Tom Richmond introduces EDSK, a recently-formed think tank based in the UK which aims to influence policy through the analysis of the day’s most important educational issues.
To say that the tragic outbreak of COVID-19 has disrupted the world of education would be an understatement. All the talk of home-schooling, the collapse of examination systems around the globe, ‘lost learning’ and catch-up programmes would have seemed almost surreal just 15 months ago, yet they now dominate the global conversations about education.
However, it would be wrong to assume that all was well before the advent of COVID-19. Longstanding debates over topics such as the future of exams in the digital age, the different ways in which governments measure the performance of education providers and debating how to best support the most disadvantaged learners were being fiercely contested at the start of 2020. In many respects, the pandemic has made some of these debates even more salient.
Why think-tanks exist
Politicians and government officials rarely have enough time to investigate and potentially design long-term reform programmes, let alone delve into the research evidence on a variety of crucial education matters. That is why ‘think tanks’ exist: to do the detailed, creative and sometimes provocative thinking that other stakeholders simply do not have the time and resources to deliver.
The political establishment in the UK was somewhat preoccupied with the minor matter of ‘Brexit’ in the period after the 2016 referendum. This meant that several significant problems in our education system were left attended, and some continued to get worse because there was no appetite in government circles for new and original ideas on education or indeed any other policy matter.
Education and skills
Mercifully, as pre-occupation with Brexit slowly began to subside, education once again rose in prominence. Having previously worked in three different think tanks as well as spending six years as a teacher and two years advising ministers at the Department for Education in London, I decided that this was the right time to set up a new think tank called ‘EDSK’ (short for ‘Education and Skills’).
EDSK’s mission is to design new and better ways of helping learners of all ages succeed, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds. We aim to achieve this by conducting research on issues across the education and skills landscape and then producing evidence-based recommendations for how the system needs to change.
What we research
Our research covers primary schools, secondary schools, colleges, apprenticeships, technical education and universities. Some of our recent reports have covered policy areas such as reforming the much-maligned university admissions system in England, redesigning our state-funded education system, setting a new course for Further Education (vocational) colleges and rethinking our whole assessment system in secondary education (ages 11 to 18).
Evidence from around the world
We work closely with a range of individuals and organisations to ensure that our research reflects a wide range of evidence on any given issue. This often includes looking at how other countries have approached the same questions. For example, our work on the future of assessment in secondary education looked at other developed nations to see how and when they assess pupils approaching the end of compulsory schooling. This showed that England is an outlier in terms of having extensive high-stakes written exams at age 16 and again at age 18, which subsequently led to our recommendation that we should remove high-stakes assessments at age 16 and replace them with low-stakes online tests instead.
Future areas of study: university fees and technical education
Needless to say, there are plenty more arguments ahead within the English education system. In the coming months, issues such as whether we should reduce university tuition fees as well as reduce the number of students going to university will come to a head as the Government sets out their spending plans for the next three years. We will also see whether ministers’ newly-discovered enthusiasm for technical education will translate the rhetoric into meaningful action and better outcomes for learners.
Studies, debate and solutions
As an independent and non-political organisation, EDSK is keen to provide evidence-based solutions to all these questions and more. This is rarely straightforward and is often controversial, with ideologues across the political spectrum being quick to pounce on anything that does not support their pre-existing views of the education system. Regardless, we hope that our work stimulates debate and discussion on some of the most important questions for policymakers both now and in future.
Tom Richmond, teacher, researcher and educational advisor at the UK’s Department of Education, is the Founder and Director of EDSK.