Education for All Inclusive education Learning Teaching skills

Education Really Matters: Saving the planet … and beyond

Frank O’Hagan

Carpe diem?

What are children and young persons to conclude from the many differing points of view which circulate about the future of planet Earth? Trump-like attitudes abound. Sceptics perceive activists as absurd and confused. Some proponents of the status quo harbour illusions of normality and stability as continuing onwards from decade to decade. Others simply tout spin over substance to cause distractions or attempt to kick thorny conundrums into the distance for future generations to grapple with and possibly resolve. Groucho Marx succinctly summarised this short-termism – “Why should I care about future generations? What have they ever done for me?” In contrast, there is what is sometimes referred to as ‘cathedral thinking’ or in other words ‘being good ancestors’. Our predecessors bequeathed exquisite buildings for us to admire. Can we, in turn, leave a delightful and healthy world as an inheritance to our descendants?  

The young can become confounded by the multitude of different opinions and pressures in circulation. They have a right to know what those in positions of responsibility at both local and national levels are proposing and must be allowed to voice their apprehensions. It is essential to respond to the significant doubts which they may wish to raise. Should there be regular publications of targets already missed, as well as having an agenda for future action? What more can politicians, environmental planners and business leaders undertake to make up for lost time? How critically do civilians scrutinise deficits in modern living and in what ways can they greatly improve the quality of everyday life? While these are legitimate questions for investigation, there are similar queries concerning youths’ own endeavours, and those of their families and communities, in lessening the dangers of climate change.

Obstacles to overcome

Educationalists will have specific principles to observe in order to provide clarification, elucidation and hopefulness for all age groups. While teaching may be aimed, either directly or indirectly, at outlining current progress and eliciting discerning feedback from pupils, care must be taken not to over-exaggerate. Guidance should ensure that learners grasp trustworthy facts and the outcomes of genuine, scientific research. Lessons and activities need to be well-judged and take due account of their abilities and stages of maturity. A focus on their investigative and problem-solving skills will boost motivation and confidence. As some might have felt perplexed and experienced a sense of helplessness through a succession of reports on the media, a warm and inclusive learning ethos can reduce emotional upset and help avoid deleterious impacts on mental wellbeing.

There have been numerous efforts to build an alertness of risks associated with the likes of extreme weather conditions or toxic fumes causing ill-health and early deaths in cities. However, some commentators have noted what has been called an ‘information deficit model’ – valid facts not known or understood – is still to be found in sectors of society. This is a separate phenomenon from that of the denial of indubitable facts and statistics. When such circumstances prevail, interest and inspiration can decrease. Nonetheless, it is apposite to not to ostracize either of these factions but rather to give time to examine the reasons underlying their prevalence. This standpoint facilitates opportunities to figure out how they came to adopt unconventional positions and to engage in dialogue.

What are the challenges which have to be overcome in improving our ecosystem?

Another obstacle is that the threats connected to climate change normally are not instantly noticeable and, as a result, treated as inconsequential. While it is relatively easy to understand the immediate menace of a global pandemic, the linkage between homes being flooded and carbon emissions is less obvious. By highlighting and explaining the gradual variations which are occurring and the requirement for long-term planning, perceptiveness can be increased and doubts resolved.

It is fortuitous that, when it comes to facing controversies, the well-known myth of ostriches sticking their heads in the sand when dangers loom generally does not apply to eager learners. They are cognisant of the message conveyed in this myth and have enough savvy to review and confront the predictions which envisage the destruction of Mother Earth. Let’s wish them every success!

A dynamic and comprehensive curriculum

Much closer attention is now being given to teachers’ knowledge and skills vis-à-vis sustainability. Additionally, the contributions of specialists in schools, further and tertiary education and industrial-related research substantially heighten awareness. While fully accepting the importance of formal qualifications, credit also has to be accorded to the value of other forms of educational inputs which encourage mindfulness and responsiveness in the 3 to 18 years-of-age range. There are identifiable features of coursework which are immediately suitable for inclusion. As well as providing vital information, they can delineate practical solutions and emphasise positive individual and collective roles for clear-sighted intervention.

The curriculum on offer requires to be all-embracing. It not only needs to extend beyond saving the biosphere but, furthermore, ought to include the numerous means through which contemporary living conditions can be upgraded. The topic of climate change is only one element, albeit a markedly important one, of a wider study encompassing the saving of our planet … and beyond. Its overall aim is the enrichment of the living environment for all humankind. Within this broader framework, a commitment on decarbonization towards net-zero emission targets can be regarded as a ‘saving’ aspect. When the agenda morphs into the creation of a truly healthier, greener and life-enhancing environment, objectives are magnified towards ‘saving and beyond’. Thus, a more comprehensive approach incorporates improvements to tackle poor living conditions, unhealthy diets, misuse of pesticides, destruction of sea beds from excessive dredging, the dumping of garbage and radioactive materials at sea, and the list goes on. It also contains suggestions for consideration on appropriate, eco-friendly involvement. Education really matters!

We are family – all in it together

We live in a common home and our society now has the opportunity to create a happier, safer and flourishing world. While teachers and tutors can partake meaningfully, it would be unreasonable to expect only education settings – nurseries, schools and colleges – to embark on this onerous task. Fortunately, there are many sources for learners to exploit over and above their formal curriculum – for instance: guidance from parents and guardians; the supportive influences of peers; enlightening books, newspapers and television documentaries; dedicated sites on social media; and sponsorships by organisations which focus on improving agriculture and fishing. Authentic, scientific data and advice are accessible from comparable founts of vision to endorse and hasten a beneficial, cultural transformation.

A detailed syllabus on this over-arching theme is exceptionally complex. For anyone even mildly interested in the subject, there is an extensive range of conventional and technical terms in general usage such as: greenhouse gases; carbon capture; environmentalism; ethical investment strategies; transparency on resourcing; sustainability; greenwashing; and recycling. Thoughtful reflection on the terminology can deepen our foresight and understanding of the difficulties which have to be appraised. Moreover, there is a very broad spectrum of relevant topics which takes in: the reduction in road and air travel; greater use of public transport; wastage of rare metals; pollution of land, sea and atmosphere; biodiversity; wind, marine and solar power; energy saving in homes and buildings; peat land preservation; and the traceability and purchase of food and goods.

This immense array of varied contents necessities a highly organised schedule across age bands and curricular areas in order to steer clear of duplication and to ensure maximum impact. It is commendable when schools have devised an inventory relating to the integration of learning prospects. Though these may seem arduous undertakings, the good news is twofold: staff in education are occupied already in this enterprise and, for pupils, their ensuing acquisition of comprehension and prescience guarantees advancement in terms of personal, social, emotional and cognitive development.

Love learning, love your planet

At the early and nursery phases, children form habits with regard to cleanliness, communication, personal safety, good manners and kindness to others. In creative and investigative play activities, they develop an appreciation of camaraderie, flowers, plants and animals. The value of an enjoyable and stimulating early education is undoubtedly of real benefit in fostering their respect and sensitivity towards their immediate surroundings and nature in general. Individual displays or in friendship groups, at times in the company of family members, can enable them to demonstrate their interests aroused by drawings, designs and photographs.

As pupils move through primary school, they have opportunities to learn more about everyday living and how to take good care of ecosystems. A firm basis for responsible citizenship is being established. Project work is often arranged to cover a wide variety of themes, allowing children to select, investigate and then share their findings. For example, on the fashion industry, they might examine disclosure as regards where goods are produced, what they are made from, the distance they travel before being sold, how well the workers are paid, whether these commodities are likely to be recycled or discarded, etc. Likewise, take the girl who reported that her investigation in an upper primary class had been on the damage caused by plastic waste. She mentioned that she had learned about an island of rubbish, larger than Britain floating in the Pacific Ocean, and the devastation of plastic to sea life. The following year, her class had taken part in a topic on rain forests with freedom pick their own projects. Her skilful presentation had focused on the destruction of forests and its harmful consequences to biodiversity, including disturbance to animal inhabitants. This assignment promoted independent learning and touched on aspects of English, mathematics, biology, environmental studies and technology besides exploratory and fact-finding skills. All worthwhile and motivational.

The cross-curricular nature of ecology and green politics is evident throughout secondary education, an opinion forcefully made by a second-year teenager when interviewed, and requires effective cooperation from different departments. This characteristic holds the likelihood of deepening the understanding of complex issues though analysing them from separate perspectives. While STEM subjects are regarded as particularly pertinent – teaching about the efficient use of energy in physics or the production of ‘blue’ and ‘green’ hydrogen in chemistry – most subjects offer a great deal to explore. A few illustrations underline this point: business studies and economics highlighting how ethical investments can be advantageous for the environment; religious and moral education examining ways in which a united front on improving bionetworks can result in increased communal happiness; and art and design assisting in the production and distribution of imaginative posters or pamphlets for World Earth Day (22nd April).

Should every day be Earth Day?

Optimistically, by the time that students are leaving secondary school, they will be fully equipped to reflect expertly on perplexing dilemmas as migrations due to crop failure or tensions among nations arising from the pursuit of scarce commodities. They will have acquired the necessary competences to comment on how success and failure rates by governmental agencies should be published and judged. On occasions, they may feel obliged to monitor how mandatory requirements and subsequent penalties for non-compliance by individuals or public bodies are implemented. All being well, they will become the guardians urgently required to safeguard humanity.

Young people care, therefore they are part of the solution

If addressing climate change is urgent, why has headway been incoherent and tardy? It has proved to be comfortable to ‘talk the talk’ but considerably more challenging to ‘walk the walk’. The dominance of rationalism, following the philosophical dictum ‘Cognito ergo sum’ (I think, therefore I am) of Descartes, lingers on in some current thinking and still influences much of what takes place at major conferences. No matter how erudite the conclusions might be, if they lack pragmatism and empathy, they are of little value. The concept of ‘caring’ in this context implies not only appropriate degrees of perception and understanding but a steadfastness in implementing evidence-based responses.

While they await to find out in what manner those in positions of authority are prepared to move forward, the futures of juveniles are to some extent put on hold. It is clear that many adolescents feel obliged to call out for vigorous action to avoid planetary suicide. As responsible outspoken advocates, they deserve our praise. It was enlightening to hear one primary school girl was earnestly supporting the view that children can spread ideas on good practices to a widespread audience in addition to their families. A touching and impressive case of pupil power and influence was a children’s play which was attended, among others, by the wives of the President of USA and the Prime Minister of UK while the G7 Summit was taking palace in Cornwall in June 2021. Heartfelt messages must be heeded. Virtue-signaling by dignitaries – especially when lacking in genuine honesty and affirmation – is merely hollow and hypocritical.

Youths who have studied and understood impending perils – whether these link to pollution, unrestricted excess, climate change, a dearth of international collaboration, and the like – neither wish to propose utopian dreams nor to write death wish notes. They comprehend that there is no quick fix and also that some countries are already living on the edge of existence. An emergency has already arrived but positivity has not been vanquished. For them, false narratives, complacency and nihilist stances on future calamities being ‘too big to handle so live only for today’ are not acceptable. Learners know that, cherish it or not, they too are involved and have their parts to play. They identify themselves as global citizens and demand a ‘can do, make it happen’ mindset to be adopted.

Concluding remarks

Education locations, at all stages from nurseries to universities, are in a very powerful position to promote life-affirming policies and practices and to assist in reaching ambitious targets which have been agreed. They deserve the support of governments and scientific communities to further develop their programs of study on how to save and improve the condition of a planet in need of loving care and treatment.

Effective educational inputs can be regarded as valuable human assets which enable students to concentrate on constructive routines for facing challenges rather than becoming accustomed to feelings of disempowerment. Using their own research and critical thinking, youthful scholars are able to embrace the role of ‘learner as scientist’ in their search for explanations and answers. It is an energetic form of attentive engagement. As a consequence of their successful efforts, they come to realise that it is individual and communal behaviours and customs which cause so much damage.

Through their studies, all understand that there are choices which can no longer be sidelined by society at large. They learn to reject procrastination, doom-purveying pessimists, fake news and pseudo-scientific buzzwords. They understand that people, including themselves, need to make informed decisions and to confirm that they are completed inside designated timescales. Many have proved that they are already a force for good and aim to ensure that their incremental steps will ultimately result in giant leaps forward.

(Dr Frank O’Hagan previously was the Adviser of Studies to Bachelor of Education students at the University of Strathclyde. Later, he was a member of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Education.)

Education for All Inclusive education Learning Teaching skills

Education Really Matters: Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

Frank O’Hagan

“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” (Nelson Mandela)

A dedication

Up to the time of her death, a beloved sister of mine was a teacher for more than 40 years, working almost exclusively with pupils from deprived backgrounds or those experiencing social, emotional and behavioural difficulties. When she started her teaching career in the 1960s there was such a shortage of teachers that her very large primary class had to be divided into two groups. On alternative weeks, one group attended a morning session and the other an afternoon session. Both groups were considerably larger than the average primary class of to-day. While bravely facing her imminent death, she still worried about young persons’ future lifestyles and lack of learning opportunities. Sadly, many of her fears have morphed into a reality – continuing austerity, low levels of literacy, feelings of alienation and a lack of employment prospects. As I jot down my views on diversity, equity and inclusion, my gratitude goes to her and the many teachers, educational psychologists and inspectors of education who have contributed to improvements in this field and with whom I have had the privilege to work.

The times are always a-changing

In recent years, although there have been changes for the better, concern about services for vulnerable pupils with diverse needs – who live amidst all sectors of society – continues to be a debated and disquieting issue for parents and educationalists. What is more, in periods of hardships and public cutbacks, this aspect of educational provision for our more disadvantaged students can be seen as an easy target for financial constraint and staff reductions. A range of workable strategies will be necessary to ensure that so many young people do not come to perceive themselves as enduring failures. 

Everyday attitudes about the characteristics of young learners alter and transmute, as do conventional stances regarding how their education should be subsidised and managed. These modifications are due to many different factors such as the impact of research projects, developments in teaching methods and advances in society’s views about the rights of children. Outlooks have evolved and perceptions have become more nuanced in a variety of ways. For instance, autism was once considered to be a very rare, one-dimensional and rather inexplicable disability. Nowadays, it is generally recognised as being much more prevalent and to be across an extensive and complex spectrum which comprises intellectual, linguistic, social and behavioural dimensions. Moreover, it is not unusual for pupils who have been assessed as on the autistic continuum to possess high levels of concentration and/or an in-depth comprehension concerning specific topics of interest.  Additional cultural swings have included a greater acknowledgement of the potential of many learners displaying attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) to demonstrate positive cognitive features such as creativity.

There are many promising means of developing suitable and empathetic contexts which are truly beneficial for all young people. Through well-tailored, personalised learning programmes, recent findings in educational neuroscience have provided a more hopeful perspective on the capacity of students to adapt to the difficulties which they encounter. Thankfully, there is an evident willingness among professionals to face the very significant obstacles which have to be overcome.

The message is clear that ability is not a fixed entity and that pessimistic attitudes about capabilities regularly need to be confronted. Nonetheless, key questions remain. Has society the will and capacity to address issues relating to diversity, equity and inclusion? How can plans be focussed on success while retaining inbuilt flexibility and identifiable care?  Can educational systems have targeted interventions available to ensure that any apparent ‘breakdowns’ in levels of accomplishments can be quickly ameliorated?

Current challenges to inclusiveness

It is well nigh impossible to be unaware of the presence of diversity in modern society. It manifests itself in statistical surveys and in traditions and pretexts covering age, background, gender, ethnicity, ability, religion and so forth. It is our human melting pot containing both splendour and richness. It also can give rise to apprehension and unease has when individuals or groups are viewed as ‘others’ who are not fully entitled to the rights and privileges enjoyed by ‘in’ groups (a process sometimes referred to as ‘othering’).

Values – such as acceptance, appreciation and kindness – are elements of daily living to be treasured in education and training. Meeting the needs of diverse groups implies interconnectedness and cooperation in establishing universal rights and in building an equitable society. This stance calls for an end to greed, unrestrained capitalism and the continued destruction of Mother Earth. It stipulates that the voices of all students concerning their feelings and self-identified needs should not only be heard but be listened to attentively. Undoubtedly, there exist across our troubled world many obstructions to this vision which require urgent reform. Among an extensive list, depending on customs and place, it may be the disregard of the rights of children who are forced to work rather than be educated, the underachievement of poorer white male adolescents, or vocational openings being denied to students who are physically disabled.

Difficulties encountered, when teaching young persons with varying needs, are too often viewed as arising ‘from within’ or ‘belonging to’ them. From such perspectives, recognised learning problems can be treated as if they are owned by students and their private responsibility. Highly significant environmental factors – prejudices, the lack of adequate nutrition, impoverishment – are overlooked. Consequently, learners are not properly involved in decision-making but are subjected to pronouncements which are hoisted on them by way of a hierarchical system. Parents and guardians, due to their prior experiences, also can feel excluded and may need encouragement to build trust and become actively involved in combatting inequalities.

Skilled educationalists realise that many young people require basic but essential assistance in ‘learning how to learn’ in order to ensure future progress. Staff dedicated to inclusivity will have an expertise in: (1) creating warm and stimulating climates to facilitate headway; (2) establishing purposeful learners’ plans; (3) setting short- and long-term targets; (4) applying procedures relating to advice, guidance and support; and (5) providing motivational feedback to students, parents, guardians and other relevant parties. When acquired, pertinent skills – listening, collaborating, planning, problem-solving and coping mechanisms – can be transferred across curricular areas. It is critical that, for the prerequisites and characteristics of high-quality learning and teaching to be maintained, the capability and proficiency of staff are constantly upgraded through on-going professional development.

Every learner has the right to be included

All pupils deserve to be deemed worthy of making advancements at their own levels of attainment and capacities to learn. Various forms of integration have been implemented, for instance in terms of: locations; social arrangements and communal involvement; and functional and/or instructional settings. Genuine inclusive educational environments will fuse all such approaches into a cohesive and harmonious framework from which no student is excluded. Further, they extend to cover equitable opportunities for vocational training, employment placements and lifelong learning. The overriding philosophy must leave behind a previous ‘What are your problems and weaknesses?’ way of thinking and adopt an outlook which asks ‘In what ways can we assist you to enrich your attributes and extend your talents?’ Staff endorsing an all-encompassing ethos do not see themselves as working in ‘examination factories’. If necessary, they are willing to have fewer or no public accolades as regards their rankings in ‘fake’ national league tables.

When approaches to education are focused on the identified requirements of each learner, travel along productive and rewarding pathways to success is augmented. Along with this methodology, inclusiveness can be a strong catalyst in bringing about camaraderie among students of varying abilities and aptitudes. It follows that, if possible, they should not be cut off and isolated from their peers when undertaking tasks. Learners with diverse needs can expand their knowledge and skills fruitfully in hospitable pedagogic cultures. Authentic collegiate learning provides a sound basis for the cross-fertilisation of views on how they can assimilate information and benefit from new strategies on route to further accomplishments.

For educationalists to play an effective role, they have to challenge the status quo and provide the means of developing competences to overcome social and economic hardship. Programmes which cultivate both worthwhile qualities (for example, confidence, self-esteem, honesty and resilience) and relevant know-how (healthy living, money management, occupational capabilities and so forth) to enhance future chances are of the utmost importance. For these purposes, information and communication technology is helpful in nurturing learning and teaching and in addressing differing needs. At present, computer-based learning, though often very advantageous, is not a panacea. However, further innovations, as the quality of the machine-learner interface improves, augur high prospects.

All forms of educational provision require having well-defined roles, responsibilities and protocols in place for staff who are expected to respond to vulnerable students exhibiting risky behaviours, such as substance abuse, self-harm or noteworthy learning difficulties. Circumstances might necessitate the input of professional agencies which have clear remits to contribute at whole-school, group or individual levels of involvement. Short-term targets may focus on speedy improvements in attaining specific competences, expedited by time-limited, solution-based approaches to resolving pressing concerns. Longer-term objectives could embrace the acquisition of interpersonal skills and a sense of self-assurance. Indeed, for all, it is fitting to move forward well beyond existing hindrances and to encourage positive and rewarding lifestyles.

The dangers of labelling and classification

The drawbacks of labelling can include obscuring learners’ needs, making unwarranted assumptions about their abilities, and inadvertently depriving them of occasions to engage in inclusive practices. Labels also may have a negative impact on the confidence of teachers who might come to the erroneous conclusion that a pupil’s requirements and capacities cannot be accommodated at their school. Improved appliance of assessment methods can detect the co-existence of differing cognitive and behavioural difficulties, all of which require to be addressed within carefully-organised modes of intervention.

Teachers and educational psychologists wish to ascertain strengths and requisites when assessing learners. Unfortunately, by engaging in a classification process they may unwittingly fabricate a rationale which results in pupils being even further removed from mainstream education. For instance, students can suffer a ‘triple whammy’ as when a categorisation unduly influences: (1) low expectations relating to their potential; (2) an assumption that they should not be accepted into a school; and (3) the likelihood of them being permanently excluded.

There has been a widely-held belief that categorisation and labelling are important in providing legal protection, acquiring funding and gaining access to extra assistance from services and educational establishments. Certainly, case studies to back this view can be found. Nonetheless, there are other ways in which these benefits could be obtained if a comprehensive framework of students’ rights was utilised.

Endeavouring to fit an individual’s needs into a single grouping can have deleterious consequences. In general, there has been a distinct move away from the usage of tight categories. However, even looser eclectic descriptions, such as ‘experiencing additional support needs’, carry with them the danger of being interpreted as a rigid classification. A constant emphasis on differences and a disregard of similarities opens the way to shifting from receptive towards restricted mentalities. Vigilance to ensure that a learner is not excluded (or should one say ‘imprisoned’?) via the improper use of a label is paramount. (In any case, do we not all have additional needs, albeit diverse ones at differing levels?)

Assessment which leads to well-directed assistance and incentives

Appropriate appraisal procedures are required to address difficulties and play a crucial role on behalf of learners who are experiencing them. They not only clarify levels of current competences and capabilities but also indicate which forms of involvement and aid are most advantageous. In erstwhile routines, a great deal of credence was given by professionals to formal intelligence tests and standardised results in connection with language and numeracy. More recently, there have been considerable criticism and scepticism concerning the application of such types of normative measures. Very often, as an alternative, the emphasis has been placed firmly on using assessment techniques to help structure and maintain successful tutoring strategies, adaptive behavioural interventions and uplifting learning environments.

There is much to recommend in utilising processes which combine accurate assessments of strengths and requirements alongside the identification of those circumstances best suited to needs. Carefully-staged observations of everyday situations are valuable in avoiding simplistic analyses when attempting to map out how best to intervene. Within therapeutic and educational surroundings, formative assessment can be highly beneficial in terms of promoting both effort and achievements. It enables teachers to highlight what learners have mastered already and to devise future learning pathways.

Skills relating to on-going constructive assessments may appear easy on paper but in practice require substantial expertise. They take account of: devising and setting realistic objectives for all students; sympathetically but rigorously monitoring their progression; providing feedback in an inspirational manner; and collaborating with learners in reviewing their aspirations and in planning forthcoming goals. A concerted engagement following this outline reveals hidden talents, rejects segregation and increases a sense of belonging.

“Our ability to reach unity in diversity will be the beauty and test of civilisation.” (Mahatma Gandi)


The needs of too many students are frequently missed, their perspectives misunderstood and their voices ignored among the bureaucratic and complex demands of modern education. A cultural shift is fundamental if inclusiveness is to gain traction. The acceptance of diversity and the commitment to ensuring equity for all entail high levels of advocacy, respect, tolerance, compassion and appreciation to permeate throughout learning communities. Unconscious bias has to be recognised and abolished along with negative stereotyping and labelling. Specialised support should be extended and focused within mainstream education, if necessary, using existing special schools and clinics as resource centres.

Governmental and local authority guidelines must wholeheartedly incorporate egalitarian principles and values. If official proposals or prescribed curricular topics prove to be unworkable, the duty of educationalists is to draw attention to deficiencies and to recommend or ‘reclaim’ appropriate courses of study and training programmes for their students. Schedules which include thoughtful and regular monitoring to enhance emotional wellbeing, acknowledge accomplishments and generate further advancement are key ingredients in maintaining successful developments. When effectively delivered, professional collaboration promotes confidence, self-belief and ‘can do’ mindsets regarding endless options for personal, social and intellectual growth.  

In summary, proponents of inclusive education aspire to foster welcoming, coherent and vibrant systems which:

  • are open and respectful to all learners without any imagined or created barriers to admission and full participation
  • provide individualised learning pathways which ensure meaningful progress irrespective of identity, attributes and social background
  • encourage students to take responsibility to attain their desired learning outcomes through well-planned and accommodating interchange and negotiation
  • offer a comprehensive and integrated range of counselling, guidance and supportive strategies in conjunction with relevant professional agencies and local facilities
  • help to build and maintain energetic, equitable and flourishing national and community services.


Points for consideration

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goal No 4: ‘To ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all’ (by 2030).

United Nations: Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities: General comment No 4, 2016. Article 24: Right to inclusive education: ‘The right to inclusive education encompasses a transformation in culture, policy and practice in all formal and informal educational environments to accommodate the different requirements and identities of individual students, together with a commitment to remove barriers that impede that possibility.’

These are world-wide challenges. How advanced is our nation in reaching these high standards? Perhaps, more basically, are those in positions of power and responsibility fully aware of goals to which they are committed?

Note: For a brief charter focusing on the principles and characteristics of equity and inclusion in education, please use the following link:

Additional note: A wide variety of items on inclusive practices are available for study and reflection at:

(Dr Frank O’Hagan previously was the Adviser of Studies to Bachelor of Education students at the University of Strathclyde. Later, he was a member of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Education.)

Accomplishments Education for All Educational development Learning Teaching skills

Education Really Matters: Raising Potential, Attainments and Achievements

Frank O’Hagan

Crisis? What crisis?

Criticism has been made that the term ‘attainment’ often is used and interpreted in too narrow a fashion. This view suggests that it is construed as applying primarily to measurements arising from formal assessments in traditional curriculum areas as language and literature, mathematics, social subjects and the sciences. There is no suggestion that these subjects are unimportant; simply that, if and when they are over-emphasised at the expense of other key constituents in education, evaluations made on the competence of many learners may be misjudged or undervalued. For these reasons, all-embracing phrases such as ‘potential, attainments and achievements’ have come to be regarded as more appropriate by many educationalists. 

Some media outlets seem to take to an open delight in distributing news about falling standards and highlight what they perceive to be a general decline in the overall accomplishments of young people. Given the manner in which various assertions are made, they may well reflect a lowering in the quality of research and reporting among elements of newspapers and social networks. To justify the claim of deterioration in any subject, it has to be convincingly established that the current position is being compared with an equivalent benchmark using relevant criteria. Instead of conjecture and speculation, unambiguous and valid verification has to be presented to the public. Too frequently, damning comparisons fail to convince. However, despite their usage and analysis regularly being highly misleading, there is a positive aspect to data on results being so eagerly awaited and cited in the press and internet. It is that appraisals of students’ abilities and talents are clearly matters of repeated concern and worthy of further investigation.

There numerous reasons as to why contrasting measures of the past with those of the present are extremely hard to substantiate. They cover:

  • using flawed or differing sampling techniques;
  • the adjusting and modifying of methods of assessment over a period of time;
  • altering and amending the contents which are taught in a particular subject making it nigh impossible to compare like with like; and
  • the evolving demands from commercial businesses concerning modern skills-based training as witnessed in science, computing, technology and engineering.

Contemporary industrial societies expect leavers from schools, colleges and universities to possess a range of knowledge and expertise which is dissimilar to that of previous generations. Of course, these observations do not assert that criteria are as elevated as they could or should be; only that references to discrete cohorts can so easily be unreliable or invalid. There is a crisis but it is a continuing challenge which is twofold in nature, namely that: (1) standards have never been deemed as high enough; and (2) the requirement for more inclusive and effective improvements in educational provision is forever with us!

Fake news, league tables and misuses of statistics

Areas of disquiet are publications and ensuing disagreements which arise with regard to league tables, based on published results, for educational establishments. At times, procedures can amount to a series of nationwide humiliations. Once again, there are many occasions when scrutiny and analyses ought to be undertaken in a more cautious, honest and professional fashion. On closer inspection, judgements sometimes have to be treated with suspicion or simply not be given credibility. Educational statistics are an illusion if they do not take full account of social and environmental factors influencing school populations.

Inappropriate conclusions can be drawn when, for example, differences and contrasts are made of results from comprehensive schools with other institutes which rigorously select their pupils. The use of statistics to highlight the so-called benefits and merits of selective and private schools or, for that matter, ‘elitist’ state schools can be downright dishonest. Such schools are generally associated with high academic results. Nonetheless, a breakdown of the data can demonstrate that in fact a so-called higher achieving school should be doing much better when other features, for instance deprivation rates, are taken into the reckoning. Moreover, some schools serving impoverished neighbourhoods are succeeding remarkably well, given the tasks which they are expected to undertake and the resources available to them.

Another case in point relates to conditions concerning the organisation of national examinations. It has been well known for many years that local authorities and schools vary in the percentages of their pupils who have special arrangements in place when they sit tests. Schools serving more affluent localities and private schools are in a favourable position to make use of assessments to identify pupils experiencing dyslexic conditions or other additional support needs. Consequently, the pupils may well have extra time allotted to them in exams and/or scribes to help with writing. How then can these schools be evaluated fairly against those in more deprived areas where pupils with similar difficulties have been less likely to have had comparable support and assistance? Some divergences are so extreme that the comparisons make little sense due to the advantages gained by the more privileged pupils.

 ‘Closing the gap’

In recent years a great deal of political debate has been concerned with what is commonly referred to as ‘closing the gap’. Issues on this important matter are generally considered and conveyed in terms of academic subjects rather than the much wider range of capabilities and personal qualities required in daily living and employment. A recurring mistake by policy-makers and the media has been to deliver their announcements as if there is only a singular gap. In the real world, within different social groupings in urban and rural communities, there are multiple inequalities in prospects for intellectual growth, academic qualifications and training options. A restricted focus on the outcomes of formal appraisals presents both a handicap and a disservice to learners. Moreover, it curtails a central aim of education, namely, to develop and establish a truly unbiassed, flourishing and mature society.

An institutionalized, rigged system exists and must be unravelled and reconstructed. If the powers that be are serious about closing gulfs and expanding opportunities, they can start by ending child poverty which is continually at scandalous levels. How can impoverished families focus on future advancement in the here and now of a ‘postal lottery’ when they are struggling to survive?

Addressing various disparities, while raising standards, will give rise to a host of predicaments which demand a sequence of appropriate, evidence-based interventions. After careful deliberation on the circumstances and specific drawbacks existing within schools and their locations has been undertaken, suitable resources need to be supplied and well-targeted strategies implemented. If weaknesses are to be fully remedied, attention has to be given to the needs of all learners which implies that ‘within-school’ fissures also have to disappear. After all, neglect of even a small number of learners creates an unwelcome gap. Efficient and connected approaches, along with the on-going belief and commitment of staff and students that ‘together we can do it’ are crucial in advancing towards increased success rates. Levels of quality across the curriculum can be raised but, like many other desirable purposes, collective endeavour and willpower are essential.

Reasons to be cheerful?

Educators from nursery to university have a sense of duty and resolve to promote long-lasting satisfaction and happiness within learning processes. A continuous prominence on the love of learning and on fulfilment through personal progress provides a firm foundation on which norms and outcomes can be upgraded. When students experience sensations of immersion and total involvement in learning, sometimes referred to as ‘flow’ by advocates, they are enabled to map out pathways for steady improvement and to constantly add to the sum total of what they have already accomplished. Nonetheless, at times, there may be too much stress on positivity. Hopes, alas, are not synonymous with dreams; optimism and high expectations need to be balanced alongside pragmatism and moderation. Pupils usually are aware that it is best for them to be well prepared for arduous times and unexpected circumstances. They realise that it is advisable to give some consideration to possible outcomes which might not be as good as previously had been anticipated and that, if this turns out to be the case, to remain composed and geared up to forge ahead.   

The impetus for advancement in knowledge and applied skills can be found in some key ingredients which are already present in current practices. These include students: feeling confident and well supported; being sufficiently involved and challenged, but not overwhelmed, in their studies; and having a genuine belief in the usefulness of selected curricular activities. Involving them in regular, sensitive and insightful checking of their endeavours and contributions is one proven means of fostering success. Passing on greater responsibility to self-evaluate and monitor progress is an integral component of a thriving learning environment. Effective ways of doing so take account of: (1) constantly enabling students to participate in making  decisions on their individualised targets; (2) ensuring that they are well acquainted with the goals which, with sufficient effort, they can realistically achieve; (3) establishing confidential feedback mechanisms, including the use of up-to-date technologies, which are easily accessible to them, their parents and guardians; and (4) encouraging them to draft and analyse a model curriculum vitae and then to decide on what curricular route they need to follow towards fulfilling their well-grounded aspirations.

Towards an agenda for improvement

Most would agree that governments should strive to adopt and implement improvement policies which endorse a desire to learn, the expansion of skills, creative thinking, and open and flexible mindsets from infancy to old age. The promotion of an abiding and authentic culture bestows real benefits regarding human capital, prosperity, health and wellbeing. 

Prerequisites change considerably as learners grow older and move along distinct steps from nursery through primary and secondary schooling to vocational programmes, college or university and beyond. Moreover, prospects associated with further tutoring and professional enrichment for workers and adult students have to figure in any far-reaching innovations. The quality of recording evidence of progress is important all the way through these inter-linked phases and is critical in the embellishment of existing capabilities and proficiencies.

During the infant, primary and early secondary years, children generally experience broad play and/or learning programmes and often work on integrated topics which cover a variety of subjects; there is a tendency to concentrate on developing their knowledge and understanding across curricular areas. Towards the end of secondary education, they can begin to focus on and specialise in specific subjects of interest. For those who wish to undertake commercial or industrial training, while the value of some traditional skills and trades has diminished, new avenues have become accessible. At college and university, openings to follow distinctive routes abound. Through all these stages, objectives will be reached if learners are given worthwhile opportunities to take advantage of the serendipitous breaks and options which come their way. At the same time, society needs to acknowledge the folly of excessive usage of computational schemes when assessing individuals. There is an urgent necessity for better methodologies to be initiated through applying a greater significance to more eclectic and value-based approaches.

The ‘measurement agenda’, when it dominates the comments and observations of evaluators, limits perspectives and fails to place a spotlight on the numerous hidden but valuable abilities and attributes of many young people. Alternative recording routines for transitional phases need to be introduced to provide more accurate and holistic profiles. As indicated earlier, an over-emphasis on quantitative analysis risks accentuating unnecessary competitive attitudes and dubious, judgemental conclusions. They also have a propensity to nudge some examination boards towards resembling number-crunching accountancy firms using dodgy data and superficial algorithms. Additionally, education authorities must continue to beware of suspect inter-school comparisons and their deleterious effects, particularly if based on unfair suppositions. Crucially, teaching staff deserve to have a more direct say and responsibility in relation to the content of courses of study and on the types of qualifications and post-school destinations which are most meaningful to their students.

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The following quotation which often is attributed (though probably incorrectly) to Albert Einstein seems apposite when discussing quantitative and qualitative assessment procedures. ‘Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.’

Learning communities together with their students must remain at the centre of all deliberations. Educators are fully aware that, in addition to reflecting on how well their educational establishments are functioning, it is imperative never to ignore the abilities, aptitudes and development of every student. Each one has the capability to move forward and it is the accumulation of individual endowments which generate overall performance. (In fact, simply encouraging pupils from more deprived environments to turn up for examinations has been found to boost the degree to which a secondary school has progressed!)

A clear benefit of targeted support and guidance for learners from diverse social backgrounds is that, as participants, they can profit through becoming more engaged, responsive and forthcoming. Attempts to upgrade benchmarks must include all concerned, including young persons who appear disenchanted and/or rebellious. They may feel that there is little possibility of them fitting in with any kind of ‘culture of excellence’ – whatever that might mean to them. Fairness and inclusiveness demand that a thorough account is taken of the feats of those experiencing difficulties relating to physical or mental health. Acceptance of, and commitment to embrace, those who are profoundly neglected or in need of assistance will greatly enrich society as a whole. Everyone matters!  

Concluding remarks

Undoubtedly, the prospects for learners, regardless of social background, can be enhanced in many ways. A key factor is to ensure that there are first-rate chances for both young and old to have authentic ownership of and control over their futures. We only have to note the remarkable transformation which has occurred due to greater female emancipation and the subsequent entitlement to studies from which girls and women were previously barred.

The following points are worthy of further enquiry when the topic of potential, attainments and achievements are discussed:

  • accomplishments and successes are about much more than results in tests; there should always be appropriate consideration given to other relevant factors such as aptitudes, interpersonal skills, giftedness, practical know-how and participation in sporting and cultural activities
  • thoughtful analysis and scrutiny must be assigned to the use and reporting of statistics, particularly when the outcomes seem to be sensationalist or melodramatic; in particular, caution is necessary when contrasting current learners with those of previous generations or when one educational establishment is compared with another
  • there are many reasons to be optimistic as to how advances can be taken forward so long as inspiring programmes of study and suitable resources are made available to enable all learners to follow their aspirations and augment their talents
  • the recognition and celebration of potential, attainments and achievements, when coupled with efficient independent governance by a national agency, are extremely significant and advantageous not only for individuals but also for families, local communities and a state’s cultural and economic growth.
Everyone can be a winner!

(Frank O’Hagan previously was the Adviser of Studies to Bachelor of Education students at the University of Strathclyde. Later, he was a member of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Education.)

Education for All Educational development Learning Teaching skills

Education Really Matters: Assessment

Frank O’Hagan

A complex and controversial topic

One of the many contentious areas in education relates to the purpose and nature of how evaluations are made, and reports are written, about the abilities and talents of children and older students. The main issues which appear in the media and are of concern to teachers and parents may seem initially to be relatively simple. However, further inspection shows them to be both elaborate and multifaceted. For a start, the focal point of an appraisal might be related to everyday knowledge, practical skills, analytical capability, dexterity, originality, inventiveness, problem-solving, creativity or a mixture of these features.  Furthermore, assessment practices cover a wide variety of age and social groups and can take many forms – written examinations with open or multiple-choice questions; one-to-one interviews and participation in group discussions; hands-on and experimental tasks; project work; research dissertations; and so forth. In all of these procedures, judgments can be made along a broad spectrum ranging from the use of narrow, strict criteria to very vague and subjective guidance. Predictably, the opinions and conclusions made by students, guardians, schools, universities and employers with regard to the significance and value of the information contained in assessment reports are frequently open to large discrepancies.

Educationalists have to consider the reason for an assessment as well as its modus operandi. For example, initial or base-line assessment is used to establish the abilities of pupils prior to starting a programme of work whereas summative assessment is intended to measure competences at the end of a course. Conversely, formative assessment has an important role to perform in monitoring advancement and to highlight improvements which are being implemented while coursework is still on-going. Two other approaches, worthy of note as they can be particularly helpful to students, are: (1) self-referenced assessment which enables them to measure advances against their previous standards during the interval from a designated starting point and (2) goal-based assessment to record the achievement of targets which previously had been set for, and understood by, individuals or groups.

Some cautionary notes

In practice, there is no single ideal means of gauging learners’ exact knowledge and understanding in common curricular areas, for instance, in language and literature, mathematics, scientific studies, the arts and technology. Similarly, this is true for notable human characteristics and qualities such as personality, general intelligence and employability. Even though nurseries, schools and further and higher educational institutions may place great significance on the outcomes of appraisals, caution is applicable in relation to their management at all ages and stages. A case in point would be excessive use of quantitative and psychometric tests which are often administered inappropriately. Probably some serve the interests of their publishers and professional test users much better than pupils or parents who can be confused or misled by what these methods pertain to demonstrate. An on-going problem with standardised measurements arising from personality profiles or details about intelligence is that they can reinforce the spurious notion that personal attributes and ability are fixed entities.

Other factors – such as the context in which examinations take place, the emotional stress levels of those being appraised, and the criteria for grades to be decided by assessors – regularly feature in civic deliberations. Moreover, there is the possibility of inherent bias being concealed within administrative processes as regards gender, social class or ethnicity. Undeniably, time and again, there is a strong case to be made for having very clearly-stated ‘health warnings’ issued along with formal assessment reports. Substantial caveats also apply to cumulative data collections which are analysed to make comparisons of results among schools as well as those gathered for the circulation of national statistics.  

Validity, reliability and usefulness

Despite there being recognisable difficulties and limitations, it seems to be generally agreed that to compute in a reasonably objective manner how students – or, for that matter, schools, education authorities and nations – are performing is a desirable goal. In spite of the urgency, it is unsurprising that this aim, with its various stumbling blocks and obstacles to overcome, continues to be mired in uncertainties and disagreements. Students from all backgrounds are the blameless victims of these predicaments. They deserve clarification and elucidation as assessment and its subsequent effects are matters of extreme importance to them. If satisfactory solutions are to be found, it is absolutely necessary for educationalists to be confident that approved procedures possess validity, reliability and usefulness. These three concepts are intricate and only a brief outline of them is provided in what follows.  

Validity relates to a calculation of any kind actually measuring what it claims to measure. Questions about how well everyday assessments really do judge targeted features need to be raised more often than is currently happening. Frequently, they are well wide of the mark in terms of accuracy, or in worse-case scenarios, they measure something else. In such circumstances, there is a pressing requirement to re-evaluate whatever approach is being undertaken. Currently, many assessments are largely, if not entirely, paper-based which raises questions regarding validity in relation to practical and life skills beyond educational establishments. Fixed, restricted conventions should be challenged if they are viewed as falling far short of determining competences appropriately. Public debate, including through the use of social media, should be encouraged to examine issues about how best to develop well-founded and justifiable arrangements for appraisals.   

In general, reliability is largely concerned with the extent to which an analysis provides consistent results in what it is measuring. One form of reliability, referred to as stability, is when there are consistent scores if repeated at different junctures. Features to be taken into consideration include the methods, frequency and organisation of assessments. An evaluation can be consistent but invalid through giving a constant result when repeated but, in reality, not measuring what is intended. Indeed, some tests are consistently invalid! At times, snags relating to validity and reliability may appear to be present simultaneously. For instance, coursework for national examinations with input largely completed by parents and tutors, or purchased over the internet as occasionally happens, would most likely not be of the same specification if it had been completed without any assistance. Likewise, tests undergone after a holiday period can indicate poorer academic performances than would have been the case if they had taken place at the end of term prior to vacation. In particular, it would be of no surprise to class teachers if they found this feature to be more marked for pupils from deprived backgrounds who did not have the same level of academic support as others while away from school.

What is often overlooked when debates rumble on about assessment is consideration of the usefulness of current practices. To meet the ‘utility’ criterion, assessors need to be able to show conclusively that the processes are genuinely worthwhile in terms of duration, costs and realistic gains. If they are a disservice to pupils’ and teachers’ efforts, too bureaucratic or of little value to stakeholders, why have them? All undertakings ought to guarantee trustworthy purposes which are clearly understood by recipients, including those who use the results when they are making decisions about students’ futures. Assessors – whether in educational establishments or industry – are in very influential positions. They have the power to arrive at conclusions which will impact on the life-long consequences of individuals. With such dominance comes great responsibility.

Prioritising the advantages of those teaching and taught   

From the perspective of learners, there are occasions when little or no thought seems to have been given to the suitability of common assessment practices. As indicated previously, the question which needs to be addressed is ‘What are the benefits for both those being taught and their teachers? For instance, sometimes arrangements and frequency in gauging practical skills should be more akin to driving tests for motor vehicles. Students could be assessed when they rate themselves ready and, if they do not reach appropriate prerequisites, have further opportunities to re-sit their examinations.

Additionally, pupils experiencing difficulties may achieve targets within their individualised educational programmes but have had unsatisfactory learning experiences while working towards them. As a result, they may be much less motivated to participate in forthcoming work or to proceed to the next stages. In this situation, what appears in a report to have been a success may actually have been detrimental to their further development.

For a comprehensive review of progress, a blend of mixed tactics may be necessary to obtain greater accuracy than, as often happens, results being devised after a nondescript, written and timed examination. Merely bestowing a number or a rating on levels of attainment can be very limited as to denoting further intellectual growth or applied expertise.

The introduction of new procedures should be designed with the key principle of enabling scholars to understand how to move forward in a positive fashion. Categorisation arising from judgments and decisions can so easily be the forerunner of an unintended form of stigmatisation. A recurrent hazard, widely acknowledged, is that assigning grades brings with it the possibility of dispiriting students who either perceive themselves as failures or are labelled as such by others. Too much emphasis on testing, especially when students are ill-prepared, can lead to unnecessary pressure and anxiety. When supplementary forms of monitoring are planned, their efficiency ought to be substantiated beforehand rather than be introduced as a fad or political gesture. If, as is constantly claimed by politicians, regular national tests of young pupils are helpful in ensuring that standards are being raised, then this assertion should be supported by well-documented research.  

Prevailing pressures on tutors can coerce them towards giving too much attention to quantitative methods of reporting at the expense of qualitative approaches. Discerning teachers realise that formative and dynamic assessment techniques are very advantageous in many ways to students of all ages. When evaluating achievements, there is much to be gained from objectively observing learners’ awareness and responsiveness, investigating their contributions, and listening to their explanations of what they feel they are accomplishing. Such courses of action can identify: superior learning strategies; productive work habits; successful incentives; the most effective forms of instruction; and the levels of intervention and support entailed to fulfil potential abilities and giftedness.

One aspect in which traditional techniques fail significantly relates to the appraisal of complex competencies which are relevant – at times essential – with regard to inter-personal relationships and professional proficiency. For example, in both formal and informal assessment across age groups, know-how concerning decision-making, problem-solving, self-evaluation and cooperative work with others are often neglected. Nonetheless, such aspects of performance are highly valued by students themselves, educationalists and employers. Current practices require to be upgraded to address this significant weakness.


Ascertaining features about learners’ abilities, dexterity and personal traits can be highly functional and profitable in the enhancement of their educational experiences and progress. However, careful scrutiny and reflection are necessary in the formulation of guidelines. In turn, these always should be implemented in an appropriate, well-designed and purposeful manner.

High quality assessment has the following characteristics: (1) it has proven validity, reliability and usefulness; (2) its administration is undertaken by skilled and committed personnel who have received suitable training; (3) it provides substantial information, feedback and guidance which will augment the quality of learning and teaching; (4) its execution and outcomes are of benefit to all relevant stakeholders, particularly the students involved; (5) it has an apposite health warning, especially when it forms the basis of vital decisions about a student’s future.

Unfortunately, there are those with responsibilities for assessment within education who are fully aware of the failures and shortcomings of current practices but negligently continue to promote the status quo. While acknowledging the obstacles and challenges which they face, their report card perhaps should begin mischievously with that familiar, if unwanted, adage ‘Not good enough! Must do much better!’ – followed, of course, by positive and constructive suggestions on how matters could be considerably improved!  

(Dr Frank O’Hagan previously was the Adviser of Studies to Bachelor of Education students at the University of Strathclyde. Later, he was a member of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Education.)

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Education Really Matters: Leadership in Education

Frank O’Hagan

Why is leadership in learning communities so important?

Despite conflicting views on the characteristics of effective leadership, it is a topic which cannot be ignored. Much depends on the personal, philosophical and ethical qualities of those who are charged with providing authentic advice and guidance. Deliberations also should focus on the framework in which they operate and undertake their responsibilities, with associated procedures and outcomes requiring to be kept under constant review. Given the countless on-going developments in practices, it is pertinent to take a systematic look at what stewardship in all aspects should entail.

Depending on the context, terms used in job descriptions such as leader, manager, chief education officer or director can be interpreted in differing ways. Regardless of positions or power, those concerned might be judged by their subordinates and others to be ‘enthusiastic’ or ‘pessimistic’, ‘helpful’ or ‘dispiriting’, ‘brilliant’ or even ‘downright evil’! There are numerous examples of inspiring leaders delivering improvements which result in happy, energetic environments. It is always gratifying to listen to cheerful narratives of this kind. Unfortunately, the deleterious ramifications arising from management which has malfunctioned are evident in many contemporary educational bodies. Very high standards may be expected but, like business and politics, education is strewn with administrators who have been catastrophic failures, bankrupt of constructive ideas.

The features underlying good governance require positive responses to certain key questions. Do managerial structures promote equity, inclusiveness, respect and confidence among all participants? Have leadership roles been shared or are they tightly controlled by a small faction? Is there an undoubted awareness of and attention to the needs, views and aspirations of students, staff, parents, guardians and the local area? Has collective trust been established and enhanced? Is there a willingness to acknowledge mistakes, learn from them and make the necessary adjustments and advances?

When things might go astray

Progressive regulations enable working conditions and the pursuit of knowledge to be pleasurable and fruitful; the converse often results in stress, personal harm and the undermining of the growth of a vibrant culture. On occasions, inadequate conduct of affairs can be characterised by a toxic mix of attributes which indicate that executives who perform more poorly than others are likely to be the weakest at estimating their own abilities (sometimes referred to as a Dunning-Kruger type effect). Without doubt, some in positions of authority who are incompetent are also too inept to realise that this is the case.

There are various ways in which policymaking styles can produce umbrage among a workforce. For example, autocratic headteachers can be gruff and abrasive with insufficient patience to consider sensible or useful suggestions from within their organisations. Indeed, cases of ‘macho-management’ can provide notable illustrations of how to lose good staff!  In contrast, there is what might be described as the laissez-faire administrator who takes a distant, hands-off approach leaving others to take on responsibility and, of course, the blame when events go askew. Charisma can certainly be an advantage but the charismatic leader may lack a value-based stance and can be regarded by staff as a charlatan if the initial alluring appeal falls short in delivering worthwhile outcomes. Yet another exemplar – the ‘invisible boss’ – relates to heads who confine themselves to their own offices or who are frequently away from their workplaces. It is particularly ironic for abandoned colleagues if, in their view, the reason for repeated absences is to attend self-development sessions in the quest for further promotion! Small wonder if such a lack of engagement leads to failures in acquiring a genuine grasp of the real hassles or devious and subtle subplots at play under their radar. Neglect of duty breeds resentment.

Much more than interviews required before permanent appointments

It may appear surprising that many education officers and heads of educational establishments, despite having been viewed in previous posts as talented high flyers, fail to achieve success in new settings. It could that they conveyed a very good impression at interview (‘talking the talk’) but had not been adept at making headway in ‘real-life’ circumstances (‘unable to the walk’). If decisions are based mostly on performance during interviews, there is the possibility that those who have been appointed may have unintentionally misled their employers with false promises. After taking up their posts, they were not up to scratch in accomplishing commitments. Alternatively, they may have found themselves unexpectedly in an organisation with downcast and disheartened senior support staff. A debilitating culture prevailed and they did not possess the requisite drive and management skills to establish effective working relationships. Every derailment has its own story to tell.

There needs to be a reliable arrangement which guarantees robust and evidence-based reasons behind key appointments. These could be based on: careful scrutiny of personal and social qualities, such as in teamwork; proven achievements in previous positions of responsibility; and professional attributes relating to creativity, problem-solving, innovative practices and evaluation procedures. The decisive factor for confirming that the correct personnel have been selected begins with the appointees fully embracing their responsibilities and embarking on an improvement trajectory. They need to establish clearly that their priorities, judgements and implementation methods result in demonstrable progress for all concerned. On occasions, there will be justifiable reasons for tenures to be of a temporary nature until it is definite that selections are appropriate. At the same time, in order to be fair to them and with their wellbeing in mind, there also should be routes to allow them to return to previous posts in which they were proficient and comfortable.

Facing up to challenges

It is misleading to perceive learning communities as homogenous entities or to evaluate their ethos simply through public statements made by their promoted staff. Their administration and structures, particularly in the larger ones, are generally complex. Additionally, guidelines, customs and traditions can be preset and inflexible. Recognising the intricacy and actuality of any establishment’s multifaceted nature provides a frank and straightforward basis on which to construct advancement and growth. There may well be individuals, groups or departments which are resistant or antagonistic towards change and prefer to remain within the limitations of their comfort zones. Such circumstances need to be addressed openly and agreements reached on how best to take processes forward in a strategic and purposeful fashion.

When an organisation begins to function poorly there is often a constellation of adverse factors leading predictably to the breakdown of everyday routines.  A specific responsibility of leadership during periods of adjustment is to focus on the overall welfare of students and staff. Regrettably, some senior managers have yet to realise that stress and tensions frequently arise from institutional factors, such as poor communication or inadequate guidance. Instead, in their mindsets, stress is regularly associated with personal defects related to designated tasks with the culpability lying squarely with the individual. However, very good teachers can be subject to anxiety through no fault of their own. Skilled and compassionate supervisory styles identify and address the true causes of unnecessary strains and pressures. They take steps to prevent employee burnout, promote wellbeing and ensure that support is given when it is needed. Such managers, at all levels, spend time and engage with others in finding solutions. They also are competent at reframing the sources of stress into a series of reasonable challenges which are acceptable to those encountering difficulties.

Towards a collegiate approach

The traits of those in power comprise a spectrum from hubris to humility. However, there is a strong case for maintaining that modesty prevails over arrogance in terms of desirability and long-term effectiveness. The qualities of self-effacement, honesty and compassion in leadership, though undervalued in practice, are often those which are remembered most fondly about our former bosses. It is unfortunate that some leaders who take up their new posts are full of the own self-worth and, on appointment, are needlessly too critical of the organisation over which they now wish to impose their control. They take pleasure in scoring easy points at the expense of previous administrations. Initially, their edicts may be greeted with guarded enthusiasm due to assurances of better times ahead. However, their over-confidence and disregard for the views of staff can be increasingly upsetting and gradually their influence wanes. Too much domination and insufficient partnership make an ill-starred combination.

Beware of the headteacher or principal who goes on about ‘my school’ or ‘my college’ rather ‘our school’ or ‘our college’. There may be not only be a profusion of ‘’my’ and ‘I’ in conversations but a lack of connectedness with others. Public pronouncements begin to resemble fake news with the sole aim of impressing their targeted audiences. To the onlooker, such forms of egocentric or hierarchical leadership can convey a sense of vanity and self-importance but might also indicate deeper problems. Sadly, behind masks of poise, assertion and egotism, there can lie feelings of insecurity and melancholy. In matters of leadership there is much room for a whole-hearted emphasis on collective and collaborative involvement in decision-making, with ‘we’ replacing ‘I’ on most occasions!

Education needs leadership at every level to provide responsible and efficient choices along with a value-based vision regarding confronting setbacks and bringing improvements into operation. Acting with honesty, fairness and integrity and relating with learners and colleagues in a principled manner form the foundation for thriving and harmonious working partnerships. A crucial quality during a time of transition is the promotion of a genuine sense of attachment and belonging throughout the entire learning environment. This upbeat outlook directly influences attendance, behaviour and achievement among students and for staff it enhances commitment to agreed aims, targets and policies. It acknowledges that, within and across groupings, shared leadership can be learned and nourished.

How educational communities and campuses benefit

There is a general acknowledgement that managers in education should be monitored and their decisions open to scrutiny and evaluation by independent observers. However, it is important to ensure that this viewpoint does not place exclusive attention on the expertise and impact of one person or of only promoted staff. The nature of modern systems demands the recognition that, if a campus is to become and remain successful, it will require a collective effort. What is needed is an unpretentious and integrated support network which entails staff accepting their professional responsibilities as executives concerning their own remits. Well-coordinated teamwork rather than autocratic control offers an alternative way of promoting both solidarity and accomplishments. Enlightened contemporary practices highlight the value of an all-encompassing collegiate modus which views stakeholders – including children, adolescents, parents and guardians – as having diverse leadership roles. This perspective enables everyone to contribute to generating and attaining truly flourishing and inclusive objectives.

Confident organisers do not blur the realities of their responsibilities or cause confusion through conveying ambiguous notions of how they wish to go forward. They are not afraid to communicate clearly and to ‘give away’ or ‘grow’ leadership skills. Not only do they share their ideas with others but also and, perhaps even more importantly, they create a climate in which alternative views and suggestions can be aired and debated. These traits are among the most distinguishing attributes of high quality administration. Allowing – indeed encouraging – pupils, guardians and staff to contribute can present headships with challenges. However, listening to the ideas and suggestions of others should enhance ownership within designated sectors. It also can augment opportunities for creative thinking, problem-solving and evidence-based advances. The sincere cultivation of managerial roles and acceptance with regard to joint implementation of related responsibilities nurture and strengthen mutual interests within a cohesive group. In turn, enthusiasm and resilience are promoted among all involved and energise them in overcoming barriers to progress.

Concluding comments

Good management is characterised by the use of thoughtful schemes which are:

  • candid and easily understood – as opposed to bureaucratic and confusing
  • achievable – distinct from multi-layered and overwhelming
  • open and accessible – unlike restricted or unavailable
  • empowering for everyone – in contrast to giving rise to feeling unimportant or afraid of being regarded as a failure.

This stance yields ideas which display respect for diversity and promote inclusiveness. Without exception, members of the learning community are encouraged to perceive themselves as agents of positive change. Well-judged initiatives guarantee that there is a pragmatic improvement plan which originates from an objective analysis of existing strengths and weaknesses and results in clarity of aims, appropriate short- and long-term targets, and forward-looking strategies for promoting motivation, scholarship and health. What is sometimes labelled in current jargon as a ‘vision statement’ should clearly summarise the aspirations of all, including parents and guardians.

Authentic trailblazers seek to uphold exemplary values and to share them with integrity and warmth. In doing so, they heartily sustain and reinforce high standards. Additionally, by presenting opportunities for the further development of expertise in leadership, they contribute to the collective capital wealth and wellbeing. Promoted staff have key roles to undertake within this process by ensuring that all stakeholders are valued and feel confident that they can carry out their obligations and assignments successfully.

In summary, purposeful leadership ensures the enhancement of professional satisfaction among everybody with accountability for delivering a meaningful curriculum. Simultaneously, it focuses on a united, communal approach towards establishing features related to personal worth. These include agency, self-belief, relevant attainments and achievements, life skills and emotional resilience among students of all abilities. Within a dynamic and cooperative ethos, staff have autonomy and conviction while undertaking their duties; students embrace and enjoy their studies and acquire pertinent competences. Ultimately, the essential qualities of a motivated and inspiring milieu must be that affirmative aspirations and activities are to be found at all levels of engagement within a secure, pleasant and civilised learning culture.  

(Dr Frank O’Hagan previously was the Adviser of Studies to Bachelor of Education students at the University of Strathclyde. Later, he was a member of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Education.)

The efficient usage of new technologies opens up worthwhile challenges for imaginative leaders to extend educational opportunities for learners for all abilities.
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Education Really Matters: Promoting Authentic Learning

Frank O’Hagan

Learning is for living and for life.

Building a culture of love for learning

When I was a young teacher, I remember a colleague reporting on his child’s first day at school. Let us refer to her as Scholastica for reasons which will become apparent. He and his wife, also a school teacher, had taken care to prepare Scholastica thoroughly for her formal entry into primary education, trying to make certain that she would respond enthusiastically and confidently to her early experiences. The infant class teacher also had made detailed plans to ensure that her precious beginners settled well into their new environment. Initially she gave them the freedom to chat, play and generally explore the classroom and its contents. However, before this first stage of the teacher’s planning was over, Scholastica stood in the middle of the room, hands on hips, and declared that these goings-on were all fine and good but wanted to know when the real learning would begin! 

This anecdote raises questions about the nature and value of ‘real learning’ – or of what might be described more appropriately as ‘authentic learning’. The concept can be interpreted and understood in differing ways depending on students’ perspectives. It is characterised by cognitive activities which are developmental, internalised, useful and practical. Furthermore, it has continuity in the sense that it supports and nurtures the acquisition of added knowledge and a deeper understanding of a topic. It is multi-faceted and certainly is not restricted by a single, formulaic procedure or method. Other features would include learners recognising their talents, advancing their comprehension, giftedness and wisdom, and accepting personal responsibility for making progress.

Of course, purposeful learning is by no means confined to what takes place in educational establishments. It is without boundaries. Active minds of both the young and old find enjoyment in seeking out and finding stimulating learning opportunities within their daily schedules. Learners of all ages can experience intellectual satisfaction through a wide variety of ordinary practices and pastimes. These range across reading, group discussions and watching television documentaries to partaking in computer-based and online learning, research and vocational training. Parents, guardians and teachers need to provide time, in terms of both quantity and quality, to listening to learners’ voices, interacting constructively with them and encouraging a love of learning. A hale and hearty society builds a culture in which all wish to extend their knowledge, skills and expertise.

Engagement and ownership

All enthusiastic scholars have the capacity to ‘learn how to learn’ more efficiently. Educationalists have to take a firm stand against the pursuit of superficial knowledge and be able to demonstrate to students that lessons, tutorials and study have both vital purposes and positive objectives. The impact of neurological factors on learning – for example, in relation to brain development, anxiety, stress and sleep deprivation – is rightly receiving close attention from researchers. Undoubtedly, there is a strong case against viewing learning as simply about cognitive and intellectual processes without also considering personal, emotional and social factors.

At all times, attention is required to ensure that students are neither overly bored nor anxious about their tasks. If they are placed unwillingly into academic or training programmes or fail to recognise the rationale behind what is being asked of them, their eagerness and motivation to move forward can easily fade. Well-expressed enthusiasm on the part of teachers can stimulate students and make lessons more enjoyable. On occasions, they may need time to allow for the incubation of fresh ideas prior to proceeding to the next stages of their syllabus. Related to taking ‘breaks’ is the importance of reflection on problems and hypotheses in the consolidation of new information and its practical applications. 

In worthwhile academic work, students are active contributors within the overall process and fully engaged in reaching both unexpected or planned outcomes. It cannot be the case of a sibling, teacher or lecturer merely dispensing facts and data. There needs to be genuine intellectual involvement on the part of recipients. Key features are ownership of and commitment to supportive learning pursuits which in turn lead to a better grasp of concepts and the development of more complex competences. Participation can include a multiplicity of cerebral and concrete tasks embracing lateral thinking, investigative assignments and verbal presentations. ‘Digital empowerment’ (or what might be referred to as CRISMATICS, namely proficiency in the use of Computers, Robots and Intelligent Software) opens opportunities for independent learning in areas of special interest. Additionally, improvements in the organisation of facilities for hybrid learning across individual, in-group and virtual environments will result in widespread progress.

Curiosity, creativity, problem-solving

The evolution of an enquiring mind and outlook is another feature which is associated with successful learning. Encouraging research, evaluating findings and examining their own ideas and those of their peers are of consequence. Through such strategies students are enabled to widen their interests in new possibilities, are confident enough to discuss and analyse their efforts, and are willing to explore alternative ways of resolving puzzling issues. Albert Einstein (famous for his ‘thought experiments’) is said to have felt that familiar everyday creative actions were the foundation for highly significant innovative thinking. Although imaginative undertakings and group projects in classrooms are hardly expected to lead to the status of international breakthroughs(!), they undoubtedly are able to act as a catalyst for building up learners’ curiosity and sense of wonder. They can provide motivation to master exploratory techniques and problem-solving methodologies and to delve further into a specific theme or curricular area. However, endorsement in itself may not be sufficient. Skilful questioning by teachers can ascertain what students truly know, prompt them to correct inaccuracies and deepen their levels of understanding.

In contrast, to be avoided at all costs is the occurrence of what the mathematician and philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead, famously called ‘inert knowledge’ and ‘inert ideas’. These terms refer to aspects of information which are acquired by learners without a true grasp of their usefulness. They may only serve an inconsequential purpose and can be of a very momentary nature. Cramming reluctantly at the last minute for an examination, only to forget everything shortly after it is over, could be viewed as fitting  into the description of ‘inert knowledge’. To keep knowledge alive, Whitehead felt that it needed to enable learners to undertake effective problem-solving in real-life conditions. Indeed, through an understanding of the faults and failings of inculcating ‘inert ideas’, teachers can appreciate more clearly the genuine value of developing effective tactics to promote indisputable and valid advancement. When engagement in learning is a delightful and satisfying enterprise, the process can build up a dynamic momentum which leads to fresh aspirations and endless possibilities.

The joys of investigation, discovery and verification

A method which can be found to result in augmenting learning is commonly referred to as ‘discovery learning’. This approach focuses mainly on the process of enhancing pupils’ achievements and understanding through providing them with opportunities to explore and find out facts and results by themselves or in groups. In its purest form, advocates adopted a highly non-interventionist mode and, in some instances, this kind of methodology is still to be found. Criticisms of very open-ended pedagogic styles were that they turned out to be too time-consuming within an already crowded curriculum and that learners’ so-called discoveries were frequently inaccurate or frivolous. Certainly such risks exist. Of course, it should not be assumed that children and young people are able to investigate or detect everything; advances in human ingenuity generally build on what others already have ascertained.

Nonetheless, worth consideration as an alternative to a simplistic over-emphasis on unadorned discovery tactics is what might be termed ‘guided discovery’. For example, if required, learners would be given judicious hints, nudges or assistance along learning pathways. Since they may not be able to make progress without suitable backing, lucid instructions on how to move ahead from their prior knowledge will generate success. As a result of the incremental building of self-confidence, they benefit from asking Socratic questions about what they are learning and seek solutions to any inconsistencies or flaws. In time, due to increases in their abilities and autonomy, they can make more rapid steps forward through their own self-regulating endeavours in fact-finding, testing and presentation.

Learning across the curriculum

The need for effective learning and teaching extends across all subjects. We can find many pertinent instances of integrated strategies within any curricular area. The following brief example relating to aspects of personal, social and health education in supplementing some helpful features of life skills and general wellbeing is offered for scrutiny.

Thoughtful tutorials can enable pupils to develop a critical awareness of the messages with which they are targeted through advertising in the media or from reports on political and public affairs. Should they believe what advertisers, politicians, celebrities or, for that matter, some ‘scientists’ are proclaiming? Let’s face it – there is a great deal of spurious and untested information coming their way on a daily basis. Through examining the views and the points being conveyed, they can be asked to explore the intentions of the authors and pundits. If they feel that there are defects in what is being stated, they can proceed to re-examine opinions and identify how much might be exaggerations, inaccuracies, conjectures or misleading assumptions. Cultivating such thinking skills is particularly important if it becomes obvious that there has been a covert aim to encourage them to engage in careless financial practices or to entice them towards dubious or unwanted distractions. Such deliberations illustrate that there are many variables at play in fostering meaningful learning. They also signal the usefulness not only of well-founded knowledge and understanding of specific curricular subjects but also the merits of life and employability skills.

 More ‘real-life’ research requires to be undertaken directly within normal school and learning environments rather than in more remote experimental settings. A greater emphasis on evidence-based findings which identify best conditions, including the application of new technological study programmes, for individual and group learning is necessary. Appropriate explorations would include ascertaining the most productive ways of organising scientific studies for adolescents and how to enable young pupils to overcome cognitive and emotional aspects of anxiety linked with the learning of language or mathematics. Some research findings might lead to dramatic progress in curricular areas as could be the accumulative impact of a variety of small but germane improvements. All trainee and qualified teachers should be supported in further advancing their proficiency as practitioner-researchers to enable them to boost and enrich their cherished ‘learning communities’.

Concluding comments

Learning experiences generally require a set of prerequisites which enable them to be successful and effective. These can comprise personal attributes, the structure of programmes of study, the quality of support provided, and family and environmental influences. When optimum conditions reign, valuable outcomes such as self-knowledge, a thirst for relevant information and understanding, objectivity, open-mindedness and creative flexibility are likely to blossom. Personal characteristics of this kind will ensure that learners can adapt swiftly and appropriately to evolving and differing innovations, discoveries and occupations. Promoting constructive learning styles across all sectors of society is an immense challenge which every nation should welcome and champion. Significant cultural shifts towards meeting this commendable aspiration should be agreed by all as a highly desirable priority.

Key features of authentic learning for children, adolescents and adults, regardless of their ages, abilities or social backgrounds, include:

  • feeling valued and respected within well-planned and stimulating tutorial sessions and other inspiring settings
  • being able to listen, pay attention and take account of the ideas, suggestions and advice of trusted friends and teachers
  • developing versatility in comprehending instructions and tasks and in responding appropriately and imaginatively in different situations
  • having the self-belief and confidence to contribute in both individualised and group activities in order to achieve worthwhile attainments and achievements
  • participating enthusiastically in creative and lateral thinking, experimentation, problem-solving work, independent computer-based activities and online seminars
  • personalising approaches towards scholarship and erudition while accepting that at times learning can be challenging and needs to be perceived as an essential life-long process  
  • embracing a culture which is value-based and encourages the acquisition of useful knowledge, in-depth understanding and an array of transferrable skills for everyday living in a changing world.

Footnote: I wonder what became of Scholastica who clearly was an able and wholehearted learner. I do hope that she found success and satisfaction in pleasant and agreeable undertakings throughout her school career and beyond. Perhaps she became a headteacher or university professor and played a major role in promoting authentic learning for all her students. Assuredly, that is what headteachers and professors do. Don’t they? 

The human mind benefits from lifelong learning opportunities to advance and flourish.

(Dr Frank O’Hagan previously was the Adviser of Studies to Bachelor of Education students at the University of Strathclyde. Later, he was a member of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Education.)