What is education for?
None of the political parties seems to have a clue.
Some might argue that teachers have never had it so good. Consider the order of both the Labour and Conservative election manifestos. Chapter one: taxes and the economy; chapter two: education. Education before health, crime, immigration and defence.
But politicians are not selling education as an end in itself. They are positioning it as a means of addressing wider social problems, such as apathy, exclusion, obesity and disorder – and the list grows longer by the day. Parents should expect that we teachers will engage their children with the best that culture has to offer. Politicians have a responsibility to both clarify, and to keep teachers focused on this task. But broadening the aims of education only obscures and confuses this process.
Of all the parties, the Conservatives have become the most openly instrumental in their approach. They argue that society needs a little more ‘respect’, and suggest that the restoration of deference should begin in schools. ‘What’s wrong with a little discipline in schools?’ Michael Howard asks. I’m not thinking what he’s thinking. Teaching does require order but it should never become our first priority. It’s critical enquiry, not obedience, which we should be fostering. Learning does not take place in boot camps.
New Labour shares a similar concern for order, but its big idea is personalisation. It plans to ‘tailor our education system to individual pupil needs’, and talks up flexibility. Apparently many pupils find the ‘academic track’ too narrow, and schools should loosen up. If pupils were given more choices, more might stay on.
All this choice-talk sounds empowering, but what does it mean? Students are being encouraged to specialise at an early age. The result is that many are dropping a battery of key subjects at 14, such as history and modern languages. For the government, apparently, ignorance is empowerment and inclusion trumps standards. The Conservatives evidence a similar disdain for academic education. Labour, the Tories and the Liberal Democrats all promote vocational training as an alternative for the disaffected. Teachers should expose this for what it is: giving up on those who most need schools to broaden, not narrow, their minds.
All the parties talk up choice while undermining it. Choice has no meaning if the content of education gets squeezed out. And ignorant pupils are in no position to make considered choices about their lives. Some teachers might be tempted by sympathetic tones of the Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy. His criticisms of the Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted) have popular appeal and his proposals on smaller class sizes would no doubt make our jobs easier. But the Liberal Democrats evade the key question for this election: what is education for?
Toby Marshall is a lecturer in further education, and a member of the Institute of Ideas Education Forum.
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