Knowledge versus skills: the great education debate 2016

Tuesday 18 October, 19.00 - 20.30 , Hallmark Midland Hotel, Derby UK satellite events


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Do we want children to learn ‘the best that has been known and thought in the world’ or do we want them to have the skills necessary for work and life in the twenty-first century? To mark the 40th anniversary of the ‘Great Debate’ on education, launched by the then prime minister, Jim Callaghan, in a speech at Ruskin College, Oxford on 18 October 1976, perhaps it is time to launch a new ‘Great Debate’. In that earlier debate, Callaghan invited business to suggest how education could revitalise the economy by arguing that schools needed ‘to improve relations between business and industry’, making the point there is no virtue in producing socially well-adjusted members of society who are unemployed because they do not have the skills. But that presumption has been contentious ever since, with critics arguing that making job-related skills a key outcome of schooling led to the introduction of instrumental and short-term schemes that didn’t educate or train young people. 

The modern version of the Great Debate in 2016 is that in a rapidly changing world, especially transformed by technology, ‘old’ knowledge and a curriculum designed by and for a Victorian elite, dominated by facts, is outdated and useless. Far better, it is argued, to equip and empower children to unleash their creativity and to help them develop soft, transferable skills better suited for a new world and a new workplace. A plethora of social, economic and political objectives has resulted in a curriculum that is as likely to promote citizenship, character, healthy eating and cyber-bullying initiatives as it is to concern itself with a transmission of knowledge. Shouldn’t we look after the whole child, encouraging rounded personalities who can make a positive contribution to society? Maybe as some argue, schools should concentrate on ensuring that the young do not grow up unhappy (if qualified) victims of an exam treadmill, so stressed that they are increasingly at risk of mental illness. 

Do we need young people who have what might be called ‘old-fashioned’ knowledge or ‘modern-day’ skills? Do really need latter-day Gradgrinds pouring over ‘facts’ when pupils can search for them on the web for themselves? What should the relationship be between schooling and UK plc? Is a focus on the intergenerational passing on of knowledge through the ages, in the form of an academic curriculum, an outmoded, elitist pursuit that leaves pupils ill-equipped for the modern labour market? How relevant are the themes of the 1976 Great Debate 40 years later? What should be the educational focus of a new Great Debate today?


Tickets £5 (£3 unwaged) available from Eventbrite.