There has been much debate in education about the need to develop in students critical thinking. Critical thinking  means having the ability  to see both sides of an argument clearly, while deducing or confirming conclusions from both the facts and arguments.  To think critically,  it is  thought  you need domain specific knowledge ,as well as certain  generic  skills. You  need to learn how to handle and order  facts,  as well as to learn the facts themselves.
The “critical” part of the term “critical thinking”  doesn’t refer to the  act of criticizing, or finding fault, but rather to the ability to be objective and dispassionate. So, “Critical,” in this context, means essentially  “open-minded,” seeking out, evaluating and weighing all the available evidence, affording a value to that evidence and reaching a rational,  objective , conclusion  .  Being Objective,  or rational,  though  is not as easy  as it might seem. Our  in built biases can interfere in our thinking process’s.  These are  sometimes known as cognitive biases.  And we can let our  emotions  get the better of us, so rational thought and objectivity goes  out the window.

According to Professor Dan Willingham,  looking at the issue  from the cognitive scientist’s point of view, the mental activities that are typically called critical thinking are actually a subset of three types of thinking: reasoning, making judgments and decisions, and problem solving.One likes to think that students who have studied A levels have developed, to a significant extent good critical thinking skills . Certainly those with the best grades.  And that at University they develop these skills further,  and advance to a different level of critical thinking. But do they?  There does appear to be a cultural shift underway .  Subjective emotional responses  have an elevated status.  Sometimes it seems the only valid response to any idea  argument or situation is the individual’s own—how he or she “feels” about it, subjectively. Are they offended by it? Has it hurt their feelings? This is when and where emotion and feelings trump rationality and it would seem critical thinking.  So  Could all the banning, no platforming, safe spaces and trigger warnings simply be symptomatic of the fact that subjectivity has replaced objectivity as the default position.  Is it the case that students, much more than in the past, are  increasingly incapable of processing conflicting viewpoints intellectually; they can only respond to them emotionally? Is this what is meant by the snowflake generation? Food for thought


The Prime Minister made it clear in her Telegraph article of 7 March that whatever the results of the Green paper consultation, ‘Schools that Work for Everyone’ the government will plough ahead, regardless, with its plans to extend selection in the state school system. There will be new selective free schools established and existing grammars will be allowed to expand . Indeed resources have already been  earmarked to make this happen . It requires some cynicism to set up a formal consultation exercise and then to announce firm policy before that consultation is even complete. Self-evidently, this makes a mockery of the consultation process. It also demonstrates a disrespect to all those education professionals who contributed to the consultation exercise in the genuine expectation that their submissions would be taken into account in the formulation and implementation of policy.  The largest, and oldest state  secondary school network  in the country, the SSAT, which submitted its own response to the  Green paper,   called the process “a travesty.”

It also runs a coach and horses through the idea of evidence led, and informed, policy. The overwhelming evidence is that selection does little for social mobility, and has a  negative educational impact on those students not in selective schools, particularly the most disadvantaged. It also suggests that the Prime Minister has much less understanding of the frustrations of voters, who believe that politicians neither listen to nor act on their concerns, than her rhetoric suggests.


The Governments new Careers Strategy appears to be almost ready for publication. It wont appear before the EU Referendum but conceivably it could appear between the Referendum and the Summer Recess in  late July. Alternatively it could be released over the summer.

The Government is clear that it wants  much more employer engagement with schools, along with enterprise advisers and co-ordinators  in the regions  and better work experience. What it is less clear about , is how to generate more systematic  and meaningful contacts between  qualified, independent careers advisers and young people. It keeps on strengthening statutory guidance for schools   but this has had  little impact on the way ‘autonomous’ schools deliver careers advice, which remains unacceptably  patchy, both in terms of quality and scope. Guidance only has any impact if there is a robust and transparent accountability framework. And this doesnt currently  exist.  Destination measures may  help longer term but are  still in the design phase  and are not helping  young people going through the system now. Ofsted makes the right noises on careers guidance and is pretty scathing about how so many schools fail to step up to the plate, but you can still get an outstanding rating  with poorly rated  careers provision and the light touch regime means that many schools escape the regulators eye for many years .

There are   subtle signs that MPs from all parties are beginning to lose patience with a lack of action from Ministers in this area and will be looking at the new strategy very carefully .   They may  understand that if you want to improve social mobility, inclusion and productivity and to fill the skills gaps it is vital  to improve the access our young people have to high quality professional advice at key stages in their lives,  along with greater employer engagement ,of course  .It is not either, or, it is both. They are mutually supporting.  If they stick to  ensuring the strategy is informed by all the  Gatsby’ benchmarks’ then they should be OK. If they cherry pick, including some, but not others, it will end up an incoherent mess with no system wide impact. Watch this space.


The sector  in future will face growing scrutiny over its economic and social returns

The recent IFS report (see link below) discovered that that at 23 universities men typically earned less even 10 years after graduating than their counterparts who’d never been. For women, it was at  nine  universities. A University education, of course, is   not just about ensuring that you have high level earnings in future years. But ,if the perception takes root  that for most there will be no graduate premium, that universities wont really help  you to be socially mobile and you will be stuck with debt for many, many  years, then the obvious  danger is that  many young people will begin to turn their backs  on Higher education.

Recent decades have seen a major increase in participation in higher education throughout the developed world. UK now has proportionately more graduates than any other rich country, bar Iceland. To many, probably  most, this is a good thing. It has   demonstrably improved the life opportunities of many more young people. But to others there are concerns  . Perhaps the rapid expansion  was underfunded,  maybe the quality of teaching  has declined,  due to the  increased pressure  on academics to do more with less,   and perhaps   degrees have  devalued in the job market, through over- supply.  There  is already a   perception that many graduates are, in some senses, being underutilised in the labour market. Put another way ,many graduates are now in jobs that are not considered, or certainly weren’t historically considered,  to be graduate level jobs.  It is arguable that too many graduates are in jobs that are low paying and don’t utilise the skills and knowledge that their degrees gave them (or purported to give them). Aditya Chakrabortty in the Guardian  this week points out that  one in six call-centre staff have degrees, as do about one in four of all air cabin crew and theme-park attendants.

This begs an obvious question- what is the point in creating more graduates unless you have more graduate-level jobs?

In 2015 the CIPD in a policy report concluded that ‘Policy-makers need to scrutinise the range of courses offered by the HE sector and seriously consider the social and private returns to them. We conjecture that they will conclude that, in many cases, public funds could more usefully be deployed elsewhere in the education and training system. Our findings suggest that the presence of a large HE sector will not necessarily lead to the attainment of the knowledge economy so beloved by successive UK governments.’

Its pretty safe to conclude that, in future, there will greater scrutiny from young people,  paying undergraduates , the government and regulators over the quality of degrees in HE institutions and the social and economic returns they  can deliver . It is also clear that there are some in government (see this weeks  Daily Telegraph leak story) who believe that some  degrees and HE institutions are not  currently delivering value for money for the students, and , indeed, taxpayers.

CIPD Over-qualification and skills mismatch in the graduate labour market-August 2015


IFS Working Paper-April 2016- How English domiciled graduate earnings vary with gender, institution attended, subject and socio-economic background



DFE STRATEGY 2015-2020
DFE strategy 2015-2020 World-class education and care March 2016

The governments structural reforms focused on academisation-giving all schools autonomy to run their own affairs, freed from local bureaucracy-to improve student outcomes, has had patchy results. Many of the most deprived areas are still underachieving and Ministers are keen to breathe new life into the reforms. This week it launched its White Paper and this, its new five year  strategy listing its goals, strategic priorities  and the principles that  will inform its approach well into the future.

Nicky Morgan the Secretary of State says “My vision is to provide world-class education and care that allows every child and young person to reach his or her potential, regardless of background. This document is an overview of my Department’s strategy to 2020 and it outlines how I intend to achieve my vision during this Parliament. It comprises:
• three system goals that the education and children’s social care systems will pursue;
• twelve strategic priorities on which my Department will focus;
• five policy principles that summarise the approach my Department will take – ‘how’ we’ll seek to deliver the priorities”

Safety and wellbeing
All children and young people are protected from harm and vulnerable children are supported to succeed with opportunities as good as those for any other child

Educational excellence everywhere
Every child and young person can access high-quality provision, achieving to the best of his or her ability regardless of location, prior attainment and background

Prepared for adult life
All 19-year-olds complete school, college or an apprenticeship with the skills and character to contribute to the UK’s society and economy, and are able to access high-quality work or study options

Our delivery programme comprises comprises twelve strategic priorities. These are the areas that require the greatest DfE focus and action to better enable our front-line colleagues to deliver the system goals

Strategic Priorities

1. Recruit, develop, support and retain teachers
2. Strengthen school and system leadership
3. Drive sustainable school improvement
4. Embed clear and intelligent accountability
5. Embed rigorous standards, curriculum and assessment
6. Ensure access to quality places where they are needed
7. Deliver fair and sustainable funding
8. Reform 16-19 skills
9. Develop early years strategy
10. Strengthen children’s social care
11. Support and protect vulnerable children
12. Build character and resilience
Our approach can be summarised in five core principles that set out how this government is implementing this ambitious agenda.

Children and young people first
Ensure children and young people, along with their families and carers, are satisfied with the quality of the education and children’s services systems

High expectations for every child
We are unapologetically ambitious for every child and young person, and will ensure there are no forgotten groups or areas

Outcomes, not methods
Set stretching, well-measured outcomes and empower professionals to determine how to
achieve them, through innovative local solutions

Supported autonomy
Align funding, control, responsibility and accountability in one place, as close to the front-line as possible; ensure institutions can collaborate and access the support they need, to set them up for success

Responsive to need and performance
Ensure institutions respond to changing user needs and performance – autonomy can be earned and lost, with our most successful leaders earning their autonomy, extending their influence and vice versa




With rather too many students  missing the point of a university education,  seeking safe places and spaces, from ideas arguments and speakers that might offend them,  its surely now  time for a fight back in academe  to robustly  promote   and protect Academic freedom.  Academic  freedom  ensures that colleges and universities are “safe havens” for inquiry, places where students and scholars can challenge, without fear,  the conventional wisdom of any field—art, science, politics or others, in pursuit of truth.


Sir Anthony Seldon, Vice Chancellor of the University of Buckingham, in the Times this week returned to the theme of our flawed exam and accountability regimes. Schools are not incentivised to provide a rounded education for their pupils and instead teachers teach to set criteria and schools game the system, with grade inflation endemic.
‘Our schools’ he wrote ‘should focus more on developing creative, entrepreneurial and problem-solving skills. The world has moved on but our exams haven’t. Education in medieval times was based on the “trivium”, with students learning facts (grammar), the ability to argue (logic), and how to communicate (rhetoric). What we have now is not only ill-balanced and irrelevant. We have also forgotten what the very word education means.’ Martin Robinson’s book Trivium 21C  is worth reading if you warm to  this approach.
A large penny has dropped, thanks to Sir Anthonys astute analysis, on how our education system (‘rather than our teachers) is failing our children . Our pupils are now so poorly prepared for the cut and thrust of intellectual debate in schools , and the exercise of logic and rhetoric, that by the time they hit university rather too many of them are now demanding protection , in the form of trigger warnings and safe spaces, from ideas, arguments and speakers who might offend them. Not only do we seem unable to provide a rounded education for our young people but arguably we are in the process of infantilising them.