What is the point of education?


Thursday 22 May 2014

The recently published Pearson Learning Curve report suggests that, overall, the English education system is really rather good.

This is in contrast to the 2012 PISA results which, some claimed, showed it was rather poor – and I have a cutting above my desk from the time of the last government that proclaims (from almost identical results) that England ‘is among the elite’. So who to believe? More importantly, what does it matter? Does our international ranking really make any difference? Do Finnish teachers feel dismayed that they are sliding toward relegation from the premier league? Or, like Ireland losing the Eurovision, are they secretly thinking ‘thank God for that – no more hosting foreign delegations, now can we just get on with it’?

I believe the international surveys are important and, as we have argued several times, are there to tell us something useful beyond some ill-defined ‘rank’. I think there is some justification in the claims that in terms of performance we are stagnating – it is a stagnation that has been going on for decades and under many watches. But I do not think we have been stagnating in terms of education practice – a quick hit of Educating Essex or wandering into any good classroom contrasts strikingly with education from 20 or 50 years ago. So maybe we are answering the wrong questions when we report such crude measures of our education system.

But to find better measures, we have to understand what it is we are trying to achieve. And herein I find England’s education system stands out (except maybe from the US) in that we do not seem to have an agreed idea of what education is for – other than education is a ‘good thing’ and ‘is important for the economy’. Other education systems often seem to have a more clearly articulated sense of the purpose of their schooling – often with national and cross-party support. In England the education system is something that has evolved and accumulated purposes, and the only political consensus is that it makes a great football.

So what is the point of education? This is a very complex question – and one that has diverse answers because the needs of different groups within the system are, well, very different. High fliers with university in their sights have very different needs, for example, from the white working-class boys at risk of dropping out. There is a lot of debate about what our education system should look like, whether it be powerful knowledge, educating the whole child etc. and it could be argued that these are all positions of faith not understanding.

We need to get much better at asking the right questions and using the research evidence, then we might go some way to answering the real question – ‘are we happy with our education system and what do we need to do to keep improving it?’ – and get an answer that is better than ‘we’re not the same as Korea’.