September 2016


  • Find your inner chimp
    Reflective practice has long been recommended as a good thing but how does it engage the brain? Professor Steve Peters devised the Chimp model to identify the neuroscience behind reflection and help improve individual performance. More
  • Beyond data
    Leaders need a holistic view of their school if they are to set priorities that will truly accelerate learning for all of their pupils and especially for the most vulnerable, says Philippa Cordingley. More
  • More or less?
    Why is there an over-supply of teachers for PE but a shortage for business studies? Professor John Howson looks at the modelling process that predicts the number of trainee teachers required nationally and why itís never an exact science. More
  • Making an in-road
    A Secretary of State from a comprehensive school is just one of the post-referendum changes for education. Malcolm Trobe looks at whatís in Justine Greeningís in-tray and what else is on the agenda for the year ahead. More
  • P8 ready
    Greg Watson looks at how senior leaders can use their existing programmes of assessment to help all of their students continuously improve and explores whatís next for the new measure. More
  • Powerful knowledge
    Schools should teach children to know and to learn for the rest of their lives, not for short-term gain, says Headteacher Carolyn Roberts. If they fail in that task, inequality will continue to blight society. More
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Schools should teach children to know and to learn for the rest of their lives, not for short-term gain, says Headteacher Carolyn Roberts. If they fail in that task, inequality will continue to blight society.`

Powerful knowledge

Iím a simple soul so I think schools should be where children learn a lot of interesting stuff and start growing into useful human beings.

Thatís really hard to measure easily and holding out for it is a battlefield bestrewn with mines. Weíre badgered into valuing assessment rather than learning. We use branding to distinguish ourselves from our neighbours and make all kinds of claims about our national standing but we forget that we serve a greater good. Schools exist to look after the young, to teach them what will help them become rounded human beings and useful citizens. Anything else is a bonus or a distraction.

In May 2008, I was early for a meeting in London and, persuaded by my sonís need of a debit card in a noted bookstore, wandered into Education and chanced upon Michael Youngís Bringing Knowledge Back In: From social constructivism to social realism in the sociology of education (Routledge 2008). The rest of that year found me on daily lunch duty sitting on a step at the back of the gym confounding smokers and reading a densely argued, compelling plea for a sensible approach to the curriculum in our schools. You must read it for yourself, but Young argued that the knowledge versus skills debate of the time was a foolhardy thing and that we should all aim for a third future of powerful knowledge.

He argues for social realism, which:

  • avoids the extremes of traditionalism or relevance
  • protects the curriculum against political and economic demands
  • allows for curricula to be balanced to meet the different needs of overcoming social exclusion and giving students powerful knowledge
  • moves education away from outcomes and towards strengthening knowledge, built upon specialist communities and networks of knowledge

Multiple roles

The school curriculum has to fulfil many roles. There is the knowledge that children need to make sense of the world. There is the learning that they need to understand what they donít know and what they need to continue to work on. Thereís the shared understanding that underpins a participative society and thereís the opportunity to lift your head above your own circumstances and see a world beyond the end of the street.

Youngís book gave me the theoretical underpinning for my personal commitment to making sure that young people of all backgrounds and acquisition skills know things, and that they value subject knowledge and the conventions of subject learning at all levels so that they may piece together a working understanding of the world and change it for the better. As he says, a curriculum of the future needs to treat knowledge as a distinct, non-reducible element in the changing resources that people need in order to make sense of the world.

Knowing and learning

If schools teach children to know and to learn for the rest of their lives, then we need to focus on that and not fripperies and packaging. We need the very useful touchstone, outlined by Professor Rob Coe in his 2013 inaugural lecture A Triumph of Hope over Experience: children learn when they have to think really hard.

We enable, even enforce that thinking through quality teaching in good schools and our only vehicle is the curriculum on the wheels of the timetable. Itís not enough to say: we have a curriculum that Julius Caesar and Thomas Arnold would rate and recognise. We have to be able to say that when they leave us, our people know how to put in the hard work to make a relationship with ideas. This is the teacherís job, co-creating understanding as well as developing knowledge.

In the end, the future depends on us. Academic disciplines and the subjects we teach are public forms of understanding in which society has conversations about itself and its future, as the sociologist Basil Bernstein expressed it.

They are stretching, systematic and specialised. Thatís why we need the brightest and best to become teachers: not so they can make everyone look posher, but so they can change the world for the better, one child at a time. Itís not about the employment market but about learning. Itís education driven by learning, not assessment. Itís education for the child and the global community, not the performance tables.

For me, education has to make the world a better place so, like any other head, I have a ten-point masterplan (see box-out). We try to use this in school so that we donít forget about powerful knowledge and its place in society, and the part that teachers play in saving the world.

Take the long view

To achieve all of this we need a long, broad and calm view. We need to develop a thorough understanding of the purpose of both knowledge and schools that is shared and stable. We need to wean ourselves away from facile answers to the wrong questions.

Making sure that our young people understand the world systematically and thoroughly requires long-term planning and serious curriculum thinking by a trusted, empowered and highly trained workforce, consistent in depth and reach in all schools.

Without it we remain at the mercies of political myopia. Worse, weíll perpetuate the hideous inequalities of our society by training children to ape and desire the proxies of the rich without ever, for a second, threatening their hold on power.

The Thomas Tallis powerful knowledge plan

  1. Knowledge is worthwhile in itself.
    Tell children this unapologetically: learning is the purpose of adolescence.
  2. Schools share powerful knowledge on behalf of society.
    We teach what children need to make sense of and improve the world.
  3. Shared and powerful knowledge is verified through learned communities.
    We are model and current learners, in touch with research and subject associations.
  4. Children need powerful knowledge to understand and interpret the world.
    Without it they remain dependent upon those who have it or misuse it.
  5. Powerful knowledge is cognitively superior to that needed for daily life.
    It transcends and liberates children from their daily experience.
  6. Shared and powerful knowledge enables children to grow into useful citizens.
    As adults they can understand, cooperate and shape the world together.
  7. Shared knowledge is a foundation for a just and sustainable democracy.
    Citizens educated together share an understanding of the common good.
  8. It is fair and just that all children should have access to this knowledge.
    Powerful knowledge opens doors: it must be available to all children.
  9. Accepted adult authority is required for shared knowledge transmission.
    The teacherís authority to share knowledge is given and valued by society.
  10. Pedagogy links adult authority, powerful knowledge and its transmission.
    We need quality professionals to achieve all this for all of our children.

Carolyn Roberts is an ASCL Council member and Headteacher of Thomas Tallis School in London.