What might a practice-based curriculum look like?

In response to David Boud’s blog Practice-based learning – starting with practice, Professor Carol Costley outlines her ideas for a truly practice-based curriculum.

A curriculum which takes for granted that lecture courses are the centrepiece is hardly practice-based. Activities in which students are involved in meaningful and substantial tasks must be the focus and this means engaging in practice rather than hearing about practice.

This would involve a whole curriculum approach, with some components taking place in external settings and some on-campus, but all having a strong practice focus and linked to an overall purpose. Courses would need to be coherent and balanced from an individual perspective and have learning outcomes, processes and assessment criteria suitable for the appropriate university level and the nature of the qualification.

There would be structures that enabled agreement about what the learner would do, the support the university and often an employer or other stakeholder would provide and the types of evidence to be produced for assessment. Such a curriculum may be described as post-disciplinary. It would be designed for outcomes such as those that meet the top 10 skills as set out by the World Economic Forum (Gray, 2016).

Components of the curriculum could include:

  • enquiry-based activities with substantive tasks involving working with others
  • reflection and reflexivity on practice
  • simulations and role play
  • part-individual and part-group activities
  • negotiation around learning contracts or agreements
  • recognition of previous learning; to gain credit or the starting-point for reflecting on practice
  • a portfolio of work accompanied by an evaluative narrative
  • course-based and peer-group activities
  • assessments that portray what students can do.

It would be unlikely for there to be the polarity between theory-based and practice-based course modules that is common in existing professional curricula. Such a dichotomy is a heritage from an earlier separation between academic and vocational courses that it would be inappropriate to reify (Boud, 2012).

Moving to a facilitative model

A distinct practice-led pedagogical approach is where the roles of tutors move from teacher/ supervisor to facilitator/mentor/ coach and expert resource. The more recent roles may include guiding and helping learners to:

  • become active in identifying their needs and aspirations and managing the learning process
  • develop abilities of critical reflection and enquiry
  • identify and work with issues concerning workplace values and ethics
  • make effective use of workplace resources
  • develop and use academic skills in the workplace
  • provide specialist expertise
  • inspire and encourage.

Students would be equipped with tools and strategies to interrogate and reflect on practice. They would be partners in the design and development of these tools and strategies to ensure that they met their own needs and those of different practice settings in which they would need to operate. (Boud, 2012).

Assessing active learning

A practice-based curriculum is typically issue-led and driven by learner activities, not formal inputs. In that sense, assessing learners’ progress may be described as assessing ‘map-makers’ rather than confirming their proficiency as ‘map-readers’ i.e. their expertise in propositional knowledge. The focus is typically on learners’ reasoning and critical reflection, how they develop their capability as practitioners and how they make critical judgements in the work context. 

The technicalities of this are commonly supported through generic level statements and criteria at the relevant academic level. It may involve individual learning outcomes and sometimes assessment criteria that are negotiated as part of a learning agreement. A programmatic approach to active practice-based assessment is required. Assessment should reflect the kinds of social, cultural and contextual knowledge and abilities that are used in the workplace (Lester and Costley 2010).

Assessments take whatever form is needed for the outcomes being demonstrated and thus may not necessarily be writing in the conventional form of essays, or responses to tests. Assessment is likely to involve peers and include some elements of self-assessment.

Boud, D. (2012). Problematising practice-based education. In Higgs, J., Barnett, R., Billett, S., Hutchings, M. and Trede, F. (eds.) Practice-Based Education: Perspectives and Strategies, Rotterdam: Sense Publishers, 55-69.

Lester, S. and Costley, C. (2010) ‘Work-based learning at higher education level:  value, practice and critique’  Studies in Higher Education  Vol 35 No. 5, 561-575

This blog was originally published on INSPIRE – Promoting excellence in Learning and Teaching, driven by Middlesex Senior Fellows of HEA with contributions welcomed from all Middlesex staff.


Practice-based learning – starting with practice

Professor David Boud asks whether higher education can truly be practice-based unless we re-evaluate the system with future practice at the centre.

Much current discussion in higher education is about the possibility of providing additional work experience, placements, internships, or other practice-based activities, to existing courses. It is said that this will help students understand the workplace, aid employability and add to their motivation to graduate.

Many universities throughout the world are moving towards making such experiences compulsory and including them, not just as add-ons, but as a normal part of the curriculum. Middlesex University is involved in such discussions and many courses that had not previously thought about including placements are considering using them.

Such discussions assume that our courses are mostly fit for purpose and that the conventional three-year campus-based undergraduate degree will equip students for the future. But what if we didn’t make this conventional assumption? What if, rather than starting with what educational institutions offer now, we start from the needs of the external world and work backwards from that? What if we acknowledge that there has been a practice turn in society and consider what a fully practice-based degree might look like?

In the world outside educational institutions, people rarely work as isolated individuals judged only on what they do independently of others.

Why should we even begin to think in these terms? The first reason is that the old educational model of years of schooling plus a degree to equip students with more and more knowledge without applying it to real problems in real contexts is reaching its limits.

Secondly, in the world outside educational institutions, people rarely work as isolated individuals judged only on what they do independently of others, in the ways that are the norm in educational settings.

Thirdly, scholarship in the social sciences is suggesting that it is more useful to view the world in terms of the practices that make it up rather than the individual attributes of those who practice. These practices involve multiple peers, material things, particular settings and the discourses that hold them together. Practices transcend individuals, and individuals need to find their way into them.

In a few university degrees, we know what kind of work the graduates are likely to do (e.g. nursing, teaching, etc.) and they can be prepared directly for it. In other degrees, students will be entering a world of practice, but neither we nor they know what the practice might be and how that will change. What we do know however is that they will certainly be engaged in different practices. They must act in real situations with other people and with problems that are often ill-defined. But, do our courses equip students for this? They may gain some knowledge (which will soon be out-of-date) and a few skills. Most of what they specifically need, however, will be learned after graduation and typically not in an educational context.

Can we do more to design courses to better prepare students for acting in the world? There are many ways of organising courses that start with practice. They include fully problem-based courses, work-based learning programs and graduate apprenticeships.

But we don’t need to follow a standard model. There are various questions we need to ask ourselves: Are our courses oriented around authentic problems with which students can grapple with their peers? Are the things students do likely to have an impact beyond themselves? Are they taking place in contexts outside the bounds of the campus? Do they involve interacting with people other than their teachers and their peers?

The question is not whether there are some elements of our current programs that do this, but whether these are the dominant modes and whether other educational activities are subordinated to them.

Where can we start on this?

The last place to start is by looking at existing courses. They represent the accretion of many compromises over a long period of time and this can narrow our horizons. To think differently, we must set them aside for the time being and ask what a fully practice-based course would look like in some area of need with which we are familiar (familiarity with external need is the starting point, not with how it can be met by what we do now). We shouldn’t begin with knowledge, that will change. What capabilities will practitioners in the area of need and related areas require? What will they need to be able to do to meet the challenges they will face, that are at present specifically unknowable?

Boud, D. (2012). Problematising practice-based education. In Higgs, J., Barnett, R., Billett, S., Hutchings, M. and Trede, F. (eds.) Practice-Based Education: Perspectives and Strategies, Rotterdam: Sense Publishers, 55-69. Boud, D. (2016). Taking professional practice seriously: implications for deliberate course design. In Trede, F. and McEwan, C. (Eds) Educating the Deliberate Professional: Preparing Practitioners for Emergent Futures, Dordrecht: Springer, 157-174.

Read Professor Carol Costley’s response to David’s blog, What might a practice-based curriculum look like?

This blog was originally published on INSPIRE – Promoting excellence in Learning and Teaching, driven by Middlesex Senior Fellows of HEA with contributions welcomed from all Middlesex staff.


Partnership – Student Engagement or Engaging Students?

Dr Sheila Cunningham is an Associate Professor and Principal Fellow of the Higher Education Academy in the Faculty of Professional and Social Sciences at Middlesex. Here, Sheila outlines the benefits and challenges of adopting a partnership approach to teaching in higher education.

Partnership is a process of student engagement, but these terms are not interchangeable (Healy et al, 2014).

Ways of engaging students in higher education as partners in learning and teaching is arguably one of the most important issues facing higher education in the 21st Century, partnership is part of this, but it is a way of doing things, rather than an outcome in itself (Healey, 2017).

The HEA’s focus is on the pedagogic rationale for partnership: how it can lead to increased student engagement with, and success in, their learning as well as supporting the design, delivery and support of engaged student learning.

Much of the literature points to HEA benefits for both staff and students.

Students, it seems:

  • are better engaged with the process of learning in and out of contact-time;
  • develop essential high level knowledge and skills to support their employability; and
  • feel a sense of belonging and community that the ‘What Works?’ programme has shown is key to student retention and success.

Staff experience:

  • renewed engagement with and transformed thinking about their practice, and a
  • deeper understanding of contributions to an academic community.

Whatever the rationale for staff, students, institutions and students’ unions to develop partnerships in learning and teaching, this framework aims to offer an evidence informed and reflective approach to support their development.

One proposed model (see Figure 1) is interesting in that it distinguishes four broad areas in which students can act as partners in learning and teaching:

  • learning, teaching and assessment;
  • subject-based research and inquiry;
  • scholarship of teaching and learning;
  • curriculum design and pedagogic consultancy.

Visually the model is represented as four overlapping circles to emphasise that distinctions between the areas are blurred and inter-relationships are complex and diverse when put into practice. At the centre of the model is the notion of partnership learning communities, which draws attention to the processes by which partnership operates in the four different areas.

Partnership is a relationship in which all participants are actively engaged in and stand to gain from the process of learning and working together. This approach argues that partnership represents a sophisticated and effective approach which offers the potential for a more authentic engagement with the nature of learning itself and the possibility for genuinely transformative learning experiences.

Research has also shown that partnership can engage and empower traditionally marginalized students and lead to sharing authority and responsibility with staff in the development of culturally sustainable pedagogy (Cook-Sather and Agu, 2013; Healey et al., 2014). This appears a panacea for addressing key issues within higher education, however it cannot surely be that straightforward?

Healey et al (2014) advise there is potential for an inherent tension between partnership policy and partnership pedagogy. It appears policy is about determining the direction and shape of work in advance, whereas partnership pedagogy is about being (radically) open to and creating possibilities for discovering and learning something that cannot be known beforehand. They propose suggestions for addressing this tension:

  • remain aware of the tension
  • consider how partnership is (or is not) described in institutional policies and strategies (e.g. learning and teaching strategies, student charters, partnership agreements, marketing materials)
  • consider implementing staff and student engagement surveys for a nuanced picture of the views, priorities and experiences of potential partners to inform local policy
  • use participatory and whole-system approaches to the development of strategy and policy in ways that seek to embody partnership in practice.

That said this is something actively engaged with at all levels within higher education. Middlesex is replete with examples and the Middlesex Teaching Fellows Newsletter will address these to stimulate and encourage experimentation and innovation.

Fig. 1 A conceptual model for students as partners in learning and teaching in higher education (Healey, et al, 2014)

This blog was originally published on INSPIRE – Promoting excellence in Learning and Teaching, driven by Middlesex Senior Fellows of HEA with contributions welcomed from all Middlesex staff.

Law & politics

Puzzling Law

Los Watkins, Lecturer in the Middlesex University School of Law, provides a personal analysis of the pedagogic use of word puzzles in his teaching.

When our students arrive at University, we ask them to approach the study of law in a number of different ways. For instance, we ask them to self-motivate and self-learn to a far greater extent than they have been used to in their school and college education. We also ask them, essentially, to do three things with the law they are taught: to know it, to understand it, and to analyse it.

We ask that they learn cases and statutes, so that they can cite the relevant law; we ask that they understand it in order to choose the apposite case or statute; and we ask that they apply the law to particular issues or scenarios. This, traditionally, has been the accepted route to academic training as a lawyer.

Puzzling Law

However, I would suggest that in addition to these three requirements, we also need to structure our course modules to aid retention of the first two above, knowledge and understanding, in order to aid rapid analysis. This paper will examine, briefly, the theory of academic legal retention through the traditional teaching model, and give an account of my own attempt to aid students in their own personal retention of law.

Modes of learning

If we consider three widely recognised modes of learning, Surface Learning (generally accepted as learning by rote – simply acquiring knowledge without necessarily also acquiring understanding), Deep Learning (the optimum, where the delivery of rich core content to students is in innovative ways that allow them to acquire knowledge, understand and then apply what they have learned) and Strategic Learning (where students strategize their own learning – for instance, ‘question-picking’ for an upcoming exam), then it has been generally accepted that the most effective educative results are gained by the practise of deep learning  (“…knowledge acquired at a deep level of understanding is more likely to be retained than knowledge acquired at a surface level of understanding, and knowledge tested more than once during a course is more likely to be retained than knowledge tested only once.”Bacon and Stewart, 2006.)

Studies have also shown – the most widely disseminated being from the National Training Laboratories Institute for Applied Behavioral (sic) Science in Maine, USA – that the initial learning experience is at its most effective when backed up. In this study, average knowledge retention rates two weeks after a lecture were only 5% of the content accurately retained when no extra retention activities were used, but this percentage rose to 75% when the lecture was followed by reading, discussion groups, demonstration and practice, and to 90% when peer-teaching activities were also added.

Enhancing information retention

Given this data, I decided to see how I could best aid students with their retention in my seminars. It is usual that in seminars and workshops, we discuss, demonstrate and practice, and give students the opportunity to present (“teach”) to their peer group, but in order to try and enhance retention rates, I decided to employ some word puzzle activities in different module groups. Puzzles were chosen as all students, I presumed, would be familiar with some form of this pastime, and would not, therefore, require  training or instruction to add to the complexity of the exercise.

Completing puzzles would also require students to utilise retention and cognitive skills such as application, rather than simply repeating back pure knowledge-based information. My study covered three years in two different universities, with one module group kept as a baseline control to the usual seminar format, and a multiple-choice questionnaire (mcq) completed by all groups, whether participating in the puzzles or not. The study covered Tort, and specifically, Psychiatric Injury.

I decided on three different types of puzzle: the traditional crossword, the word search (where words are secreted within a square of random letters) and missing letters with clues, where some of the word/s are partially completed. The clues and words were designed to be very simple – mostly the names of the most important cases, and none were ‘cryptic’.

The effects of ‘puzzling’ law

The initial results from the exercise were interesting insofar as the students found the last two types of puzzle familiar and easy to understand but, with very few exceptions, the crossword was something they had not attempted before, and they found the concept challenging.

I tested the student retention level of the subject area after a few weeks using a further mcq and taking their verbal feedback on how they had found the exercise. The latter was positive in that they had enjoyed the exercise, with the exception of the crossword, which they generally disliked. The retention through the mcq was also positive, with the average score in every case being higher by 8% in the groups which had done the puzzle exercise. In the end of year exam, the Psychiatric Injury question was attempted by, respectively, 16% and 18% more students than in the previous year, where there had been the usual seminars, and average marks for the question were 7% higher.

Whilst there are, of course, very many variables in these results – for example, standard of student, exact question, comparison with other questions – which may have had an effect outside of the puzzle issue, there does seem to have been an increase in retention and students seem to have felt more comfortable with the area of Tort.

This blog is a personal study, initially concerning my attempt to address the knowledge retention issue in a specific module. In that area, the use of the puzzles as a pedagogical tool did indeed seem to increase students’ retention of information, and (they said) made their seminar and therefore study of that area of law more interesting.  Given the initial encouraging results of the exercise, I therefore intend extending the use of puzzles in my seminars.

For further exploration of academic references, please contact Los via email

Learn more about the MDX School of Law

Law & politics

An education toolkit for migrant parents

Professor Louise Ryan Middlesex UniversityProfessor Louise Ryan is Co-Director of the Social Policy Research Centre (SPRC), which is launching a new toolkit to help practitioners and migrant families in settling foreign children in British schools.

The numbers of migrant families arriving in Britain is increasing. There has been much discussion in the media and in political circles about how schools and teachers respond to the needs of migrant children. Research conducted by the Social Policy Research Centre at Middlesex over many years has shown that there is often a mismatch in expectations and understanding between schools and migrant families (Sales, et al, 2010; D’Angelo and Ryan, 2011; Ryan and Sales, 2013).

Elizabeth Albert - Creative Commons 2.0
Photo by Elizabeth Albert (Creative Commons 2.0)

Different system

Migrant families often struggle to understand and navigate the English educational system. The school system in the UK differs in many ways from that in other countries. In the UK schooling starts earlier than elsewhere – generally before the child’s fifth birthday. Many parents and children, especially if they have only just arrived in Britain, are unprepared for this. Choosing a school and getting your child enrolled can be complicated, especially if you are unfamiliar with the system.

With funding from the School of Law’s Impact Fund, we have designed a toolkit that aims to provide a user-friendly, comprehensive online resource for use by schools, local authorities and community organisations to help explain the rules and regulations in an accessible manner. It is hoped the toolkit will be widely used as a valuable resource to schools and will save teachers precious time. For parents, the booklet provides information and guidance to help them negotiate the school system and suggests ways in which they can support their children in settling into school, progressing through primary school and making the transition to secondary school.

Responding to changes

The toolkit is a new, updated and revised version of a guide we previously produced in 2010. Various policies and practices within the UK education have changed since then and, since that guide proved to be popular among parents and practitioners, there was a need to update the information and improve the visual aspect of the booklet.

A particularly important change during the intervening period has been an increase in the different types of school and consequently, different internal regulations, admission criteria and general structure of learning and curriculum within those schools. Today, children have to stay in education until 18, not 16, as was the case until 2013. Assessment criteria and style have changed considerably since 2010. Also, the structure of schooling varies considerably between local authorities and parents need to check this information with their local schools and local authority (the elected body responsible for education at local level e.g. borough, district or county council).

All these changes convinced us that the toolkit needed updating in order to continue to be a reliable source of information for newly arrived migrant parents.

A toolkit for migrant parents and practitioners‘ by Magdalena Lopez Rodriguez, Alessio D’Angelo, Louise Ryan and Rosemary Sales of the Social Policy Research Centre will be formally launched on 10 June 2016 at Hendon Town Hall, London. 

Business & economics

The importance of teaching ethics and CSR

Andrea Werner Middlesex UniversityIn the wake of the Panama Papers scandal, Senior Lecturer in Management at Middlesex University Dr Andrea Werner outlines the teaching practices she believes can develop more socially responsible business graduates.

The leak of the Panama Papers has given unprecedented insight into how wealthy individuals and corporations have used shell companies in so-called ‘offshore tax havens’ to hide money and reduce their tax liabilities. But the Panama Papers are only the culmination of a series of revelations about companies, and individuals, that use elaborate tax structures in offshore tax havens to avoid paying their ‘fair share’ of tax; with big corporate names such as Amazon, Starbucks, Google and Facebook hitting the headlines in recent years.

While a number of activities in ‘tax havens’ are not technically breaking the law, they are increasingly perceived as unethical or immoral. They appear to be ‘unfair’ as they are only open to those individuals and corporations that are wealthy and powerful enough to make use of them. Furthermore, they inflict harm on societies as they reduce governments’ ability to fund schools, hospitals, and welfare payments to the low-paid, families, and vulnerable groups in society; an argument that carries particular weight in times of austerity.

The Panama Canal - Photo by @thyngum (Creative Commons 2.0)
The Panama Canal – Photo by @thyngum (Creative Commons 2.0)

A challenge to educators

The issue of tax avoidance poses a challenge to educators in business schools. It has long been argued that the predominance of the neo-liberal framework and its relentless emphasis on shareholder value and profit-maximisation (to the exclusion of everything else) in business and economics teaching has ‘freed’ students from any moral responsibility (Ghoshal 2005). In fact, it may reinforce students’ perception that alignment of their (monetary) self-interest with the profit-goals of their employers will be the only way to have a successful career in business (Roberts 2001). This may raise the question what guidance Business Schools, having created this moral-free space, are able to give to their graduates when they are faced with morally dubious practices in their workplace (my colleague Professor Chris Mabey asked similar questions following the VW emissions scandal). It is a question that may take on particular pertinence when graduates end up working in environments that actively champion aggressive tax planning practices, either in large corporations or in firms acting as intermediaries for wealthy clients.

Ethical theory counteracts the notion that pursuing one’s self-interest only is acceptable (and even encouraged) in business.

At the same time, the need to teach ethics and corporate social responsibility (CSR) to business students has also been recognised over the past few decades, not least for ‘legitimacy’ reasons, as the ability of companies to operate successfully also partly depends on how they and their actions are perceived by wider society. Even though CSR and ethics courses are still primarily taught as stand-alone subjects, they provide opportunity to raise awareness of ethical issues and the importance of ethical values in business, and equip students with critical thinking skills.

I have the privilege of teaching ethics to management students at Middlesex University Business School, both at undergraduate and MBA level. My aim in these classes is to introduce students to range of frameworks and concepts that help them to critically analyse ethical issues in business and work out possible solutions. A key set of frameworks I teach is ethical theory. Ethical theory counteracts the notion that pursuing one’s self-interest only is acceptable (and even encouraged) in business. Even though some students find the teaching of moral philosophy in a business course rather strange at first, they soon recognise the power of these ‘non-instrumental’ frameworks.

Photo by MickiTakesPictures (Creative Commons 2.0)
Starbucks, along with the likes of Amazon, Google and Facebook, has come under fire for its tax practices. The firm responded by changing the way it makes tax deductions and in 2015 it paid as much tax in the UK as it did in its first 15 years of operation – Photo by MickiTakesPictures (Creative Commons 2.0)

Kant and ‘virtue ethics’

Kant’s categorical imperative with its notions of ‘consistency’, ‘universality’ and ‘respect for persons’; and virtue ethics, which focuses on character traits of persons or companies that should inform ethical behaviour, as well as on the notion of communal and individual ‘flourishing and well-being’, appear particularly powerful to students.  I was delighted to see students apply these theories to the issue of Facebook’s tax avoidance in the UK in a recent assignment. Some students argued that tax avoidance is in clear violation of Kant’s consistency principle because, if everyone avoided tax, the whole idea of tax would be rendered meaningless. Other students applied virtue ethics, arguing that tax avoidance is not fair, not responsible and not respectful (as it does not respect the laws of the country), and that the practice only enhances ‘human flourishing and well-being’ for a small set of actors in society, but not for society as a whole.

Another aspect of my teaching is ‘techniques of neutralisation’, which focus on the language that people use to justify and rationalise their actions in business contexts and elsewhere. With MBA students in particular, I discuss how phrases such as ‘Everybody is doing it’, ‘No one will be harmed by it’ and ‘We do it for the shareholders’ – no doubt also heard whenever moral questions around aggressive tax planning have been raised – can be recognised as efforts to neutralise morally questionable actions and what effective responses can be made to these rationalisations.

At the very least, graduates who have been on my courses are no longer able to claim ignorance with regards to wider social consequences of corporate practices.

Finally, I encourage students to think of solutions to ethical issues such as tax avoidance, by thinking creatively about how the companies themselves could tackle the issue but also what the responsibilities of other stakeholders are. What would it require for companies to make ‘paying our fair share of tax’ a CSR commitment? What role have governments to play in tackling tax avoidance? How can consumers and the wider public build pressure to get business and government to respond? These are all examples of questions that I expect students to think through to come up with effective solutions.

Planting a seed

I am aware that my teaching will only plant a seed in students’ minds and hearts. At the very least, graduates who have been on my courses are no longer able to claim ignorance with regards to wider social consequences of corporate practices. But occasionally I receive emails from graduates, in which they tell me how my teaching has made them more aware of the importance of corporate ethical values when choosing their future employer, or from MBA alumni who tell me about the relevance of the frameworks and concepts I taught them for their job roles.  This gives me hope that my students may contribute, even if only in a small way, to a world in which the occurrence of the morally dubious behaviours that the Panama Papers uncovered will become a little bit less likely.


Young people at risk of becoming NEET

Professor Louise Ryan Middlesex UniversityProfessor Louise Ryan is Co-Director of the Social Policy Research Centre (SPRC), which is conducting an FP7 project on Early School Leaving. On 13 November the SPRC hosted a one-day conference at Middlesex University to discuss the initial findings of this work with policymakers. 

To disseminate the first results from the EU-funded project ‘Reducing Early School Leaving in Europe’ (, the SPRC organised a one-day conference bringing together stakeholders, policymakers and researchers working on education and school-to-work transitions at a local, national and European level.


During the event, the research team of Dr Alessio D’Angelo, Neil Kaye, Magdolna Lorinc and I presented the preliminary findings of our extensive research with schools across several sites in England. Among the findings were the results of a preliminary statistical analysis of survey data from more than 3,000 young people, which found that disengagement from school is a phenomenon associated most prominently with young white British students; those whose parents are employed in low-skilled occupations; and those living in single-parent families. Educational aspirations were also found to be higher among girls than boys. These factors have been shown to be connected to early school leaving and part of an on-going process of disengagement from formal educational structures and are important markers of potential future not in education, employment or training (NEET) status.

Richard Harrison (Creative Commons 2.0)
Photo by Richard Harrison (Creative Commons 2.0)

Local context

Findings from an analysis of education and youth policy in England were also presented by the team. Within the context of large-scale cutbacks in national and local government budgets, it was acknowledged that initiatives aimed at preparing young people for the labour market may have only limited success. The level of ‘churn’ of young people experiencing NEET status – that is, those stuck in an on-going cycle of low-paid, insecure jobs or training courses – may also not be sufficiently captured by local authorities to the detriment of their ability to plan effective initiatives aimed at this target population.

Most importantly, the analysis highlighted the significance of the local context, which varies enormously across and within regions. In particular, London appears in this way to be unique and contradictory, in that it is both a global city with a wide number of educational and occupational opportunities, while it remains highly localised, especially for young people who are all too aware of the levels of competition they face for employment opportunities.

In addition, Eamonn Davern, DG Employment, European Commission, presented data from the wider European Level on EU youth employment policy responses and Dan Taubman, ETUCE expert on ESL, DG Education and Culture, on Europe-wide school policy aimed at combatting early school leaving.

This was followed by an in-depth roundtable discussion involving stakeholders and policymakers attended by delegates from a range of organisations working with young people, such as the YMCA, local authorities across London and representatives from schools and colleges, as well as from the Department for Education. Panel members included representatives of three local authorities (Barnet, Enfield and Lambeth), the NGO Tomorrow’s People, the Association of Colleges and the policy group Policy Connect.

The event represented a key stage in the development of the ‘Stakeholders Engagement Platform’ of and allowed the research team to identify ways in which our research findings can have wider impact by informing the work of national and local education practitioners and policymakers.


Challenging prevailing wisdoms in SEND teaching

Diane Montgomery Middlesex UniversityMiddlesex University Professor Emerita Diane Montgomery is the author of ‘Teaching Gifted Children with SEN’. She seeks to challenge what she calls the “prevailing wisdoms” around teaching children with special educational needs and disabilities.

For me, the key issue in our SEND (special educational needs and disabilities) field is the lack of opportunity for teachers and teacher educators to challenge accepted wisdom, yet our lives are spent in classrooms, the engines of research.

Instead, researchers who get funding are housed in ‘hubs’ in Centres of Excellence and may never have taught a child or tried to control a difficult class. They must design ‘gold standard’ RCTs (randomised controlled trials) that will explore and manipulate variables in systematic fashion and gain government approval.

The researchers’ hypotheses can be based upon literature research rather than life in classrooms. When they do not have a hypothesis they can perform a multivariate analysis and find one. Unfortunately, classroom dynamics and their ecosystems cannot easily be reduced in this manner and make any sense for practitioners.

The result is that the prevailing wisdoms are endorsed. Custom and practice are handed down from one generation of teachers to the next, interfered with at intervals by government ministers. The ‘zeitgeist’ or current scientific orthodoxy prevails in the research field. Ethnomethodology, naturalistic observation and narrative researches still do not have the status of RCTs which in themselves are confirmatory studies and only half the research process.

Photo by Caleb Roenigk (Creative Commons 2.0)
Photo by Caleb Roenigk (Creative Commons 2.0)

The power of this orthodoxy can be felt if I present you with some of my findings, many that you will not agree with. Think of it as 20 Questions – agree or disagree? Please ignore the multiple questions inside some of the later items – it is not a research instrument.

  1. Dyslexia is found across the ability range so that slower learners may also be dyslexic
  2. The core difficulty in dyslexia is not a reading problem but a spelling difficulty
  3. Dyslexia difficulties are not caused by phonological or working memory deficits. These are a result not a cause.
  4. Systematic phonics teaching does not remediate dyslexia – 1-1.5 per cent remain dyslexic
  5. Dyslexia is a dissociative neurological condition that can be overcome in the Reception class
  6. Dyslexia is remediable – it need not be a lifetime condition
  7. Only the Gillingham and Stillman-based programmes work for Level One dyslexics (give two years’ progress in one year) and if fully followed
  8. CPS (Cognitive Process Strategies) are needed for Level Two dyslexics and can give even faster progress
  9. Most mathematical difficulties result from fear in classrooms and a lack of vocabulary knowledge and literacy difficulties
  10. More than 40 per cent of children are gifted or talented in some respect
  11. Underachievement (UAch) is mainly caused by handwriting difficulties and 30 per cent of children have these
  12. One third of pupils have serious spelling problems. Trying to correct them with ‘Look-Cover-Write-Check’ does not work.
  13. Linguistic and cultural disadvantage add to UAch
  14. Reducing ‘low-level noise’ in classrooms can be achieved by three interlinked strategies with two more to maintain it
  15. Children in Reception need to be taught joined-up writing (cursive) from the outset with no copying and tracing over letters
  16. Self-regulated learners (SRL), later high achievers, can be identified in pre-school and in disadvantaged groups after one term in school
  17. Giftedness, UAch, dyslexia and dysgraphia can all be identified and where necessary dealt with in Reception
  18. High-stakes assessment-driven systems reduce motivation, create more children with learning difficulties and disaffection from school
  19. Teaching teachers to teach is a higher order activity involving meta-teaching and strategy implementation, not simply giving them facts to pass on to pupils
  20. The current technical-rationalist view of effective teaching promoted by the TTA/TEA in its lists of competencies fails to show how they can be translated into classroom action.

Having tracked UAch among my degree students down through the age ranges my current research is on story writing or messages in Reception by analysing children’s marks on paper.

So far I have found that at least one third of infants enter Reception classes as self-regulated learners already having taught themselves to write (and probably read), or learning to do so soon after. They will be the productive gifted and the entrepreneurs if they can survive our schooling system, which will seek to suppress their SRL talent. The marks the children make can already tell us who are going to have literacy difficulties, who are the dyslexics, the dysgraphics, the slower learners and who will underachieve throughout school. This was the subject of my latest presentation at the 21st world Conference on Giftedness and Talent in Odense in August 2015. That audience was convinced, are you? Can we possibly persuade the teachers?


NEET study reveals poor school engagement

Neil Kaye Middlesex UniversityResearch Assistant Neil Kaye is part of a team from the Social Policy Research Centre (SPRC) at Middlesex University conducting an FP7 project on Early School Leaving. The initial phase of the research looking at school children has unveiled some intriguing findings and the team is now looking to hear from school teachers to help understand these results.

At the start of 2015, there were 943,000 young people (aged 16-24) in the UK not in education, employment or training (NEET). This figure has stayed close to the one million mark for much of the last decade and throughout the economic crisis from which the UK and other Western countries are currently in the process of rebuilding.

  • Why are so many young people still facing tough school-to-work transitions?
  • What are the underlying causes?
  • Why does this issue still persist, despite the government’s focus on key initiatives such as apprenticeships and training schemes?

These are the questions that the SPRC set out to address as part of a five-year EU-funded project ( looking at the educational trajectories and experiences of young people across nine European countries.

The focus of our research is not only on the young people themselves but also on their schools and the policy initiatives that affect their pathways through education. Several stages of research therefore seek to incorporate the views and expertise of a number of stakeholders, including policy makers, education and skills professionals and, of course, teachers.

Elizabeth Albert - Creative Commons 2.0
Photo by Elizabeth Albert (Creative Commons 2.0)

While the first stage of the research took place with young people still in education, students’ level of school engagement is widely recognised as an early-warning sign towards eventual dropout, under-qualification or NEET-hood. Disengagement from school may take a number of forms, such as:

  • Lack of attention in the classroom
  • Lack of effort in homework
  • Lack of participation in school activities
  • Feeling marginalised
  • Feeling apathetic towards school.

Over time, this can result in poor attendance and low attainment. Previous literature associates disengagement in the UK with young men, ethnic minorities, those from single-parent families and those in lower socio-economic status households. However, our findings suggest a somewhat different picture.

While much has been written on these issues as relating primarily to young boys and students from BME backgrounds, the results from our survey suggest that it is girls and white British pupils who are reporting higher levels of disengagement from school.

Students’ survey

In the UK, a survey of students was administered to more than 3,000 participants in Years 10 and 12 during the spring and summer terms in 2013/14. The schools and FE colleges who collaborated with our research were situated in two highly-urbanised areas of the country with high levels of youth unemployment: London and Tyne & Wear.

Although our sample is not intended to be representative of the UK student body as a whole, our data comprise an intriguing area study looking into the specific contexts of the 17 partner schools and colleges who took part in the research.

Key findings

Preliminary findings from our survey indicate that:

  • Girls were almost twice as likely as boys to score low on school engagement
  • Students with a migrant background were 1.5 times less likely than those without a migrant background to report low scores for school engagement
  • White British students were more than 1.5 times more likely to be disengaged from school than those with a black and minority ethnic background (BME)
  • While aspirations were higher among girls than boys, there was a stronger correlation between these aspirations and attainment levels for boys
  • Perceived levels of teacher support and parental support were highly correlated with the extent to which a student is engaged with their school career.

While much has been written on these issues as relating primarily to young boys and students from BME backgrounds, the results from our survey suggest that it is girls and white British pupils who are reporting higher levels of disengagement from school. The gender and ethnicity dimensions highlighted in these findings are just two of several we are exploring in greater depth in the next stages of the project.

Next steps – Teachers’ survey

With the importance of teachers in the school lives of their students reaffirmed by these findings, this next stage of the project involves a wide-scale survey of school staff across the UK. We are very keen to harness the professional expertise of teachers in all types of secondary schools and colleges and to understand from their perspective the part they can play in helping young people – and particularly those at risk of becoming NEET – through school and beyond. Our findings will be shared among policy makers and eminent educationalists both in the UK and across Europe and we don’t want teachers to miss the opportunity to have their voices heard.

If you know anyone who works in a secondary school, please urge them to contribute to this important stage of the research. They can access the questionnaire via this link: Teachers Survey UK.