating existing subject knowledge. It’s no wonder, therefore, they’ve often accepted a new role. This involves transmitting more palpable social fears about obesity, knife crime and emotional literacy - whilst simultaneously doubting the capabilities of their students.


head of humanities and history teacher, Addey and Stanhope comprehensive school, South London; London convenor, IoI Education Forum

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