Conference Papers

Educationalists, we need to talk about counterfactuals

• If the National Curriculum had not been introduced, compulsory education could be able to provide more diversity and choice in the future.
• If the government abolished Ofsted, schools would be able to adopt more creative and risky approaches.
• If SATs tests were abolished, children would be happier.

All of the above are examples of counterfactual statements: conditional subjunctive sentences that are fundamental to our understanding of the world (if we did X, Y could be the outcome). However, such thought-processes tacitly acknowledge causal relationships, a thorny issue for social scientists and philosophers alike: with reference to Hume, some point out that causality is something that is experienced and can never be ontologically established. With reference to Durkheim, social facts, established through establishing casual links, are the only authentic sociological knowledge. Conditional subjunctives, it would appear, can never be more than speculative naval gazing about that which cannot exist, or they are speculative naval gazing because they lack the precision to establish causal facts.

That causality is complex is about as certain a statement as we can make on the subject. But the tensions outlined do not necessarily render counterfactuals invalid. Whilst fully acknowledging problems, other areas of academic endeavour have managed to find a range of applications for counterfactual processes that provide sufficient certainty to be useful. In this paper I will argue that there is an urgent need for educationalists to cast aside out-dated approaches to causality and adopt similar methods. Counterfactual approaches provide an array of possibilities to explore possible educational worlds, to compare them to actual educational contexts and to make claims based on the relative similarity of the two. To put it in appropriate terms: if we place counterfactual thought at the heart of our analysis of education, we could elicit purposeful, useful and appropriately complex explanations of educational phenomena from those who engage with the subject. It’s not perfect but who knows, the promotion of counterfactual processes might lead to useful outcomes that change education for the better.

Downes, G. (2017) 'Educationalists, we need to talk about counterfactuals', paper presented to The 13th Annual Conference of the British Education Studies Association (BESA), 29–30 June, viewed 06 August 2020, <>