Challenges and Future Directions for Children’s Rights in Education

Challenges and Future Directions for Children’s Rights in Education

The Research on Children’s Rights in Education Network (Network 25) recently held our annual event, as part of the European Educational Research Association (EERA) #ReconnectingECER programme.

This was an exceptional event in several respects. Due to COVID and the cancellation of our annual ‘face to face’ European Conference on Educational Research (ECER), we transformed our EERA Network  Development funded project into a virtual open event. To broaden exposure to our network, and include a wider range of voices that has not always been possible at previous events, we brought together various communities to encourage intergenerational dialogue that focused specifically on the intersection of education and children’s rights.

Specifically, the session addressed the topic of “Wicked Problems in Children’s Rights in Education”. We also ensured live-tweeting prior to and during the event through a partnership with @ChildRightsChat. Finally, since we aimed to draw new avenues for research on children’s rights and education, a graphic facilitator accompanied the whole webinar, providing our Network with a visual summary of the discussions initiated.

We were joined by 66 participants from 23 different countries within and outside Europe.[1] 11 presenters provided 11 thought-provoking and stimulating Lightning Talks on different ‘wicked problems’ affecting children’s rights and education. Wicked Problems are problems that are complex or difficult to solve[2]. 

The speakers comprised of young people and adults, including academics and members of NGOs, from around the world, all passionate experts about child rights and education. The young people brought a unique, lived and living perspective to the topic of ‘wicked problems in children’s rights in education’. Their level of involvement has set a precedent for voice and participation in such discussions.

The Speakers

The event began with Victor, 16 years old from the UK, a EuroChild Children’s Council member. His presentation on ‘The Flaws in our Education System’ set the scene. Victor highlighted the contradiction present in schools, where there is an individualist culture, which simultaneously lacks in consideration for each individual’s uniqueness. The system focuses heavily on memorisation and standardised testing, which stands in contrast to individualism.

Professor Laura Lundy, from Queen’s University Belfast, followed with ‘Children’s Rights – Inflation, Dilution and Reputation’. Professor Lundy shared her thoughts on how and when the actual language of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child is used. She argued that legal accuracy is necessary to ensure credibility in the field of children’s rights and education.

We heard then from Bertsy, 16 years old from Cameroon, a member of the GNRC Youth Committee – Arigatou International in 2019. Bertsy provided us with examples of how the costs of education, notably school fees, impact the most vulnerable in societies. By doing so, she raised the issue of who contributes to enforcing rights in such contexts.

Mr Samson Oladejo, a PhD Candidate at the University of the West of Scotland, then reminded us of the number of children not in education and how technology could support many of these children’s needs. Mr Oladejo provided examples from his research focusing on discourses of risk that obfuscate educational access (in the context of Universal Basic Education) for young people in poor urban areas of Lagos, Nigeria.

Laura, a 12-year-old Australian and founder of Student Alliance 4 Inclusion, then concluded the first section of the Webinar with a presentation titled ‘Adults’ assumptions on segregating children in education -the discriminatory legacy for children’. She made the point that discriminating against children in education does not meet the requirements of article 29 of the UNCRC and drew upon specific examples of disability discrimination and segregation in educational contexts.

After a short break, Dr Patricio Cuevas-Parra, the Director for Child Participation and Rights with World Vision International, launched the second section of the Webinar. Dr Cuevas-Parra provided examples of how adults need to ‘share the platform’ with children and young people, and how ‘power’ can have a diverse impact on how the platform is shared. He insisted on the fact that empowerment is a process and an outcome. You can read Dr Patricio Cuevas-Parra’s blog post here

Following this, we heard from Reece, a 16-year-old South African, Child Rights Advisor with Child Rights Connect, and founder of Earth Kids Organisation (EKO), which focuses on environmental education and youth empowerment projects. Reece’s talk concentrated on early childhood development and rights. He illustrated how governmental standards can sometimes undermine rights and problematised the longer-term implications of such restrictions.

Our next speaker, Assistant Professor Gabriela Martinez Sainz, an Ad Astra Fellow and Assistant Professor in Education at University College Dublin, called for more research on pedagogical knowledge on children’s rights. She also pointed out the lack of ‘structures and spaces’ to teach children about their rights.

Savannah, 11 years old from England is a Child Rights Advisor with Child Rights Connect. She provided us with examples of some of the issues children had during the COVID-19 school closures. Ending with a plea for all children to have ‘real and regular’ contact with teachers during such times, Savannah highlighted the difficulties of going through education ‘alone’.

Our penultimate speaker was Professor Philip D. Jaffé, from the Centre for Children’s Rights Studies (CCRS) and current member of the Committee on the Rights of the Child. Professor Jaffé provided us with an ecological understanding of Human rights violations. Witnessing the numerous violations of children’s rights within education, he provocatively wondered whether human rights education remains possible if this does not change.

Professor Ann Quennerstedt, from Örebro University in Sweden and Link Convenor of Network 25 was our final speaker. Professor Quennerstedt stated that ‘Teachers are a wicked problem’ and reminded us that ‘positioning teachers as villains’ does not support children’s right in education. She suggested child rights researchers should turn the focus away from teachers to address structural issues and aspects of professionalisation.

The Discussions – A Visual Representation 

There was a wide range of insightful questions from the attendees and the presenters did an excellent job of answering these questions from attendees verbally and in the chat. We were delighted to have Debbie Roberts from EngageVisually joining us this year.

Debbie created a visual summary of the event by way of a graphic recording. This visual has captured the essence of the talks and exchanges that occurred during the session. At different points throughout the seminar, we were able to see the ‘work-in-progress’ which further stimulated our ongoing conversations.


Feedback from Attendees

‘An absolutely excellent session. I found it to be very educative in the widest sense in the re-visiting foundational principles from unique and diverse perspectives and then expanding upon them even more. Few webinars have left me so enriched.’
– Regina Murphy, DCU, Ireland.

‘I really enjoyed the conference. Very well organised and fantastic speakers. The intergenerational dialogue was rich and meaningful.’
– Panellist Dr Patricio Cuevas Parra, World Vision International 

Future Activities

The event has generated much discussion, new ideas, and collaborative possibilities, which we, as a network, will continue to cultivate in our future activities. Among the numerous options evoked, we are pleased to share here a few take-aways:

  • Research directions
    • Ask more WHY questions to understand the reasons undermining rights implementation in education (versus solely describing them)
    • More interdisciplinary work to reinforce the human rights language used in research in Children’s rights and education without losing the focus on core educational questions
  • Research topics
    • How the COVID crisis affects education beyond lockdown, and seeking children’s own views on these matters?
    • The abuse and bullying of children activists
    • What are the aims of education?
  • Research collaborations:
    • Including more intergenerational dialogue

Find out details of these activities through subscribing to our newsletter and following the network via Twitter@Network25EERA.

To subscribe to the network newsletter, simply send a blank message to

Finally, we recommend looking for the following accounts and hashtags on Twitter, to read some of the interesting anecdotes and discussions from the event:


Our event was proudly supported by EERA’s Network Development project funding scheme. We want to thank our supporters EERA and @ChildRightsChat, for having made this event possible. Thanks also to the University of Geneva, and its Centre for Children’s Rights Studies for technical support. We would also like to express our sincere thanks and gratitude to the following organisations who have supported the event with enthusiasm and a short timeframe to initiate young people’s participation in the event, namely: Child Rights Connect; Eurochild; Time-matters UK, and Arigatou International.

[1] Australia, Bangladesh, Belgium, Cyprus, Finland, France, Georgia, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Moldova, Norway, Poland, Rwanda, Sweden, South Africa, Spain, Switzerland, United Kingdom, Turkey and USA.

[2] For additional insight on ‘wicked problems’ see B. Guy Peters (2017) What is so wicked about wicked problems? A conceptual analysis and a research program, Policy and Society, 36:3, 385-396, DOI:10.1080/14494035.2017.1361633


Professor Zoe Moody

Professor Zoe Moody

University of Teacher Education Valais

Zoe Moody is Professor at the University of Teacher Education Valais and Senior Research Associate at the Inter- and Transdisciplinarity Unit, Center for Children’s Rights Studies, University of Geneva. Her research and teaching activities lie at the intersection between educational sciences and the field of children’s rights: notably children’s rights to, in and through education. Zoe Moody is French-speaking editor of the Swiss Journal of Educational Research and Deputy link convenor of the Research on Children’s Rights in Education Network (25) of the European Conference on Educational Research (ECER).

Dr Ally Dunhill

Dr Ally Dunhill

Dr Ally Dunhill is a consultant and researcher in the social policy domain, with a particular focus on children, youth, inclusion and rights. She has worked across the education and social care sectors for over 30 years. She has lectured, researched and presented on a wide range of topics, all with the core theme of promoting, protecting and respecting human rights. Since 2015, all aspects of her work have been aligned to the Sustainable Development Goals (SGDs). Ally is also the co-founder of Accessible AD, one of the first Start-Ups in the UAE, which is a third sector organisation focused on accessibility and inclusion.

Jenna Gillett-Swan

Jenna Gillett-Swan

Associate Professor, Faculty of Education at Queensland University of Technology, Australia

Associate Professor Jenna Gillett-Swan researches to understand and address threats to wellbeing in students’ educational experiences through participatory rights-based approaches to educational transformation and school improvement. A/Prof Gillett-Swan’s approach is characterised by privileging the perspectives and experiences of young people and working in partnership with them and other stakeholders to enact change and influence in educational contexts. She is an Associate Professor within the Faculty of Education at Queensland University of Technology, Australia; co-leader of the ‘Safety and Wellbeing’ research program within the Centre for Inclusive Education; a member of the International Journal of Children’s Rights Advisory Board, and current co-convenor for the European Educational Research Association Research on Children’s Rights in Education Network.

The Rights of Children in Education

The Rights of Children in Education

Some weeks ago, I was invited to deliver a speech at the ‘Wicked Problems in Children’s Rights in Education’ conference organised by the European Educational Research Association. Whilst preparing my talking points, I was reflecting on the fact that a ‘wicked problem’ is one that is difficult to resolve. There is no simple solution to a wicked problem and it creates tensions, depending on the lens used to analyse the issue. Within this context, I decided to throw some light on one of the more radical rights outlined in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC): children and young people’s right to participate and its intersection with the right to education.

The UNCRC has been recognised as revolutionary because, for the first time in history, it entitled children and young people with a specific set of human rights, including the right to participate. The UNCRC’s views deem children and young people to be rights-holders and is supported by the childhood studies field that positions them as competent social actors. However, three decades after the UNCRC entered into force, participation rights continue to be challenging to implement, and the educational system is no exception. 

In order to discuss these issues, it is critical to review three key global policy instruments:

  • the UNCRC
  • the UN’s Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC’s) General Comment No. 1 on the aims of education
  • the CRC’s General Comment No. 12 on the right to be listened to.

The Aims of Education


General Comment No.1 highlights that education is not only composed of the formal schooling system, but it should also include the development of life experiences and learning processes to strengthen children and young people’s personalities, talents, and abilities. In the same line of thought, the UNCRC’s Article 29 outlines the aims of education as the holistic development of children and young people’s full potential, including the development of respect for human rights, an enhanced sense of identity and socialisation, and interactions with others and the environment. Thus, children and young people’s right to education is not only a matter of access; it is also about content, which must be child-centred, child-friendly, and empowering.

Unfortunately, children and young people’s experiences in many educational systems around the world reveal that these aims are not always achieved. Often the focus is only on improving academic skills and sharpening intellect, ignoring other critical formative components. Here is where education systems’ aims contrapose UNCRC’s ideals, including the promotion of children and young people’s empowerment, as stated in General Comment No.1 and the UNCRC’s Article 12. 

Empowerment can be achieved by developing children and young people’s social skills, supporting learning and other capacities, valuing human dignity, and supporting self-esteem and self-confidence. This raises the question of whether this aim is attained or undermined by the systemic focus on academic success.

The Right to Participate


In turning the discussion to children and young people’s right to participate, defined by General Comment No. 12 as ‘the right to express their views freely in all matters affecting them’, an ‘ongoing process, which includes information-sharing and dialogue between children and adults based on mutual respect’. This definition embraces the notion of participation as a process with three pivotal components:

    • an impact on decision-making
    • mutual respect between children and young people and adults
    • a collaborative learning process.

The Disconnect between Rights and Reality

Now, where is the tension? What makes the implementation of this right to participate in education problematic? Children, as rights-holders, competent social actors, and empowered decision-makers, should be able to have opportunities to form and express their views freely, and these views should be respected and taken seriously. However, reality shows that children and young people seldomly have meaningful opportunities to participate in decision-making processes at school, and they rarely perceive positive results from their participation.

The major constraints are consistently the same across time and spaces:

      • the authority of adults, in this case, school teachers and educational staff, over children and young people that perpetuates patriarchal structures of power
      • inequalities in education which includes or excludes children and young people based on their social categories
      • tensions between children and young people being considered objects of education and subjects of mutual learning.

 Yet, this ‘wicked problem’ can be easily addressed, if all parties involved take the key principles outlined in the UNCRC, General Comment No. 1, and General Comment No. 12 seriously.

Hence, in order to discuss the future direction needed to ensure the realisation of children and young people’s rights, we must link participation rights and education aims when designing educational systems. Children and young people must be front and centre as subjects of rights, subjects of learning, and competent social actors, able to shape their educational environments. The challenge will always be to create spaces where adults listen to children and young people and take their views seriously. Thus, adults also need to build their abilities to listen to children and young people and adapt their decision-making processes to be more inclusive and equitable.

Photo Credit: World Vision/Jon Warren

Dr Patricio Cuevas-Parras

Dr Patricio Cuevas-Parras

Director for Child Participation and Rights with World Vision International

Dr Patricio Cuevas-Parra is the Director for Child Participation and Rights with World Vision International. He leads strategies and programmes to ensure that children and young people are at the centre of the advocacy and policy debate.

He holds a PhD in Social Policy from the University of Edinburgh, United Kingdom, a Master of Advanced Studies in Children’s Rights from University of Fribourg-UIKB, Switzerland, and a Master of International Relations. Patricio has worked in more than 20 countries, including long-term roles in Ecuador, Chile, Indonesia, Lebanon, Cyprus and the United Kingdom. He has published a variety of books and reports on the topics of children’s rights, child participation, indigenous children and gender equality.

Dr Cuevas-Parra has a keen interest in looking at cutting-edge child rights advocacy tools and models to enhance children and young people’s engagement in decision-making. His research interests fall into three main categories: children’s participation in public policy, child-led research methodologies, and children’s perspectives on violence and abuse. Patricio is currently conducting research projects on children’s participation with Queen’s University Belfast and the University of Edinburgh.

The Effects of COVID-19 Lockdowns on Children’s Education

The Effects of COVID-19 Lockdowns on Children’s Education

The theme of the ECER 2020 conference was Educational Research: (Re)connecting Communities. This focus was initially prompted by the concerns about the potential effects of Brexit and other fractures in communities in Europe. The conference aimed to interrogate the capacity of educational research to address the complexity of the challenges that are encountered in connecting and reconnecting communities in contemporary Europe.

The effects of Covid-19 and the consequent lockdowns that swept across Europe and the world led to further, more extensive, fractures and disconnects across Europe. Schools, universities and workplaces were closed. There were severe restrictions on travel and movement around Europe.

As the Covid-19 pandemic and the lockdowns continued, a number of serious issues arose for children and the continuation of their education in Scotland. For many children and young people, school became an online engagement with teachers. The use of platforms and materials and the frequency of contact varied across Scotland’s 32 local authorities with learning resources provided by schools, media companies and commercial companies.


The Effects of Home Schooling

Recent research indicates that the move to learning at home for the majority of pupils led to mixed results for pupils, parents and teachers. Some parents and carers became anxious about adopting a greatly enhanced role in supporting the formal education of their children in the home. The formal education of children is normally assumed, almost exclusively, by highly qualified professional teachers in a school setting. There were not always sufficient resources at home to support formal home learning.

The effects of digital poverty, or digital exclusion, became apparent as awareness grew that some families did not have adequate equipment or even access to the internet to support their children in online learning. Not all members of the teaching profession had the skill set for the sudden move to online teaching and learning and, like many other professionals, had to upskill. Further, all teachers had to spend a substantial amount of time preparing and implementing online learning. There was serious disruption to the exam diet for senior pupils and a highly publicised reconfiguration of assessment practices leading to a controversial recalculation of grades for the major public examinations.

All of this unfolded in the context of serious concerns about rising levels of child poverty pre-COVID-19 and further increases as a result of job losses during lockdown. This situation contributed to a rise in food insecurity for many families and more families now seek free school meals for their children and access food from foodbanks. The effects of the rising levels of child poverty will have consequences for the physical and mental health and well-being of the children and young people.


The New Normal

There are other ways to view the outcomes of the lockdowns. As we came out of lockdown and schools resumed, ‘The New Normal’ was a phrase that came into current use. An important aspect of ‘new normal’ is the new knowledge, which will inform any altered concept of normality. New knowledge can emerge through any number of activities, but typically, it is the result of sustained engagement with others, materials and contexts during which we come to assimilate the nuanced experiences and perspectives of others in a new way.


Positive Effects of the Lockdown for Learners

Children and young people will have had a range of experiences of lockdown. As a result, they will have developed new knowledge about themselves as learners. There are likely to be pupils who will have experienced ‘schoolwork’ differently in a positive way; who have engaged with their learning at their own pace and on their own terms. Some will have enjoyed working alone, whilst others might have benefited from engagement with siblings and parents.

Anecdotally, we have probably all heard of examples of children and young people learning new things and developing skills and interests not directly connected to schoolwork. They have already blended their own ways of organising and engaging with their learning, their own interests and other people with whom they have interacted during this period.

The likelihood is that all young people will have learned new things and have a stronger sense of themselves as people and learners. It is important that this new knowledge is sought out, recognised and built on as our children, young people and schools return. We are in a unique situation and should take the opportunity to engage children’s and young people’s new skills, newly-realised abilities and personal interests. We should blend these insights into practice and pedagogy in schools as we simultaneously explore new ways to allow them to demonstrate their learning.


Positive Effects of the Lockdown for Teachers

Teachers will have learned new things about themselves, their colleagues and the children and young people with whom they work and the relationships among them. Teachers know that young people’s emotional experience of learning is as important as their cognitive experience. The current situation presents a unique stimulus for teachers to make sense of the relationships they have with each of their pupils.

Teachers already see their pupils as learners and not simply people who have to be taught. They will already be aware of pupils’ skills abilities and interests, and the new experiences which young people bring to school could be used to enhance and enrich the learning of all young people. Teachers’ interactions with pupils during lockdown will have enriched their own sense of themselves as teachers and their place in the lives of their charges. This new knowledge will help reinforce any new sense that pupils have of themselves as learners and teachers have of themselves as teachers.

EERA also has a role to play, and the recent online events had a significant role in reconnecting our research communities. The events provided new spaces in which education was explored, theorised and researched from the perspectives of all member associations and networks. EERA also has a role in generating the new knowledge that will increasingly and relentlessly nudge forward our understanding of education.


Professor Stephen J. McKinney

Professor Stephen J. McKinney

Professor, School of Education, University of Glasgow

Stephen J. McKinney is a Professor in the School of Education, University of Glasgow. He leads the research and teaching group, Pedagogy, Praxis and Faith. He is the past President of the Scottish Educational Research Association. He is on the Editorial Board of the Journal of Beliefs and Values, Improving Schools, the Scottish Educational Review. He is a visiting professor in Catholic Education at Newman University, an Associate of the Irish Institute for Catholic Studies and on the steering group for the Network for Researchers in Catholic Education. He is a member of the European Educational Research Association Council. He is the Chair of the Board of Directors of the London School of Management Education. His research interests include Catholic schools and faith schools, the impact of poverty on education and education and social justice and he has published widely on all of these topics.

Dr George Head

Dr George Head

Honorary Senior Research Fellow at the School of Education, University of Glasgow

George Head is Honorary Senior Research Fellow at the School of Education, University of Glasgow, Scotland. George is a past-president of the Scottish Educational Research Association (SERA) and has represented the association on the European Educational Research Association (EERA) Council and served as Senior Mentor to the EERA Emerging Researchers Group. He is a visiting professor at Newman University, Birmingham. His areas of academic interest include Inclusive Education and the learning and teaching of young people whose behaviour schools find difficult. George was a member of the Local Organising Committee for ECER 2020 which was scheduled to take place in Glasgow

Multi-dimensional professional learning: a leadership perspective

Multi-dimensional professional learning: a leadership perspective

Life and learning rarely go forward in straight lines. The most stimulating and creative experiences often arise from unexpected and unintended interactions. It’s the same with professional learning. We need to master new knowledge and skills, but education is more than knowing and doing. That way lies repetition, comfort learning and stagnation as the future overtakes us. As professionals, we need to question our own contexts; explore and investigate outside our normal routines; look for opportunities to observe and experience different cultures of learning; then re-assess our own practice with fresh eyes.

We’ve moved on a long way since the realisation that formal ‘training’ is only a small part of the professional learning process. We now understand the implications of working and learning in complex environments and appreciate that learning is active, not passive. We can’t develop professionals, but as leaders and colleagues, we can support their development. So, the first dimension of professional learning we need to appreciate is the centrality of the individual professional.

Dimension 1: Centrality of the Individual Professional

As a leader, I need to understand that while I have my priorities, and we as collaborative professionals need to work together to achieve them, it is each of you, my colleagues, who will bring the motivation, the experience, the questions, the ideas and the critical challenge to achieve what we want for ourselves and for our students. I need to understand how, as a classroom teacher or teacher leader, you have identified your own priorities.


I need to be aware of how your priorities are shaped by your own career path and whether there are barriers to your professional learning that I can help to remove.


There are five key elements to this first dimension:

  • Re-positioning: are you ready for a new challenge such as teaching a different part of the curriculum or age range? Or even experiencing teaching in a different school or with aspiring professionals in Initial Teacher Education? Can I open doors for you to do this?
  • Re-visioning: This involves looking more deeply at things you may be taking for granted. It involves asking critical, challenging questions and seeing day-to-day processes with new eyes. In some cases, professional learning should be ‘edgy’ – challenging our existing values and ways of working. It may involve small-scale research, and it may require you to ask me to justify my own values and actions, so I must not be defensive when responding to your questions.
  • Extending: in the same way that we support the development of a young person’s knowledge and understanding as they move through school, so we need to encourage stimulation through deep professional learning. Intellectual challenge is important (and a requirement for some professions). How best can I encourage colleagues to engage in further study, wider reading and critical questioning?
  • Co-creating: active learning is best undertaken when one or more co-learners can ask constructively-critical questions to move thinking and acting forward. This requires trust and an element of professional security so that confidence is not undermined. As a leader with an overview of the professional environment within my organisation and, through networks, beyond it, I can suggest who might form suitable co-learners for my colleagues.
  • Consolidating: It’s a mistake to think that professional learning must be continuous. That means unbroken. It must, however, be continuing so that we revisit our learning and, at times, cruise a little to enjoy what we do well. Constantly questioning and looking critically at our work may prove psychologically challenging. As a leader, I need to be aware of this in myself and others and be careful not to apply pressure to change when well-being is at risk.

Dimension 2: Engagement

The second dimension of professional learning is engagement. This is the ‘doing’ part. Thankfully, we now understand that attending a professional development event does not necessarily enhance learning in planned and determined ways. The recent pandemic has made us realise that formal teaching has to be supplemented with other approaches to learning. The term ‘blended learning’ is often used to describe a mixture of online learning and face-to-face teaching, but this suggests a two-part approach when our engagement with learning is multi-faceted.

The term ‘professional learning blend’ has been used in Wales (Jones et al., 2019) to indicate that professional learning engagement takes many forms throughout a person’s career. It may involve:

  • mentoring (as a mentor or mentee)
  • presenting ideas and experiences to colleagues in one’s institution or at a conference (virtual or in-person)
  • being part of a professional learning network
  • studying for a Master’s or Doctoral award
  • attending a training event
  • observing others, being observed or simply talking about professional experiences with different colleagues.

Or all of these at different points in a person’s career path.

These different experiences will not be treated as separate events; they will merge in many ways to develop more rounded, informed and aware professionals. As a leader, I should not attempt to create a learning blend for others. The blending will be done by the individual professionals themselves. My role will be to help create the space and opportunity for colleagues to engage in these different professional learning experiences and, where appropriate, to prompt individuals to blend the learning into coherent ways of working. 

Dimension 3: Application

The third dimension is Application, sometimes called ‘impact’, or effectiveness, or follow-up (or follow-through). It is the understanding that although the professional learning process should be satisfying, much like reading a good book or being in enjoyable company, our purpose as education professionals is to support the learning of others and we must keep these others in mind when we engage in our own professional learning.

As a leader, this is something I need to be most aware of. I am accountable for the quality of teaching and learning in my institution (staff and students), and more than one type of indicator will be used to judge this. So, I need to ensure that the application of professional learning processes is maximised. At times, this means reverting to a performative approach with defined outcome criteria. Often, it is allowing the creative professional to emerge and giving space for the creation of new approaches inside and outside the formal learning environment.

We seem to know what works best in professional learning. Or do we? Stepping back and looking at well-researched and established models of professional learning (see, for example, Boylan (2018), and Kennedy (2014)) allows us to revisit our professional learning programmes as providers and as participants. Beware of claims that “this course will transform your teaching”. Don’t generalise from the findings of evaluations of funded professional learning programmes which show, usually immediately after the event, that participants were highly motivated to change their practice.

Learn from, but don’t emulate, others. Sherlock Holmes, in a rare mentoring moment, said to Dr Watson: “You know my methods: apply them”. But Watson could no more emulate the deductive brilliance of his companion any more than the fictional Holmes could have related the stories as well as their author. So, it’s a little more complex than copying what works in one instance and transferring it into your own context.

Dimension 4: Space

The final two dimensions are space and time. Leaders with responsibility for equitable resource allocation will be familiar with the challenges these bring. Space relates to where the learning takes place. Opportunities to learn outside one’s classroom, beyond the school and even in different countries and cultures are invaluable. Leaders must think laterally to enable learning mobility (ensuring that students aren’t disadvantaged by substitutions in teaching by enabling continuity of learning) and we must protect the ability to experience locational flexibility so that we do not become prisoners of school-based learning.

Dimension 5: Time

The final dimension is time. We could see this in terms of ‘learning hours’ (a dubious criterion to determine the quality of education provision) but it’s more fundamental: it’s about what we are learning and the ways we learn and whether they are set in the past, present or future. The rapid growth in online learning during the COVID-19 pandemic exposed the out-of-date approaches we previously used to structure our education. To what extent do we equip our students for the future and are we ahead of them in our own learning? And are we clear about the ethical issues that this will inevitably involve? Harari (p463) refers to this as the Human Enhancement question: “what do we want to become?”

It would be easier if we could simply manage staff development to ensure that all our teachers perform effectively. At least now we have acknowledged that it’s much more complex than this. We are responsible for leading rather than managing, and we engage in professional learning rather than staff development.   Leaders should embrace and celebrate this complexity.

The views expressed in this blog post are from Professor Jones and not necessarily representative of Network 1.


Professor Ken Joes

Professor Ken Joes

Chair of the Editorial Board, Professional Development in Education

Ken taught in London before returning to Wales to work as Head of the School of Education and Dean of the Faculty of Humanities in Swansea Metropolitan University. He was Senior Consultant for Professional Learning and Development at UWTSD and is now Professor Emeritus.

His international work has included leading symposia on Professional Learning and Leadership in many European countries, in the USA and in India. He is co-convenor of Network 1 (Professional Learning and Development) of the European Education Research Association.

He has been Managing Editor of the journal Professional Development in Education and is now Chair of the Editorial Board. He was one of the founding members of the International Professional Development Association (IPDA) and of IPDA Cymru.

He now works as an independent education consultant.


Boylan, M., Coldwell, M., Maxwell, B. and Jordan, J. (2018) Rethinking models of professional learning as tools: a conceptual analysis to inform research and practice Professional Development in Education 44.1 120-139 

Harari, Y.V. (2015) Sapiens. A brief history of humankind. London: Vintage 

Jones, K., Humphreys, R., Lester, B. and Stacey, B. (2019) National Approach to Professional Learning: Research Report The Professional Learning Blend 2.0 Cardiff: Education Workforce Council

Kennedy, A. (2014) Understanding continuing professional development: the need for theory to impact on policy and practice Professional Development in Education 40.5 688-697

Education: An academic discipline or a field?

Education: An academic discipline or a field?

What is the problem?

Education research has periodically been sharply criticised for being weak in comparison with research from other disciplines. Some of this criticism has implied, or suggested more directly, that one of the reasons for the perceived weakness in education research is that education is not a ‘proper’ academic discipline when compared to other disciplines. Some go as far as to define education as a ‘field’ or an ‘applied subject’ (see Furlong, 2013 for an examination of education as a field versus a discipline; see Wyse, Selwyn, Smith and Suter, 2017, for an overview of the range of criticisms from researchers, practitioners and policymakers, that education research has been subject to).


Why does this matter?

Correctly categorising education matters because an area of knowledge described as a field is often seen as substandard compared to an area described as a discipline. For example, more than 20 years ago Deem (1996, p.7) noted the effects of discrimination in her university sociology department that she attributed in part to the distinctions that were made between ‘theoretical sociology (regarded as high status … and a masculine preserve’), ‘empirical sociology’, and ‘applied sociology which was generally regarded as being of somewhat lower status, although essential for would-be social workers, and female-dominated’. The debates in sociology about knowledge organisation can be seen mirrored in some debates in university education departments in the 21st century: for instance inequitable salaries; the place of teacher education/training in relation to academics being ‘research active’; lecturer identity and promotion at work; and theories of education as an area of knowledge (for a European perspective on categorising education see Whitty & Furlong, 2017).


The depiction and definition of education as a discipline versus a field also matters because people value accuracy and correctness in relation to any area of knowledge. Six criteria for judging whether an area of knowledge might be called a discipline were presented in a working paper from the UK’s ESRC National Centre for Research Methods (Krishnan, 2009). The most important of these was that ‘disciplines must have some institutional manifestation in the form of subjects taught at universities or colleges, respective academic departments and professional associations connected to it.’ Education not only clearly meets this criterion but also, in my view, the other five of Krishan’s criteria: education has, 1. A particular object, or focus, for its research; 2. A body of accumulated specialist knowledge specific to the discipline; 3. Theories that organise the specialist knowledge; 4. Specific terminologies; 5. Specific research methods. I am not suggesting that there is universal agreement on the manifestation of these criteria in education, but that sufficient evidence exists to depict education as an academic discipline.


What should be done?

We are approaching the final dates for all university submissions, for all academic disciplines, to the UK’s Research Excellence Framework (REF). The most important outcome of the REF judgement of research quality in the UK will be the dividing of a substantial stream of UK government research funding, by university and by discipline, for what is likely to be at least five years. In other words, there will be institutional and discipline ‘winners and losers’. This allocation will have implications for all disciplines, for example, their capacity to maintain research capacity including people’s research careers. But another important outcome is the REF’s data, analyses and reporting on research outputs and research environment that can be seen as a measure of the state of academic disciplines, beginning in the REF panel reports with how each discipline is defined and described.

On the basis of the kind of work cited in this blog (and previous work cited in Wyse, 2020, and cited in Wyse, Brown, Oliver, & Pobleté, 2020) it is in my view essential that any REF description of education,[1] and any institutional submission for a department of education, clearly portrays education as an academic discipline rather than a field. While there are strategic benefits that arise from the description of some education work as social science, defining education as a field is likely to have a negative impact which risks damage to the future progress of education as an academic discipline in universities, and possibly as a force for good in wider society. Surely a risk not worth taking.

This blog draws on the articles ‘Education research and educational practice: The qualities of a close relationshipby Dominic Wyse, Chris Brown, Sandy Oliver and Ximena Pobleté, and ‘Presidential address: The academic discipline of education: Reciprocal relationships between practical knowledge and academic knowledge’ by Dominic Wyse.

Both are published in the British Educational Research Journal, and have been made free-to-view, for a limited period, for those without a subscription, courtesy of the publisher, Wiley.

A video of the latter presidential address, at the BERA Annual Conference 2019, is available here

Professor Dominic Wyse

Professor Dominic Wyse

Professor of Early Childhood and Primary Education at the University College London (UCL) Institute of Education (IOE)

Dominic is current President of the British Educational Research Association (BERA) from 2019 to 2021. He is a fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences (FAcSS), and of the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA).

Prior to his role at the IOE as Head of Academic Department Learning and Leadership Dominic was Faculty Director of Research, Consultancy and Knowledge Transfer, in the Faculty of Children and Learning. Dominic has significant experience in music that began with his undergraduate studies at The Royal Academy of Music.

Before joining the IOE Dominic was a Senior Lecturer at the University of Cambridge. He was also appointed as the first Director of Music-Making at Churchill College Cambridge, where he was a Fellow and Director of Studies for Education. In the past Dominic was a Reader at Liverpool John Moores University, and a teacher with experience working in London, Bradford and Huddersfield in infant and junior phases.


Deem, R. (2006). Border territories: A journey through sociology, education and women’s studies. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 17, 5–19.

Furlong, J. (2013). Education – An anatomy of the discipline: Rescuing the university project? London: Routledge.

Krishnan, A. (2009). What are academic disciplines? Some observations on the disciplinarity vs. interdisciplinarity debate. NCRM Working Paper Series.

Whitty, G., & Furlong, J. (2017). Knowledge traditions in the study of education. In G. Whitty & J. Furlong (Eds.), Knowledge and the study of education: An international exploration (pp. 13–57).

Wyse, D. (2020). Presidential address: The academic discipline of education. Reciprocal relationships between practical knowledge and academic knowledge. British Educational Research Journal, 46(1), 6–25.

Wyse, D., Brown, C., Oliver, S., & Pobleté, X. (2020). Education research and educational practice: The qualities of a close relationship. British Educational Research Journal.

Wyse, D., Smith, E., Selwyn, N. & Suter, L. (2017). Editor’s Introduction. In D. Wyse, E. Smith, N. Selwyn & L. Suter (Eds.) The BERA/SAGE Handbook of Educational Research. London: Sage.

[1] Or equivalent process in countries outside the UK.