In the 19th century a fascinating debate broke out between two public intellectuals about the purpose of education. Matthew Arnold, an erudite scholar, believed that children should be soaked in the Classics. Meanwhile, Thomas Henry Huxley, a man of science, spoke vehemently against learning Latin and other ‘dead’ subjects as a pointless exercise. In the end the exchange could best be characterised as a score draw, but debates about the purpose(s) of education have never really abated.
A couple of years ago, prompted by my studies of Arnold and Huxley as well as the work of Professor Keri Facer, a former colleague and I asked the question to a 21st century audience: just what is the purpose of education? The results were many and varied but, interestingly, few (if any) defended the status quo. In particular, many teachers thought we don’t do a good enough job of treating children as individuals, as holistic people with hopes, interests, dreams and aspirations. Too often, they commented, we see them as means to an end: test results.
Tests, of course, can give us answers – but only if we’re looking for the right thing in the first place. The way that politicians tend to compare the education system in their own country with that of others is through the league tables published as a result of the PISA tests. These tests are taken by a sample of children from countries all around the world focusing on things like mathematical dexterity, verbal skills and logical reasoning. The countries that do well, such as Finland and Singapore, tend to be those that are relatively small in size with a reasonably homogenous culture. However, because PISA is the only measure politicians have to legitimate their educational policies, they tend to wield the results as a large stick to drive preconceived and ideologically-prompted changes.
It may surprise those who haven’t been paying attention to recent changes in education in England that we are on the road to privatising state education. Local authorities are slowly being abolished in favour of academies. These are schools that receive funding directly from the government, removing either a layer of bureaucracy or a method of collective bargaining, depending on your point of view. The remaining ‘legacy’ state schools are being forced to teach an increasingly reactionary and prescriptive curriculum. Academies are free to construct their own.
There is no doubt about the direction of travel. Any individual deemed suitable by those in charge of an academy, qualified or not, can be a teacher. Teacher training happens on the job and both performance-related and ‘regional’ pay are being mooted in a thinly-disguised move to drive down teacher pay. There are suggestions that the education budget to state schools may not be ring-fenced next year and so could be cut in real terms. It looks increasingly as if Chomsky was correct: right-wing governments defund state education until it breaks under the strain. Private providers coming in and operating in a newly-created marketplace are then welcomed as saviours.
As a parent and as an educator, this concerns me. I believe education to be public good, as something that profits the children’s mind, body and soul – not as something that should lead to financial profit for large corporates. I want teachers to do things in the classroom with an eye on my children’s learning and development, not on making sure they can pass a performance review in order to meet their mortgage payments.
Schools can, and probably should, be run in line with some business principles. But allowing schools to ‘go to the wall’ (as has been suggested in some quarters) because of the vagaries of the market sounds horrendous. Schools are place where human interactions should take place, not financial transactions. So, while we can (and should) debate at length what should be on the school curriculum, let’s not lose sight of the bigger picture. Education is not something to make some distant shareholders a quick buck. It’s about profiting the people who are going to inherit the earth: our children.