What is education for?

A SCETT debate on the future for London’s schools showed that addressing this question is fundamental.

Patrick Hayes

Topics Politics

Are educational standards in London rising, or are schools just getting better at ‘gaming’ the system? Should there be a centralised body coordinating London’s education system, or is a localised system preferable? What is the role, if any, of a ‘middle tier’ between schools and central government? Should schools be places where young people discuss what’s happening on the street, or where they engage with traditional subjects? What is education for?

Of the multitude of questions raised at a lively debate ‘Back to the future? ILEA, the Mayor and London’s schools’, hosted by the Standing Committee for the Education and Training of Teachers (SCETT) in London last week, this fundamental question – what is education for? – kept coming up.

When examining whether there should be a return to a pan-London educational organisation akin to the Inner London Education Authority (ILEA), which existed between 1965 and 1990, the question was never far from the surface. Panellist Sally Coates, principal of the Burlington Danes Academy, said there is ‘a lot of things ILEA had that we’ve now lost’, mentioning the subject centres she benefitted from as a young teacher. She recalled an English subject centre with ‘loads of resources, where English teachers got together, discussed plans and worked together. That’s been a huge loss.’

But was the existence of subject centres, as an audience member suggested, more due to the fact that during the time of ILEA, everyone broadly believed in the idea of subject-based education? If that is the case, then a return to a London-wide authority would not rectify today’s problems.

While some of the panellists and attendees saw a subject-centred education and the transmission of knowledge as being at the heart of what an education should be about, by no means was there a consensus. Peter Mortimer, professor at the University of Southern Denmark, argued that education should be about students being given a moral compass, inquisitiveness, a trained mind and lessons in ‘how to be happy’. For another speaker it was not about the ‘force-feeding of information’ to students, but rather understanding what they want, with the focus on education being ‘an overall life experience’. Professor Kathryn Riley of the Institute of Education said schools should also play an important role in discussing difficult issues from the streets. If such discussions don’t happen in schools, ‘they don’t happen anywhere else’.

In many ways this divergence of views on the role of education seemed to reflect what Shirley Lawes from the Institute of Education – speaking from the floor – characterised as a broader ‘fragmentation’ in education. It shows a common loss of meaning about what it is to be educated. For Lawes, education is too often seen in instrumental terms with an obsession with learning processes, rather than content. A solution to this fragmentation can’t be found through reorganising educational structures alone, she said.

Most of those present did agree that the instrumental target-based approach to education – with policymakers obsessed with measuring progress through numbers of A*-C GCSE grades gained – was woefully inadequate. Complaints abounded that the target-obsessed approach to education, the mainstay of two successive government administrations, led to schools ‘gaming’ the system, cynically entering students for vocational subjects over more traditional ones. As science teacher Kim Knappett put it, ‘we are constantly looking at targets and this has led to an over-surveillance of the education system. That is actually what throttles professional creativity.’

Some argued that such a focus on grades may mean that other marks of progress are overshadowed. Siôn Humphreys, chair of SCETT, highlighted the fact that a much higher proportion of disadvantaged London school students claiming free school meals attained five more A*-C grades than their counterparts nationally. Coates also emphasised the ‘enormously rich cultural diversity’ in London schools, which attract the ‘the most community-dynamic teachers’.

But could gripes about an excessive monitoring and measuring in schools sometimes be an excuse? Munira Mirza, deputy mayor of London for education and culture, argued that it is possible for schools to meet incredibly high standards without a target-obsessed culture taking hold: ‘The league tables and the pressure and targets would not have this effect on schools were it not for the fact that schools have lost the broader sense of their educational mission… I understand why teachers feel this incredible anxiety and pressure from the league tables, but I don’t think that justifies a race to the bottom.’

Whether a restructuring of London’s school system, or a different approach from government officials, would improve the situation was the source of much contention. Some called for policymakers to back out completely, citing the damage caused by meddling in the science curriculum and the teaching of modern foreign languages. However, Mirza retorted that, ‘To not have a policy is a policy… I think it’s not enough to say politicians should get out and let teachers get on with their jobs. What does that actually look like in practice?’

Mirza said, ‘the big debate that we should all be focusing on is the philosophy behind education and restoring a sense of vision and purpose to teaching and some pride in that’. But she argued that ‘having the right structure can also facilitate and allow that space to be creative’. She emphasised the importance of bringing teachers together to talk about such issues: ‘This is one example of that – it’s a small audience. If we had a global conference in London… then you can create a much bigger platform for discussion.’

Regardless of the size of the platform, judging from this debate it seems a far better mark of progress than attainment figures would be the extent to which a healthy culture of debate around the purpose of education has been fostered. Perhaps then, the question of the right organisational structure would then seem less problematic.

The SCETT debate ‘Back to the future? ILEA, the Mayor and London’s schools’, sponsored by spiked, took place on Thursday 14 June 2012.

Patrick Hayes is a reporter for spiked. Visit his personal website here. Follow him on Twitter @p_hayes.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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