As a Cumberland Lodge Fellow, I am used to arriving at the Lodge for events on a wide range of subjects, from health to combating violent extremism, or the role of faith in modern society. One of the most exciting elements of being associated with the foundation is the exposure to topics with which I’m less familiar.
However, this event was close to my own field of studies at the Institute of Education, University College London. In fact, I currently teach an undergraduate course that explores the relationship between education and social class. Many of the questions we discussed in this seminar with Lord Adonis found their way into the questions I asked of my students the following week.
This seminar at Cumberland Lodge brought together a small number of educationalists, academics, policy makers, and researchers, all knee-deep and actively working to increase access to opportunities for students across the UK. It focused on how we can increase access to equitable education and opportunities for children and young people in the UK. We looked at schools as sites of potential change and at how some educational approaches serve to reproduce existing power dynamics and risk institutional stagnation.
The seminar highlighted four key challenges facing the country’s leading educationalists:
- The disproportionate number of jobs in the top professions going to alumni of independent schools and Oxbridge
- The unique challenges facing different regions of the country
- The question of funding –who will pay for improved access to education and where would the money be best spent
- How to encourage parents to get involved.
We were challenged to think creatively and to propose big ideas. We had been given the four topics to mull over ahead of the event but, as I read them at home I knew that they were probably best left for discussions on the night; these were questions too complex to tackle independently.
My seminar group was tasked with thinking about how education could support the development of a society based on merit. Our jumping-off point was a quote from Prime Minister Theresa May: ‘If we are to give our children and grandchildren a fair chance to succeed in an ever more competitive world, we have to build a future where every child can access a good school place. That means decisively shifting Britain’s education system and building a great meritocracy so that children from ordinary working families are given the chances their richer contemporaries take for granted’ (2017).
We were asked to think about what this quote means for the ways in which schools should be structured and funded, but even the wording of the question proved troubling. Before we started talking about possible answers, a member of my group questioned the very meaning of ‘meritocracy’. What would it actually look like, they asked? Another group member chimed in: ‘A meritocracy on whose terms?’.
Ultimately, we rephrased the question to focus on projects that could help provide equal access to opportunities for all students. We focused our discussion on the cities and councils we knew best, recognising that step-changes in education can benefit a country as a whole, but much of the change needs to happen locally. We talked about increasing access to apprenticeships and working with industries and universities to better align education to the life students face, post-graduation. Then we reversed course and challenged ourselves: should education be seen only as a preparatory tool for the next phase of life, or is there more to it than that?
We challenged the nature of assessments. We talked about students as citizens and what they might need, or desire, in order to feel some ownership of their communities. We respectfully disagreed with and challenged one other, and we enjoyed the rigorous debate.
But, I have to admit: we ended the night with more questions than answers. We knew the chances of that upon arrival. Education is a difficult topic to debate, precisely because it impacts so much of the way that society functions.
We all believe that education is part of a solution to the challenges that society faces, but there are so many problems to confront and so many questions to ask that it is sometimes hard to see the end goal. Gathering people of different backgrounds and perspectives together in a room, to respectfully debate and creatively converse, is part of the journey. Not every workshop can achieve breakthrough, but every breakthrough is debated and challenged before it is solved, and I know that this seminar has inspired me to keep having these conversations, to keep asking the difficult questions, and to keep working together to tackle these pressing issues of the day.