A debate on the purpose of education is long overdue. Will school minister’s speech kick start discussion?

Janet Downs's picture
One disheartening finding in NUT-commissioned research published last week was that young people see the main purpose of schools is pushing them through exams.

Schools minister Nick Gibb, in a speech to the Education Reform Summit, says education is more than this. He is unlikely to accept that stringent accountability measures supported by the Government have contributed to the feeling that exam grades are all that matter. However, his thoughts on the purpose of education might kick start a long overdue debate on what exactly education is for.

Gibb’s three purposes are these:

1Empowering young people to succeed in the economy.

2Participation in culture

3Leave school prepared for adult life.

The last of these includes the first two. Education is more than preparing young people to become employees, important though that is. Gibb complains about poor quality technical and vocational education in English schools. Perhaps it’s time to revisit the Technical and Vocation Education Initiative, a programme which encouraged the development of generic work-related skills and attitudes linked to careers education and guidance. TVEI was an excellent initiative and deserves to be updated and rolled out again.

But, to repeat, preparation for work is but one part of education. Young people should, as Gibb says, leave school fully prepared for adult life. This means their lives as citizens, family members and social beings. Education for these roles means more than concentrating on core academic subjects, important though they are. Pupils need a broad, balanced education until 16 before specialising according to achievement and interest. They don’t need to be examined in subjects to benefit from studying them. Uncoupling learning from examining might go some way to stop pupils thinking schools exist just to help them pass tests. Graduation at 18 via multiple routes would encourage young people to follow their own pathways not one imposed on them by a narrow focus on two or three A levels or a job specific BTec.

Gibb stresses the importance of schools in spreading culture – art, music, even media (well, film). But music education hubs are no substitute for good quality music in every school. Raising voices in song is heart lifting. Art combines self-expression with communication. And both can act as catharsis. Although Gibb doesn’t mention it, studying philosophy encourages logical thought - the EEF has found it also raises test performance particularly among the disadvantaged.

Reading, reading, reading is essential. But it’s not just ‘engaging with a text’. Gibb’s correct that reading is more than decoding (although that’s what the phonics screening test measures). It requires practice and fluency. He argues ‘assumed knowledge’ is important for comprehension – this is true for art as well as literature. It’s difficult to fully appreciate Western art without knowing, say, Bible stories. But although such background knowledge is desirable, it isn’t absolutely essential. I’m a fan of Anselm Kiefer but I don’t know the German folk tales he bases much of his art on. But I recognise, and am moved by, his allusions to the horrors of the Second World War. This raises a question: would I be as much moved if I didn’t know about what happened 1939-45? Which comes first – the knowledge or the experience? Or do they both build on each other?

These are profound questions and aren’t answered by Gibb citing E D Hirsch who inspired the UK Core Curriculum. The books that accompany the latter contain some good ideas but the rewritten stories are plodding and dull. They’re words without the music.

I spent nearly twenty years teaching. But if you were to ask me the most important thing I did, I would answer reading. Not silent reading – although we spent time on USSR (Uninterrupted Sustained Silent Reading) – but me reading aloud. That way I could introduce pupils to stories which were perhaps beyond pupils' reading abilities or to a poem which needed expert delivery to reveal meaning or deepen appreciation. But more important was the sheer enjoyment of sharing a good story.

Is that another purpose of education – bringing enjoyment? I would like to think so.
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Brian's picture
Fri, 10/07/2015 - 15:40

Sorry to be negative Janet, and I hope I'm proved wrong, but I don't think Gibb's speech will kick start a debate because I don't think Gibb is interested in debate unless it ultimately supports his viewpoint.

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 11/07/2015 - 07:31

Brian - deep in my heart, I agree with you. But I can live in hope.

I was trying to focus on the positive aspects in Gibb's speech. But if you read the whole thing you'll see it contains the usual spin about phonics screening improving literacy, Knowledge is Power Programme (KIPP) charter schools in the US and ED Hirsch.

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 11/07/2015 - 07:33

Gibb's speech also discussed Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning (SEAL) - a 'well-meaning' attempt to broaden education. But it was a total failure, he said. Evaluation found SEAL was 'associated with declining respect for teachers and enjoyment of school'. But this was cherrypicking the evaluation. The findings weren't straightforward - school climate data supported Gibb's citation but also 'showed a significant increase in pupils’ feelings of autonomy and influence... as well as more specific improvements in behaviour, interpersonal skills and relationships.' Gibb claimed SEAL was 'part of a wider retreat from the importance of knowledge-based curriculum in schools' but the evaluation had nothing to say about this. Instead, it contained recommendations about how SEAL could be implemented more effectively because a half-hearted approach had lessened its impact.

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 11/07/2015 - 07:34

In another part of the speech, Gibb claimed social mobility had worsened because (citing a Harvard Prof), disadvantaged children didn't have access to extra-curricular activities which gave advantaged children greater opportunities. But extra-curricular activities should be valued for their own intrinsic worth. In any case, access to top jobs is still less likely for disadvantaged (indeed, middle class children) because of their lack of 'pedigree'. That's the verdict of a 'Pedigree: How Elite Students get Elite Jobs' reviewed here by LSN's Henry.

Michele -Lowe's picture
Sat, 11/07/2015 - 08:35

Janet, I completely concur with your plea for more reading, and especially reading out loud. One of the most enjoyable (for me) parts of working with 3-4 year olds was telling stories to them in Welsh (not a first language for most of them). To do this successfully I needed lots of props, sound effects and music to bring the story alive. And critically, to keep it to 5 minutes, tops. Afterwards I would leave the props and books out so they could revisit the story if they wished, and encouragingly, some usually did.
Stories, especially fairly tales, were a useful way of introducing a measure of questioning. Having acted out Jack and the Beanstalk, I asked them at the end if it was fair that Jack killed the giant and stolen all his worldly possessions. After all, the giant hadn't actually managed to do anything to Jack. This divided them right down the middle. I was less interested in the answer, more in provoking questioning. Folk tales - which have the advantage of being in the general consciousness so maybe the parents would have told these stories or the children would have seen them on television - are very good vehicles for this kind of discussion even in very young children.
Nick Gibb should follow the logic of his own arguments more.

Jenny's picture
Sat, 11/07/2015 - 09:03

Reading, reading, reading, is good - but cannot be done unless you can accurately decode. Hence the phonics screening check.

Michele -Lowe's picture
Sat, 11/07/2015 - 10:08

Jenny. I agree partially with the decoding point. I volunteer as a reading support helper and work in two languages: English and Welsh. I can tell you honestly that the decoding approach in Welsh is a doddle, because the language is so phonetic. Rivals German for a clear spelling system. However, having spent all this academic year reading every Tues pm with year-5 children, I can put my hand on my heart and tell you decoding is not by a long stretch the whole answer. English contains a lot of anomalous spelling, especially the high frequency words. My readers have been drilled in decoding, but it doesn't help them in this instance. I have to use other techniques. I also find that those who can decode don't necessarily understand what they have read out loud. Some find the decoding approach dispiriting and actively dislike reading. They in particular need some extra incentive for tackling the difficulties of the English spelling system. The reward for the effort has, in the end, to be enjoyment.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Sat, 11/07/2015 - 12:48

School students can readily decode and read out loud the English sentence,
'Force equals rate of change of momentum'. However, no understanding of mechanics at KS4 can proceed unless this is understood as well as memorised.

I have no doubt that Nick Gibb can readily decode and read out loud the English sentence, 'Telling is not teaching and listening is not learning'. However no understanding of education can proceed unless this is understood as well as memorised.

However, in his case writing it out 100 times would not be a complete waste of time.

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 12/07/2015 - 07:40

Jenny - teachers shouldn't need a mandatory phonics screening test to tell if pupils can decode accurately. That's not to say they shouldn't use such tests when appropriate if they wish to do so. But a nationwide, mandatory test at exactly the same time, regardless of pupils' ability (some will already be proficient readers who read for understanding; others will be struggling and as such should already be obvious to a perceptive teacher) is not needed.

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 12/07/2015 - 07:45

Michele - folk tales, myths, fables, legends, stories from religious traditions - are part of a rich literary and oral heritage. The much-praised UK Core Curriculum (held up as an example of what a 'good' curriculum looks like) recognises this. But the way the stories are retold in the books which accompany the series kills them dead. It takes so long for the ugly duckling to emerge from its shell, for example, that the only real response is to put it out of its misery.

Leah K Stewart's picture
Tue, 14/07/2015 - 07:34

Hi Janet, thanks for the post and everyone here for the conversation. I'm beginning to clarify my own thoughts around the purpose of a school years necessarily being different for different students.

Some students lack love at home, and need this in buckets at school. Some students lack security/stability at home and need a school environment they can depend on. Others are just needing adult mentors who talk with them (and validate them) as individuals to thrive. Many have confidence issues because of stereotypes about who they are (because they're classed as poor or SEN etc.) and need to find examples of people like them who they admire and can show them how to thrive as themselves. Very few students have everything they need at home, but those who do just need school to crack on with the knowledge teaching because, for them, anything else is wasted time ...I'm wondering how many of this minority make up our political class?

I'm personally beginning to find my own angle in this world by encouraging students who need mentors to 'Apprentice Themselves' to their Field (not to any one person, and not to wait for an organised/official apprenticeship, though this might happen). There's more on my website which I recently updated and any feedback from fellow Local School Networkers would be valuable to me: http://leahkstewart.com/. To continue the commentary on reading, there's an interesting post and conversation going on here: http://www.learningspy.co.uk/reading/reading-for-pleasure/

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