What is education for?

My blood would be boiling if I wasn’t on the blood pressure pills. First, following a report from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), we’ve had the dissing of schools, teachers and teaching methods and their pupils, i.e.our children and grandchildren – someone even suggested that because the kids had not learned properly, it was their fault for not getting a job. Then came a government ex-advisor writing that educational capability is genetically inherited. What a lot of complete and unadulterated drivel.

I’ll deal with the second issue first. Tell me something, is a child brought up in affluence and security and sent by parents who have the money to a school such as Eton with fantastic resources, taught in small classes with a high teacher/pupil ratio, more genetically predisposed to high achieving in education than a child in a family turfed out of home due to benefits caps and dumped in a B&B away from school and support networks, not knowing where or when they will be moved on so not able of accessing education until a more permanent home is found? What utter rubbish! Just an excuse for the wealthy, such as members of the cabinet, to perpetuate their sense of entitlement, to deem themselves somehow inherently more intelligent and born to lead, pay themselves high salaries and keep the unequal class-ridden status quo. Ha! I rest my case.

On to the OECD’s report which said that today’s 16-24 year olds in England have lower levels of literacy and numeracy than those of us grandparents. Oh my lord, the tabloid press had a field day and the doomsayers were out in force. At the primary school recently I got to talking to a couple of grandparents about the Magic Maths course. ‘They teach maths very differently nowadays,’ said I. Oh dear. ‘Well, this new fangled learning doesn’t work,’ the grandad replied with the dour delight of Victor Meldrew. ‘They’ve proved it, I read it in the paper.’ Oh well then, it must be right – or is it? Well, newspapers have their own axes to grind, and readership to please but, on the face of it, this does seem to be a bit ‘shocking’ as stated by a government minister and blazing from a headline. However, steady on, it’s necessary to look behind the sensational headlines before racing back to the 1950s where the mindless mechanical reciting of times tables was the boring basis of arithmetic classes.

Commentators say that the OECD report should be understood as being about employment and the needs of business, ie jobs and economics. Ok, don’t get me wrong, jobs are important but is this all that education is about? Japan is top of the OECD list and, as you’d expect, its education system is quite different from ours: individual responses from pupils are not encouraged, they work more in groups and look for consensus before responding to an issue. And when asked to speak individually, it means making a formally constructed speech. South Korea is high up on the list too – but its school system has been criticised because of its passive learning and focus on memory rather than understanding. It’s also said to be stressful with very long hours of study. Maybe these education systems have more of an eye on the job market, but are they really what we want for our kids?

Aren’t our children and grandchildren being taught to think for themselves, ‘outside the box’, imaginatively and creatively by committed teachers in difficult circumstances where the government seems to impose change for change’s sake all too often? I spoke to a secondary school teacher recently who told me about the high number of changes (which don’t hit the headlines) they and their pupils are having to comply with, including those mid-syllabus. As I read in the paper recently: ‘There are a lot of teachers out there who really should be national heroes.’ I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again – surely it is more important for children to gain the ability to form ideas and to be critical, to be confident expressing these ideas rather than being processed for work, in what has already become a pressurised exam-ridden factory-like environment? Do we really want them to be processed to think as one mind like the Borg in Star Trek or the cybermen in Dr Who?

And surely education is about more than jobs. Step forward Professor Stephen Ball, Institute of Education, author of a rather different report, who says: ‘We should recognise the centrality of education to larger projects of democracy and community building…’ And are there ever going to be enough jobs out there? Let’s face it, it’s well documented that our current economic system relies on a compliant pool of unemployed people, willing to accept very low wages, casual, sporadic, insecure hours and zero contracts, driven to compete with each other in a rush to the bottom for wages and work conditions. Maybe we need to rethink our attitude towards jobs and yes, shock, horror, have more respect for those out of work.

I make no apology for quoting Professor Ball and his findings liberally. He observes that ‘the English education system is being dismembered…[and] beginning to resemble the patchwork of uneven and unequal provision that existed prior to the 1870 Education Act’. So, not to the 1950s, it’s a race back to the 1860s then. How are parents expected to decide on a school with so many different types out there? It needs research, time and effort – not things that people have these days. He continues: ‘There is no room for parents who just want to send their child to a good local state school – the one they attended, and friends, neighbours and relatives attended, that is a real part of the community and history.’ I believe that this is what most parents want – they don’t want a market in schools who are competing with each other for their children or a vast choice of schools. The professor continues: ‘This new system is a market in which competitive individuals can seek to avoid others who are ‘not like us’. The result, as in other choice-based systems … is increased inequality and social segregation.’ Precisely.

So let’s see the OECD report for what it is it: purely about employment and the needs of business. I’ll calm down now and leave you with Professor Ball’s words: ‘It is time to think seriously about the purpose of education and about what it means to be educated, what schools are for – and crucially who should decide these things.’ Yes, indeed.

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