Flow of Ideas
On Education Studies

Glenn Rikowski, London, 3rd October 2007


There has been resurgence in student recruitment to education studies courses in UK universities. As Bartlett and Burton (2007) note:

“The recent trend for many students who intend to become teachers to take a first degree and then a PGCE rather than the traditional B.Ed degree has made education a more attractive part of that first degree. This changing landscape of teacher training has led many schools of education seeking actively to diversify their portfolios making education studies an obvious addition from an institutional point of view” (p.3).

This is a very positive development as education studies typically has strong roots in the social sciences and philosophy and provides students with an intellectual tool kit to not just fit into the educational landscape but to explain aspects of it, and thereby put themselves in a better position to effect progressive change in the system. Thus, it can be argued that trainee and qualified teachers with an education studies background are likely to have a greater and deeper understanding of classroom, school and education system realities than those focusing on the purely pragmatic, technicist and apprenticeship routes into teaching.

Social Science, Explanation and Critique: At the Roots of Education Studies

That education studies courses are closely tied to the social sciences and philosophy is important as it aids explanation of educational phenomena. Philosophy aids clarity and precision of thought regarding the nature of education itself. How people can go into teaching as a career without considering concepts pertinent to their practice seems strange. Psychology is clearly important in relation to child development and human learning. Whilst knowledge of sociology surely helps prospective teachers to grasp the nature and roots of an array of inequalities in education – all the better to combat them at various levels from the classroom to the broader concerns of education policy. Cases for the study of the history of education, education policy studies, the politics of education, comparative and international education and curriculum studies could also be made.

The key point, though, is that a course of education studies incorporating some knowledge of the related social science aspects (e.g. sociology of education, psychology of education etc.) together with philosophy of education facilitates explanation of educational phenomena. It is this focus on explanation that is crucial, in my view. Without the capacity to explain what we witness in classrooms or the various twists and turns of education policy, teachers are more likely to become victims of official and media ‘solutions’ to perceived educational problems. They are bereft of the critical, social scientific tools to penetrate beneath the surface of mainstream, media-induced or managerial ideological constructions regarding what the problems are in education today and what their solutions might be. Even the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) seems to concur on this point:

“Education studies is concerned with understanding how people develop and learn throughout their lives. It facilitates the study of the nature of knowledge, and a critical engagement with a variety of perspectives, and ways of knowing and understanding, drawn from a range of appropriate disciplines. Education studies courses … all involve the intellectually rigorous study of educational processes, systems and approaches, and the cultural, social, political and historical contexts within which they are embedded” (QAA, 2007, p.4 in Bartlett and Burton pp.3-4 – my emphases).

Thus, according to the QAA, it seems to be clear that knowledge of the ‘cultural, social, political and historical contexts’ is necessary for understanding what goes on in education today. And this must involve some knowledge of relevant aspects of the social sciences. For example, it is hard to envisage how it might be possible to have much understanding of why schools are deemed to be ‘failing’ without recourse to sociological studies on education and social class. The notions of educational ‘success’ and ‘failure’ can be linked to philosophical discussions regarding what constitutes ‘success’ and ‘failure’ – either in general or in relation to education.

The QAA also stress that education studies is a ‘critical’ discipline. Now, some superficial outlooks on what this means might assume that ‘critical’ means mere criticisms of educational policies and practices. But there is a difference between criticism and critique. The former merely notes the drawbacks, deficiencies and problems of a particular education policy or classroom practice. Critique, however seeks to trace the roots, the origins of these practices and policies: their ideological, social, political and economic genesis. Critique is a deeper form of analysis, and accords with the ‘intellectually rigorous study of educational processes, systems and approaches’ hallmarked by the QAA. Such ‘rigorous study’ involves recourse to social science and philosophy, I would argue. That is, the search for explanations of educational phenomena based on social theory, social research the philosophies of education and social science. Critique of educational phenomena rests on social scientific explanation (involving theory, understanding research and evidence etc.). Thus, if we are to nurture teachers that are capable of ‘intellectually rigorous study’ of educational phenomena with a view to changing classroom practice and school life based on research, evidence and the ability to apply research findings and to use social scientific approaches to education, then groundings in social science and philosophy are a necessity.

Two Current Dangers for Education Studies

In the struggle to attract students, and given the current context (with national cutbacks in education courses incorporating Qualified Teacher Status – QTS – at primary level), there might be a tendency to water down the social scientific content and approach, along with the philosophical outlook, for education studies courses. The urge to ‘professionalise’ education studies courses, by making them more seemingly relevant to prospective teachers, appeals to those increasing numbers of applicants who have been rejected from education courses with QTS. However, this strategy necessarily squeezes out social science and philosophy elements from education studies courses, thereby demoting key aspects of education studies provision that the QAA highlighted above. In the process, this strategy mystifies education, which becomes cast adrift from significant understanding of the social sciences and philosophy. There are two dangers in this.

Technicism and Professionalisation

The first danger is that those interested in becoming teachers through doing a first degree in education studies, perhaps combined with another subject [2], become increasingly acquainted with education at the purely descriptive and official levels. The descriptive level is concerned with what goes on in schools, and the official level is concerned with what ought to go on. Of course, some critical stance is possible on the basis that what goes on does not accord with what government departments want. But that line assumes a rather shallow form of criticism, as it rests on the assumption that when it frames education policy and initiatives, the government is always right and always knows best. The government’s standards and criteria are taken as given. Of course, having taught in schools, colleges and universities myself I know that many teachers do not have such faith in official government lines, policies and initiatives in education. Yet I would argue that groundings in social science and philosophy would deepen teachers’ understandings of what is going on and what the government is doing in the educational landscape. Mere description of what goes on and what the official government dictats are in education studies courses fosters a kind of technicism, where the only thing that counts as success is meeting government targets, conforming to ‘best practice’, or at least ‘stipulated’ practice’ as defined by government and official circles. At the extreme, it might be that ‘success’ is merely immoral; where we do something really well but it raises moral questions. For example, as teachers, we might set out on getting the best test scores possible whilst brushing aside the negative effects this has on the pupils or their parents.


But the opposite of technicism is not really any better. By moralism I mean the tendency to cast judgement on educational practices and policies uniformed by social scientific knowledge and social research. This can descend into mere prejudice. Our feeling that ‘streaming is wrong’ needs to be backed up by data, research and social theory, for example. Without this, it just becomes a personal preference. As education studies teachers, we have a duty to wean our students (and ourselves) off quick draw moral solutions. Furthermore, our moralistic stances might be impractical, or at least not well considered. If we are “de-schoolers” after Ivan Illich, and want to get rid of schools altogether, and if we have no alternatives to offer, then our arguments are weakened – no matter how passionate we are that schools are the root of all in evil in society. Yet framing alternatives brings in questions of what is possible, and grasping this rests on social scientific knowledge of how society, groups and individuals behave and interact: back to social science.


It would seem to me that it would be mistaken for education studies courses to eject the social sciences and philosophy from their orbits. If these academic disciplines are systematically rooted out, or are left to wither by inertia or fall by default, then we do a disservice to our students. We disempower them by undermining their capacity to explain, and therefore to critique, educational phenomena [3].


[1] Glenn Rikowski is a Senior Lecturer in Education Studies in the School of Education at the University of Northampton. He writes here in a personal capacity, and his views should not be taken to reflect those of the department in which he works or the School of Education or University of Northampton.

[2] Necessarily so if they wish to teach in secondary schools, as at least 50% of a student’s course time must be in a National Curriculum subject.

[3] See Glenn Rikowski’s School of Education Staff Profile at: http://www2.northampton.ac.uk/portal/page/portal/education/home1/staff/glennrikowski


Bartlett, S. & Burton, D. (2007) Introduction to Education Studies, Second Edition, London: Sage.

QAA (2007) Benchmarking Academic Standards: Education Studies, London: Quality Assurance Agency, online at: http://www.qaa.ac.uk

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