The NFER blog

Evidence for excellence in education

What is the point of education?


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’.

Author: Newman Burdett

Newman Burdett is Head of Centre for International Comparisons at the National Foundation for Educational Research

2 thoughts on “What is the point of education?

  1. Well,I agree we have to ask the right questions, but I am not sure that means we yet again have to review the purposes of education. It seems to me we have had a fair idea of the purpose of education for some time now. If you for example go back to the 1947 report of the central advisory council for Education (England) you find, a large section on employment and comments like:

    “One of the chief aims of education is to make him, by the time he leaves school, ready to play an eager part in that community, and to lead a useful and satisfying life.”

    If you ignore the gender-specific pronoun and slightly dated language, that still seems fairly relevant today.

    Similarly, if you go to the report of the Advisory Council on Education in Scotland, published in the same year, you find wonderfully expressed (if again sexist) rhetoric that says:

    “Another aspect of the same problem confronts us in the realisation that the rate of change has speeded up to a degree that makes the life of our forbearers seem almost different in kind form our own.

    … But we cannot now, as in ages of less rapid change, equip our young with a stock of ideas, conventions and sentiments adequate to life’s situations. Their world is shifting and changing with a rapidity that precludes all such provision for unborn tomorrow.

    … The breaking of new ground rather than the treading of safe ground has become the task of all education. And so there must be a change of emphasis. There must be less store set by knowledge, often irrelevant and quickly antiquated, and more concern to create in the young certain attitudes of mind. Above all, the new generation needs to unite with mental poise and serenity a nimble intelligence, a high degree of adaptability and a wider range of understanding

    …It will be one of the best proofs that secondary education is playing its part well if it leads on, insensibly and by an inner compulsion, to the education of adult life, whether it be the formal sort that consists in conference, lecture and discussion group or that more personal kind which a man pursues in his solitariness or in the company of his friend.”

    My contention would be that, even if it is complex to express, we have known for a long time what the purpose is, the difficulty is creating ways to understand how successful we are at that purpose; and that we have, as a result, fallen into the trap of thinking what is measurable is important rather than looking at what is important and seeing how we might find ways to measure it. If we could focus on a few measures of the statements made in the quotes above, that would go a long way!

  2. I think this argues for rather than against our blog. This is just one historical example of educational statements – there is a host of acts, bills, amendments, briefings and speeches that end up forming policy and, ultimately, practice. But the end product is something that more closely resembles a ragged collection of often general statements poorly stitched together by compromise than a tightly woven vision for the purposes of education. This means that we are in danger of taking a very functional and bureaucratic view of the purposes of education.

    This is not an argument about ‘valuing what can be measured’ vs ‘measuring what we value’; all three of the strands we propose can be accurately and usefully measured. The argument is simple; we cannot measure if our education system is fit for purpose if we cannot clearly define, communicate and, most importantly, agree what those purposes are.

    Until we do that, there is the risk that educational debate will resemble an unruly game of football, with the ball being booted from one end of the pitch to the other pursued by a yelling mob to no great gain.

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