The Really Big Issues


First a reminder that the House of Commons Select Committee on Education Consultation on the Purpose of Education closes on the 24th January. Well it’s great that they’ve finally admitted they have had absolutely no idea what they’ve been messing with for the past 30 or so years, but All Change Please! can’t help but think that education policy in future will be justified by the statement that the government is following the direction established by the full public consultation which has proved they were doing the right thing all along and intend to continue in the same way. ‘We’ve been listening‘ they’ll say, ‘It’s just that you didn’t say what we wanted you to so we completely ignored it‘ they won’t add.

Meanwhile All Change Please!’s completely robust, accurate and reliable poll made of straw is predicting that the responses will fall into one of two camps. The first – the type that will be ignored – runs something like this:

“Everyone is good at something. The purpose of education is to help children find out what they are good at and use the confidence and self-worth they derive from this to confront their weaknesses. Education nourishes the broad natural and individual cognitive, emotional, moral and spiritual development of children and young adults in ways which ultimately gives them a sense of fulfillment and a desire to go on learning, both within work environments and in their personal lives. In doing so they will survive more easily and comfortably and pass on such nourishment to their own children and to society, thus helping ensure the successful continuation of the community, the nation, and ultimately the species.”

And the second – which is what are expected to say:

“The purpose of education is to create a pliant, well-disciplined, hard-working and employable population that doesn’t ask questions and will be led by a small highly-capable elite who will run the country specifically in order to increase their own wealth. However, in the interests of social mobility this involves giving everyone the opportunity to join the elite, whether they want to or not, providing of course they prove themselves to be sufficiently academically able and attend a Russell Group University.”

This will in turn lead to the inevitable conclusion that in order to improve the quality of education good old-fashioned traditional knowledge-based teaching is best, even more testing is needed, and the EBacc is the best thing to come along since the invention of homogenous, completely tasteless sliced-white bread.

All of which is however pretty much beside the point, because there are some much bigger, important and far more disruptive mind-bending educational issues on the horizon that are what we really should be spending our time, effort and money on if we don’t want the country to go the way of dinosaurs, horse-drawn carts and Woolworths – which is the general direction we are currently heading. And they don’t centre around obsessively arguing about whether one style of teaching is better than another, which subjects should or should not be included in the curriculum, how to make it easier to memorise unnecessary information and how many times children need to be tested on their tables.

Indeed All Change Please! isn’t called All Change Please! because it wants Just A Little Bit of Change Now and Again Please! It’s because all things need to change. What we really should be discussing is our ideas about how all schools are going to need to change and evolve rapidly evolve in the very near future, and at the same time how to ensure the quality of the almost inevitable growth on online learning and assessment that will lead the change. To get an idea of the scale of the implications for the world of education, just ask someone in the music, publishing and retail industries if the way things work now are the same as they were in the year 2000, and how much time they spend debating whether or not we should be going back to using traditional methods of selling the same products and services from the 1950s. While everyone else prepares for the Fourth Industrial Revolution – that’s the one after the IT age – education is still way back in the second one.

Thus the first Really Big Issue, which the Df-ingE seems intent on denying and publishing misleading figures about, is the consequences of the forthcoming teacher shortage, due at least in part to their highly successful ‘Let’s Blame the Teacher’ campaign they have been running (together with the recently launched parallel ‘Let’s Also Blame the Parents’ campaign). That’s because there’s an easy solution to the shortage that the Df-ingE have doubtless had in mind all along, following the worrying lead of Brazil and Australia, which is to simply plug children into ‘Sit down, switch on and shut up’ computer-based teaching systems for several hours each day. This has the extra advantage of giving the large corporate preferred suppliers massive contracts to make loads of money while spending as little as possible on the actual teaching and learning content, which will be created by programmers rather than educationalists. The companies that create these teaching systems don’t really care what the purpose of education is – beyond making them a healthy profit – let alone how to achieve it, and so just churn out an endless stream of personalised big data generated knowledge-recall multiple choice questions and test scores. This isn’t education. It’s factory farming.

And the other Really Big Issue is the ingrained belief that we still live in a world of the individual expert who knows a lot about very little, and that by the time a child leaves school and university they have been told and remembered everything there is to know. We appear to be obsessed with the ability to remember things at the expense of problem-solving and management skills. Just saying “Because we don’t know exactly what knowledge will be needed in the future we will go on teaching them the same old stuff in the same old way” and implementing the EBacc isn’t an acceptable answer. And it’s starting to look like the only way to achieve this is going to be for headteachers to unilaterally agree not to play the numbers game anymore.

Meanwhile what we do know is that our children will need to be creative and collaborative team workers and communicators, have excellent personnel management and communication skills and be able and willing to learn new knowledge and skills throughout their lives on an almost daily basis – all with no teacher there to inform and test them. More than ever before they will need to identify and maximise their particular individual capabilities and passions and be able to apply them alongside a sound, fundamental grasp of digital technologies, business, economics and psychology. And if we are to remain competitive as a nation and as a culture, these aren’t things that can be just bolted-on in the occasional off-timetable after-school club, but need to underpin the whole curriculum experience from Year 1 to Year 13 and on into further and life-long education. Make no mistake – if we don’t, then China will – or rather, already is.

It will also become increasingly important that today’s children realise that learning is not just something boring and tedious that happens under duress at school sitting at a computer answering endless multiple choice questions, but is something that is pleasurable, enriching and fulfilling and happens throughout life, and through the whole community. Importantly, as adults, they will then need to pass on the same positive values and aspirations to their own children.

The purpose of education is to prepare our children for the future. Not the past. 

Or perhaps it’s just really as All Change Please!’s Smith and Jones previously observed:

Jones: But I always thought the purpose of education was to learn useful things, get some qualifications and then a job serving coffee somewhere?

With thanks to Tony’s Mum and Alan.

Image credit: Flickr ozz13x

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5 comments on “The Really Big Issues

  1. In November I was involved in a Summit called ‘Politics in Education’ which was 1 year in the making created by a summit organiser (experienced in creating events that impact Health Policy) who became interested in education when her son started school last year. The event transcripts/summaries sparked the current Education Select Committee’s enquiry into the ‘Purpose and Quality of Education’. Of course, they’re not openly crediting it as that would help too many people believe they can have an impact, but that’s fine. As long as we know what’s possible. I’ve opened up sign-ups for a 5 day eCourse based on the content of the Politics in Education Summit. You and your readers are certainly invited:

  2. Thanks for the link to these interesting transcripts Leah and congratulations for an obviously rich and informative summit… but as with every education debate/event I have attended I am left bemused (and increasingly angry) that the most important voice is always absent, that of young learners. With a few notable exceptions, conversations with adult stakeholders invariably consider universities, business and industry, society or sometimes parents as the important users of the system. For goodness sake it is our young people who have to ‘do’ state schooling, or rather have it done to them.

    The terminally grey corridor of years and years and years of 50 minute remember and regurgitate random facts is so unforgivable. I urge anyone with a role in developing education policy to spend a week shadowing an average 14 year old in school full time, and if there is any art or music or drama, or D&T on their curriculum at the moment you should not attend that class but do silent GCSE mock maths or science tests instead, because as soon as the Ebacc bites fully even these few pinpricks of balance will be snuffed out. The process of reviewing what education is for should be a user centred design challenge, armed with your first hand experience of what we have allowed school to become I think everyone will want to make some really radical changes…

    • If the design of any new or updated product and system is to be successful it would be seen as essential to consult the users – unless it is to do with education. Our children are quite wrongly still perceived as being ‘empty vessels’ who have no understanding of the world or opinions worth listening to. The reality is that they are full of intelligence, insight and optimism, and at least deserve to be properly consulted.

      As All Change Please! wrote some time ago: “I’ve never believed that children don’t want to learn. It’s that they often don’t want to learn what we want to try to teach them, and that we don’t know how to teach them what they know they do need to learn.”

  3. Hi, I must admit a bit of me is thinking that this will be another of those “consultations” where they will cherry pick the bits they like, refuse to publish anything else and then claim that all is OK. There is a cluster of “like minded” at the DfE these days and the bods that they are surrounding them with are a distinct bunch of “yes” people – around behaviour, teacher education, curriculum, school structure, assessment etc…

    But the eternal optimist in me will probably spend a couple of hours writing something more along the first than the second if only to think that there was a little voice not calling out for more testing, more facts and more ‘rigour’.

    • I’ll be submitting something too. At least it’ll show I care and help me find others who care too. I’m hosting a #UKedChat on Thursday evening on the ‘Purpose of Education’ to line up with this enquiry. Then, if the Select Committee do something silly like keep the doors closed and make a decision on behalf of a nation, the rest of us can keep the conversation going.

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