The purpose of education

clay-modellingIt’s great to get back to basics, once in a while.  Yesterday I responded to the Education Committee’s inquiry into the purpose and quality of education in England.  The call for submissions included a link to a short video where a range of people said what they thought the purpose of education should be.  They said: to get people a good job, or basic life skills, to help people realise their full potential, to give preparation for day-to-day life, to enable critical thinking leading to informed choices, and to enable people to get a good job and be happy.  These do not seem to me to be conflicting views; they are all variations on the theme of creating the possibility of a better tomorrow.  It strikes me, however, that they are all focused on what individuals get out of a good education, with no mention of the benefit to society as a whole.  In my response, submitted on behalf of CSIE, I said that the primary function of education is to enable children and young people to become responsible and informed citizens, capable of sustaining happy and fulfilling lives for themselves and for others.

The challenge of inquiring into the Purpose and Quality of education is that Process may not get a look-in.  For example, even if we all agree that a key purpose of education is to enable people to get a good job (which is, admittedly, an easier outcome to measure compared to enabling people to lead happy and fulfilling lives), we could all still have very different views of how to achieve this.

For some people, preparation for a good job might be seen as a gradual build-up of specialised knowledge.  From this point of view, the focus of education would be on expecting pupils to learn ever-increasing facts and skills organised around specific curriculum subjects, setting people off on particular career paths.  The quality of education, therefore, would be largely measured by the amount of subject knowledge pupils have accumulated; proficiency in physics laws, French grammar or Renaissance painters would be among its indicators.

For other people, getting and keeping a good job might be seen to depend more on interpersonal skills.  From this point of view, the focus of education would be on expecting pupils to develop their abilities in areas such as communication, collaboration, negotiation and conflict resolution, and to embrace core values such as respect for others.  The quality of education, therefore, would be largely measured by evaluations of pupils’ interpersonal skills and response to diversity; their reactions in real or imagined situations, such as role plays and oral or written presentations, would be among the indicators considered.

Needless to say, the above two perspectives are not mutually exclusive.  A decision may need to be made, however, on their relative importance and the extent to which they are considered a priority for education.  It is true that some things are easier to measure than others, but I think it would be wrong to define the purpose and quality of education according to what can easily be measured.

Underpinning all this is the consideration that children and young people develop their sense of self as they are growing up.  Learning about themselves and others, shaping their own identities and contributing to the shaping of others’, are processes which happen in tandem and are inextricably linked with any other learning that goes on in school.  Insights about who we are, and who we are becoming, can be gleamed at any time.  Everyday experiences constantly contribute to the shaping of young people’s identities; pupils do not timetable developing their sense of self to coincide with PSHE lessons.  The responsibility to help young people feel good about themselves rests with all staff, whether teaching or support staff and no matter what a teacher’s subject is.  Schools are called upon to develop a culture of acceptance and respect, where diversity is celebrated and where pupils and staff can be open about every aspect of their identity.  CSIE invites schools to take every opportunity to challenge stereotypes, educate people away from prejudice, and ensure that nobody feels unsafe, belittled or looked down upon.

If you want a “seductively practical” guide to help you attend to these priorities, look no further.

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