Some thoughts on the purpose of education

The UK is a divided society and many current educational systems maintain inequality and rivalry. Intergroup tensions underpin international conflict. Instead of prioritising competition and achievement, should cooperation and understanding be at the heart of education?

Education as currently conceptualised and operationalised in the UK clearly doesn’t engage, include or provide meaningful educational opportunities for all young people.

We are a society that resolutely groups and classifies people. In relation to the current impact and outcomes of education, grouping and classification can be self-perpetuating and socially harmful.

Wilkinson and Pickett’s (2010) study showed that the size of the ‘gap’ between the wealth of the richest and poorest in society is strongly related to educational outcomes and social well-being, and low family income has been found to be causally related to children’s well-being and educational development (Cooper & Stewart, 2013).

The recent survey by CPAG (2015) estimated that 3.7 million children were living in poverty. It also happens that children eligible for free school meals are 4 times more likely to be excluded from school than those who pay for their meals. Excluding children already at risk because of poverty is adding insult to injury.

educational systems also mimic and perpetuate socio-economic stratifications

Whilst socio-economic disadvantage can be self-perpetuating, educational systems also mimic and perpetuate socio-economic stratifications. Thus, the ‘ability’ grouping of children in school is clearly of little advantage to any but disadvantages many, as well as creating groups that are hard to motivate and teach. Just labelling groups, can adversely affect teachers’ expectations (Gibbs & Elliott, 2015; Rosenthal & Jacobson, 1968).

However, it is also important to consider the effects being put in a group. Tajfel (see Tajfel, 1982) showed how being arbitrarily placed in a group generated behaviours favouring in-group members. More recent studies have shown how beliefs about social groups, become essentialised and prejudicial. In schools this is becoming a major issue with respect to children’s behaviour. Guidance for schools (DfE & DoH, 2015) now locates problematic behaviour within the province of ‘mental health’. Thus teachers may more readily judge challenging behaviour as a sign of mental ill-health (and thereby not the responsibility of school staff) and young people become fearful of being labelled ‘mental’.

Whilst the studies of intergroup processes did not, for Tajfel, leave much scope for optimism, the future does not need to be bleak. Cooperative working can reduce conflict. In dialogic teaching, for example, the collaborative and critical interactions generated between teacher and students, and between students, can have profound positive social and educational effects (Mercer & Howe, 2012). Thus, if members of differing groups are encouraged and enabled to interact with each other greater mutual understanding and respect can follow. More than ever we need greater understanding and acceptance of difference within our society, between nations and toward those who migrate in fear of their lives.

Education fails if it does not engage and motivate learners and provide them with understanding and skills that enable them to contribute as creative social beings now and in the future. At the moment education systems are not fit for that purpose.

We should ask if we want educational systems to perpetuate social and economic inequalities. It is possible for schools to engender understanding and tolerance, include all children and enable them to learn together. Today education segregates and divides. It is clear we don’t need more inter-group antipathy. We could choose to have different purposes and outcomes.


Cooper, K., & Stewart, K. (2013). Does Money Affect Children’s Outcomes?: A Systematic Review: Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

CPAG. (2015). Child poverty facts and figure.   Retrieved 13/01/2016, from

DfE, & DoH. (2015). Special educational needs and disability code of practice: 0 to 25 years. London: Department for Education.

Gibbs, S., & Elliott, J. (2015). The differential effects of labelling: how do “dyslexia’ and “reading difficulties’ affect teachers’ beliefs. European Journal of Special Needs Education, 30(3), 323-337. doi: 10.1080/08856257.2015.1022999

Mercer, N., & Howe, C. (2012). Explaining the dialogic processes of teaching and learning: The value and potential of sociocultural theory. Learning, Culture and Social Interaction, 1(1), 12-21. doi:

Rosenthal, R., & Jacobson, L. (1968). Pygmalion in the classroom. The Urban Review, 3(1), 16-20. doi: 10.1007/BF02322211

Tajfel, H. (1982). Social identity and intergroup relations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wilkinson, R., & Pickett, K. (2010). The spirit level: why equality is better for everyone: Penguin UK.

Taken from BERA

Simon Gibbs is currently Reader in Educational Psychology in the School of Education, Communication and Language Sciences, Newcastle University. He has worked in education for more than 40 years starting as a maths teacher. He then retrained and worked as an Educational Psychologist in the NE of England. Since 2007 he has been Director of Training in Educational Psychology at Newcastle University. His research is preoccupied with the psychology of education and teachers’ beliefs in their efficacy. Prompted by increasing concerns about the ‘medicalisation of childhood’ and the faltering progress of inclusive education, he has most recently been conducting investigations into the effects of labels (such as ‘Dyslexia’ and ‘ADHD’) on teachers’ expectations. He is married and lives in North Yorkshire.

The Education Endowment Foundation

The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF)  was set up in the last few years in the UK to fund randomised controlled trials of intervention to tackle the “attainment gap” – that is the gap between children with and without socially disadvantaged backgrounds.

Over 1.4 million (21%) children aged 4-15 are eligible for free school meals in this country. They will start primary school behind their better-off classmates – and this attainment gap will increase throughout their schooling. The attainment gap between rich and poor pupils is particularly stark compared with other OECD countries.

Young people with poor educational attainment are much more likely to end up not in education, employment or training (NEET). So the aim is to test out interventions and then introduce them into all schools. They do this by making information available to those responsible for providing service in schools and encouraging them to make the best evidence based decisions.

‌One of the main focuses of the EEF is literacy and more recently they have become interested in language development in the early years. They have produced summaries of the interventions that have been looked into – including parenting interventions, meta-cognition and self-regulation, digital technology, homework etc.

They have also produced a specific summary related to oral language interventions of direct relevance to everyone involved in the Action.

But the evidence does not speak for itself. It needs to be made available and relevant for different contexts and THEN it needs to be implemented. Again the EEF, recognising this, have come up with a new “Advocacy” scheme whereby interventions that they recommend are then rolled out in schools.

For this, they are focusing on the North East of England. We put in a bid to them to support such activity across 175 schools in the Teesside area – just south of Newcastle. They liked our bid and today we went for an interview with the EEF at the local Durham University to see whether they would support us. We do not know the answer yet and I will keep viewers of this blog up to date on how we get on. I am pathologically optimistic as ever.

The key thing here is that while bringing together and reviewing the evidence is key start to the process it is only that. The real challenge is meaningful translation.

James Law
Professor of Speech and Language Science, Newcastle University

COST Action IS1406 Chair.

This is taken from the COST Action IS1406 website.

Reflections on the Internationalisation seminar with the Pontificia Catolica Universidade Catolica do Rio Grande do Sul (PUCRS, 4th April 2016)

led by Sue Robson and Alina Schartner and Prof Marilia Morosini and Ana Wertheimer

My undergraduate degree in Spanish with French, here at Newcastle University included an element of Latin American literature and linguistics, and more recently I have come to understand this part of the world through hobbies and friendships with Latin American anthropologists in Newcastle and cultural events organised by Vamos. I try to transmit my enthusiasm to my students in my Spanish language classes. I aim to model how deeply meaningful intercultural learning can take place without physical mobility if one takes up the opportunities available.

As a University teacher and PhD student, the work of Brazilian educator Paolo Freire has been influential on my work, particularly his emphasis on the role of critical thinking in liberating us from oppression, and the view of this as the first step towards transformative social action. Freire’s statement that there is no such thing as a value free education reminds us that the dominant approach we observe today isn’t value free, it’s just driven by values that few educators share. For Freire education is a force of either liberation, or domestication, a distinction which underpins the two discourses around Internationalisation identified today as the Global Graduate / Global Citizen. The former emphasises the need to prepare students for the global labour market, whist the second is a lot broader and sees students as activists engaged in the struggle for a more just society. The former does not involve changing the status quo: students are prepared for the existing world order; whilst the second developing awareness of the power mechanisms perpetuate inequality, with a view to transforming societies for the common good. The direction in which I would like to steer my students then is more in line with Global Citizenship.


In both Brazil and the UK, Internationalisation is caught up in other sweeping changes to Higher Education. In Brazil this seems to be as a result of radical new legislation to promote the Democratization of Higher Education, similar to UK Widening Participation initiatives, and the expansion of the Brazilian private sector. Currently England and Wales are adjusting to major changes in funding sources, and the rapid expansion of free market economics, bringing with them managerialism, corporatisation and ‘student as customer’ approach. To my mind, the public /private sector tensions evident in Brazil are played out to some degree in the UK’s division of red brick versus new universities.

The approach to Internationalisation at both CUPU and Newcastle University was described as ‘symbolic’ with reference to Bartell’s (2003) continuum adapted by Robson and Turner (2007), whilst staff were concerned to move towards ‘transformative’ Internationalisation. In both contexts Internationalisation is associated predominantly with mobility – outward for Brazil and inward for Newcastle, reflecting dominant trends of south to north flows. Going abroad is highly prized in Brazil and associated with high status, and students are selective about where they want to go. Seminar participants today stressed the need to promote Internationalisation as a holistic institution-wide process. In both institutions staff engagement is patchy and may vary across disciplines.

Significant concern was expressed for the ‘home’ student experience of Internationalisation. In the UK these students are often portrayed as passive, xenophobic and parochial, rather than as individuals with particular histories and experiences which might affect their uptake of the opportunities Internationalisation offers them. In fact, Democratization and Widening Participation bring issues of race and social class and to the fore in Higher Education today presenting a very diverse classroom mix in both countries. The profile of ‘home’ students is varied: some are part-time working students, some are mature students, some have dependents, in Brazil some are living in dangerous areas and need to be home early. These factors may influence an individual’s past attitudes to and ability to engage with Internationalisation, particularly when it is mainly associated with physical mobility. The seminar agreed that the menu of opportunities should be enhanced and on a practical note Skype contacts for language learning between students from the two institutions was arranged.


The concept of ‘culture’ is often used in the analysis of student integration issues, yet used sloppily it can be unhelpful. ‘Culture’ is too often equated with national culture, and negatively with difference, conflict, distance etc. A broader interpretation of ‘culture’ and a look at other barriers to integration might lead to greater cohesion for all students. In the UK it is often assumed that ‘home’ students are in a position of power due to English being their ‘native’ language, and for their presumed familiarity with the Higher Education system, yet the reality is more complex. ‘Home’ student- international student relations look different if viewed in terms of socio-economic status: an internationally mobile, bilingual, fee paying International elite alongside a local, non-mobile working mature student. Values led Internationalisation, linked to social justice and the reduction of prejudice, requires that intercultural be defined as broadly as possible, and all barriers to interaction should addressed.

Student integration at the micro level must also be considered in relation to the wider social context. Firstly, the competitive environment and marketization discourse in Higher Education may encourage more instrumental attitudes to learning, travelling and international engagement in general. Secondly, dominant media discourse around of migration, immigration and war, terrorism may also consciously or subconsciously affect student attitudes to cultural Others. Culturally inclusive pedagogies should equip students with the tools to deconstruct media discourse and identity politics. Seminar participants agreed that   discussing highly sensitive political issues is part of the process of the international ‘becoming’ that the group aspires to for their students, although having staff members willing and able to take on this role may be problematic.

This leads us to ask, how we can enable transformative international experiences for our students when political, economic and media discourses in the sector and beyond seem to conspire against this? How can we ensure that students engage deeply with Internationalisation and don’t simply play the game, tick the boxes, by taking a holiday abroad whilst enhancing their CV, for example? Coming back to Freire, this is a question of values, and value change: an important question for a values-led approach to Internationalisation.


Caroline Burns has a BA (Hons) in Spanish with French from Newcastle University, and a MA in Applied Linguistics (TESOL) from Northumbria University where she has worked as a Lecturer in Languages since 2002. She is currently working towards completion of a Doctorate in Education in ECLS which focuses on the ‘home’ student experience of Internationalisation of Higher Education. Her research interests include Global Citizenship, critical pedagogy and narrative inquiry.


Disruptive thinking from an international perspective on education… in the midst of a learning journey in the UAE

This blog is written by a Secondary PGCE and M.Ed in Practitioner Inquiry alumni whose career pathway has taken him from North East England to the United Arab Emirates. Here he reflects on his career thus far and how his approach and mindset has its roots in his work on the Newcastle University M.Ed programme.

Shaun Robison image for blog

When I first started teaching, I was motivated by the challenge of teaching young people to think critically. I was always passionate about learning about other cultures, people and places and the opportunity to work on a government reform project focused on developing teachers’ pedagogy back in 2008 was too good to turn down. So I took the opportunity and moved to Al Ain, in the United Arab Emirates. Al Ain is the fourth largest city in the United Arab Emirates and has the largest population of Emiratis. I originally planned to stay for a year and return to Newcastle in an expanded role. As part of my role in the project, I was able to complete my dissertation for my M.Ed on ”The Impact of Thinking Skills in a UAE Context”.

Since then, I have worked as a teacher-trainer, school improvement partner, higher education director and project director for a British educational operator and an Indian investment company. I am also the Co-Founder of the UAE Learning Network – the largest network of teachers in the country, a member of the Education Intelligence Group and I served as a panel member on the Education Matters Show for 3 years on Dubai Eye Radio Station. I have worked in the classroom developing teachers’ pedagogy and I have also written government tenders, business plans for large scale education reform projects and new build projects. I take great pride in knowing how a business plan and feasibility study can impact on the outcomes within a classroom and how a teacher can be equipped to deliver an innovative curriculum from a commercial perspective. I call it the physics of education – knowing how all of the parts impact on each other and understanding how to leverage different components to get better outcomes for the children in the classroom.

Aside from my professional life, I have learnt and been immersed in Arabic and Emirati culture. Learning and living with another culture can be incredibly challenging but I have learnt so much about myself and others that I can only say that the experience has been incredibly enriching. My wife and I both completed our PGCE and M.Ed at the same time and we have shared this adventure together here in the UAE.

The international sector should not be looked upon with rose tinted glasses; like everywhere, it has its benefits and its limitations. I have seen the good, the bad and the ugly from many angles with respect to international schools so making the decision to teach abroad should not be taken lightly.

I have just recently conducted the first ever UAE Teacher and Educator Survey across the country. The findings have shocked certain sections of the industry here as they challenge the status quo but we have also highlighted the sector’s biggest challenge – retention of teachers. My intention for completing the survey was to give teachers a voice as they are often un-heard and on the fringes of the industry here, as it is purely market-led. I still remember and smile about the activity I did during my PGCE at Walker Technology College to gauge the teacher-voice within the school.  Working with and alongside teachers has been my constant passion since completing my PGCE and M.Ed and at my core, is everything I learnt at Newcastle

As educators, we should not underestimate lived experience. The international sector is awash with opportunities that may offer a glimpse into another world that may change your worldview on education.

Shaun Robison is currently completing his PhD in Education with Newcastle University on “Professional Learning Re-Constructed through Narrative Enquiry in the United Arab Emirates”. He has a passion for professional learning and teacher-training.

You can follow Shaun on twitter @shaun_robison