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.