Debating the ‘skills revolution’

The UK Department for Education (DfE) is in the midst of a philosophical battle over the nature of education – or what Schools Week editor Laura McInerney has described as a ‘masturbatory inter-ministerial argument’.

Nick Gibb, the education and equalities minister, has banned civil servants from using the term ‘skills’ when referring to education, because, as McInerney claims, ‘he doesn’t believe they exist’. Meanwhile, the new education secretary, Damian Hinds, is arguing for the importance of ‘soft skills’ (a focus on developing pupils’ character and resilience). To complicate things further, many Tories, including the former secretary of state for education, Justine Greening, are promoting the idea of a ‘skills revolution’.

Gibb has tried to argue his way out of this confusion by using semantics. He told the Education World Forum that when the Tories speak of ‘skills’, they really mean ‘knowledge-based skills’. But, as confusing and trivial as all this sounds, McInerney is wrong – this isn’t about intellectual masturbation.

The knowledge-versus-skills debate is extremely important. Until Michael Gove arrived as secretary of state for education, the battle for knowledge and a subject-based education was almost lost. Education was being restructured around skills said to prepare young people for the new global economy. Thankfully, this seems to be changing – especially in some new free schools and in parts of the curriculum.

McInerney mocks Gibb, in particular, but her approach is rather philistine. She argues: ‘Schools don’t need ministers to lock horns over philosophy, they need them to stop pratting about with cheap shots and nonsense, and instead come up with actual solutions to actual problems and announce those.’ But what she and many teachers and educationalists can’t see is that philosophical debates about the nature of education are crucial to ensuring a healthy system. Without a debate about what we should be teaching kids, we can’t identify the problems – or what the solutions might be.

What is happening in the DfE should be happening in every school and university in the UK. And if we want to be rid of the endless war over skills, educators must defend the principle of a knowledge-based education.

Dennis Hayes is a professor of education at the University of Derby.

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