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March 23, 2011 / mrespiers

Purpos/ed – What is the point?

This post is my contribution to an ongoing project organised by, “a non-partisan, location-independent organization aiming to kickstart a debate around the question: What’s the purpose of education?” This was initiated by Doug Belshaw and Andy Stewart.

Please get involved.

“…what really matters is how we’re doing compared with our international competitors…”
Clegg and Cameron in the Foreword to The Importance of Teaching 2010

Somebody advised me to be controversial if I wanted to get a response to my #500 words, so here goes – Cameron and Clegg are wrong.

Education must be about more than doing better than other countries in some tests (especially if it means having to endure MPs and journalists disparaging other nations in the ‘we came 12th, beaten by Estonia!!!!’ style) Education should prepare people for a globalised life and this should include how to be successful in it but not in a simplistic league table or ‘who earns the most?’ way, but in a much broader sense as articulated by so many of the #500words. In terms of David Jennings synthesis it is about combining approaches not polarising them. Our students will be under pressure to solve society’s problems and the EBacc is probably not the preparation to do so. Developing creative lifelong learners and problem solvers will be essential but we do still need some measure of outcomes. Can we find a way to really utilise the ‘voice’ of teachers, learners and parents in more qualitative ways utilising social networks for example? Who should define the success criteria? Certainly not Cameron, Clegg or Gove.

Education is an emotional human experience. The things that live with me, whether learned in the pub or in school do so because of an emotional connection not simply due to utility. The things I remember most from school are trips, productions, relationships etc. I think I’m smarter too, in many ways, but being smarter implies something measurable and I’m not sure that my education is. It is certainly more than my certificates and grades. Each of those letters represents an emotional engagement. It’s why I chose to start a part-time MA recently. I wanted to learn more but, it’s taken more than a decade to find the MA I wanted to do, in an area I wanted to do it.

“I see that all outside compulsion is wrong, that inner compulsion is the only value.”
AS Neil

Education should be about helping people to discover their inner compulsion (or their passion and curiosity as Tom Barrett put it) and then nurturing it but I also believe that students need a core set of skills (e.g. literacies, numeracy, critical thinking) and a vital question is how to encourage students to want to learn things that experience has taught us will help them but at the same time not kill their creativity.

Like many others before me, I asked some people what they thought: My nephew (5yrs old) said school is for playing. My niece (8yrs old) said it is for ‘learning numbers to buy stuff and spelling’. When I asked about the next 8 years she replied ‘I’m not sure, they don’t tell us what we’re doing tomorrow’. When I asked if she enjoyed it she said she did but most don’t, ‘my boyfriend says it’s like prison’. I think they may all be right.

A final thought – how many of those involved so far can honestly say they represent the views of the disengaged, the ones that education has failed, those without the easy bridge? How do we broaden the debate to include them?



Leave a Comment
  1. Doug Belshaw / Mar 23 2011 9:16 am

    The trouble is that we’re bounded by the system we’ve got and, instead of telling a new story, we’re constantly responding to somebody else’s. Time to change that!

    Thanks for the contribution, Eugene. 🙂

    • Eugene Spiers / Mar 23 2011 9:21 am

      Absolutely and the ‘somebody else’ usually has an agenda uninformed by anything approaching a debate or discussion like this.

  2. Steve Philp / Mar 23 2011 5:18 pm

    You pose a really interesting question at the end – how do we represent the voice of the disengaged? It’s easy to increase the disengagement by using words that only a philosophy graduate might use and metaphors that not many understand. But at the same time we wouldn’t the debate to be dumbed down either – so how do we deal with that tension?

    I’m not sure if I agree that Cameron and Clegg are entirely wrong. As leaders of a country that should want their students to be doing well in comparative studies. However Gove is certainly wrong in that the particular Pisa studies that he has quoted aren’t comparable, as Donald Clark has noted. Moreover I would say that both Cameron and Clegg agree with you about preparing children for globalised life. In fact they are currently preparing the conditions for globalised companies to take over schools over the next few years, thereby producing the potential for students that sign up with the best companies to compete in the global marketplace like no other. Could it be in the future that PISA rankings will no longer order countries, but educational providers? And will there be more students disengaged or less?

    • Eugene Spiers / Mar 23 2011 10:31 pm

      Thanks for your comments Steve. Your first point is tricky and I think purposed is a useful start but that we need to involve more students and parents from as broad a cross section as we can. However, the problem of turning those discussions into policy or action remains.

      Your second point raises some interesting questions too. International comparisons can obviously be useful if done well but as with benchmarks on a national level if they become the tail that wags the dog the benefits may be lost. So what sort if international comparisons do we want/need?
      I agree that an influx of private money and influence is likely and could have some benefits but am not sure it will be the best preparation for all our students.
      Will it just prepare them to be globalised workers as opposed to global citizens? And will the vested interests of private companies invest in SEN or deprived areas?
      There are so many possibilities and questions. Thanks again.

  3. fred6368 / Mar 23 2011 6:17 pm

    Engaging the disengaged; in the debate or learning? Engage as in Student Voice, asking how was that for you, or engage in socially inclusive learning practice? You need to work with learner interests and motivations and not with curricula which privileges one mode of learning, or one type of achievement-oriented parent. Engaging the disengaged in learning means starting with the assumption that everyone wants to learn, and then work with their curiosity and the conversations that emerge.

    • Eugene Spiers / Mar 23 2011 10:38 pm

      Thanks for your comments and initially I was thinking of how we include the disengaged with this debate but I accept you points on engaging them in learning too. I think the issue of ‘achievement-oriented parents’ is a big one. They mean well, read the papers and then put pressure on kids and schools for the EBacc for example or A Levels and university when it might not be appropriate. How do we engage them more in discussions about skills and pedagogy when what they seem to want is 5 A-C’s?
      Thanks again.

      • fred6368 / Mar 24 2011 8:22 am

        Seem to want 5 A-Cs or have been bribed to think that 5 A-Cs is the sole purpose of education? In my experience the intrinsic value of learning has been driven out of education and been replaced by extrinsic values, like the social capital of having a degree and a belief in the individual value of achievement through high-stakes assessment. In my opinion we need negotiated community-responsive curricula, and teachers who broker the interests of learners into learning outcomes. Here is a blog post on teaching as brokering;

      • mrespiers / Mar 24 2011 2:44 pm

        I love the idea and enjoyed the post. In fact it may be useful for my latest MA assignment. Thanks

  4. Cristina / Mar 23 2011 8:17 pm

    There are many tensions within this paradigm and most seem to be fueled by the opposite views of the individuals (teachers) and the (political) leaders of the system. I know that (almost) all teachers are “subversive” one way or another – they encourage critical thinking, love to explore alongside students and be the guide on the side rather than the sage on the stage. It is however the ultimate test (literally) that changes education: standardization. And that is not in the hands of the teachers, is it?…
    Until something is done on the political level I doubt that much will be changed.
    I really enjoyed your entry – especially the last paragraphs (where you actually asked LEARNERS what they think, and where you brought the issue of the “disengaged”).

    • Eugene Spiers / Mar 23 2011 10:42 pm

      Thanks so much for you comments. Sadly I think you sum it up very well and I’m not sure how the obsession with standardised testing dominating everything will change. Maybe purposed is a starting point? Maybe more parents getting involved and questioning the system more?
      Thanks again.

  5. Prathap / Mar 23 2011 9:29 pm

    Great post again, Eugene. The kids’ perspectives were quite interesting. Especially the kid’s frustration when she doesn’t know what the big picture is. Well, honestly, does anyone know what the big picture is? And who decides what the big picture should be?

    Cameron and Clegg decide that signing up students to the best companies to compete in global marketplace should be the big picture, as Steve puts it. Is that really the ideal big picture? Is that what the world wants? Is that what these students want?

    • Eugene Spiers / Mar 23 2011 10:50 pm

      Thanks for your comments Prathap. I was worried by my niece’s response too! I also worry about the large proportion who will not enter this global market place with or without Clegg and Cameron’s help – the bin men, hairdressers, builders etc who will undoubtedly be Influenced by global forces and are vital but will not be effected in the same way as bankers or accountants for example. How do we make sure they get a good and fair deal too?

    • Steve Philp / Mar 24 2011 10:48 am

      I don’t think educating students solely for a globalised society is the ideal big picture, but I do think that what Cameron and Clegg say contradicts the policies they intend to put in place. They seem to want UK PLC to be able to compete, but their actions of creating a marketplace for academies and free schools, and also centralising power to the secretary of state for education, will create (in my opinion) a system where students will be more successful on an education provider-centric basis, rather than a country-centric basis.

      • mrespiers / Mar 24 2011 2:41 pm

        I agree. We’ll end up with a patchwork of schools as opposed to anything resembling coherence and the thing that most parents want – a good local school – will still be a postcode lottery.

  6. fred6368 / Mar 24 2011 4:42 pm

    Thanks for kind comment Eugene! If it helps with your MA you can contact me through @fredgarnett

  7. James Michie / Mar 26 2011 7:26 am

    To pick up on Fred’s point about engagement, I feel that the idea of engaging people in the debate and engaging people in learning are intrinsically linked. One of the problems facing education is that many of the people who will be effected most by the decisions being made by the Government do not hold their own opinions on Education (as in they have not asked themselves: “what does education mean to me?”, “what should education look like?”, “what do I want my kids to be able to do in the future?”) What they do understand is: “how many GCSE’s are they going to get?”, “what job will my child be able to do?”, “what does the Daily Mail say?” (or other such bastion of the negative Media!)

    TBH, I have no idea how to tackle this. We had our annual option fair for Year 9 this past week. All we are seeing in the press is EBac this and University that. Many of the parents are smart enough to make five out of two and two and some subjects are seeing a huge upturn in interest (Language, History) and other a significant down turn (Drama, Art). Is this what the parents really want for their children? Have they even asked themselves that question? Or are they simply responding to the latest line of rhetoric from the Government and popular press?

    So not only is it a question of how do we engage those teacher, parents and students who are not part of the debate? But, how do we get them to consider the broader, more meaningful questions? How do we get them to look beyond the rhetoric?

    • mrespiers / Mar 28 2011 6:00 pm

      Thanks for your comments James and I agree.
      I think perhaps a similar approach to something I was told about introducing new technologies into schools – be the change, lead by example and focus on one thing at a time. So maybe by professionals having sensible and honest discussions with parents and students about the EBacc for example or the wider questions you mention we can start to get beyond that rhetoric.

      I also like the sound of Fred’s ideas and work and am about to read about it some more.

      Thanks again.

  8. fred6368 / Mar 26 2011 8:29 am

    James, thanks, I agree linking the purposed debate and learning itself is how we take this forward. Sadly I think education policy has been regressive since the National Curriculum was introduced. Rose Luckin developed the Ecology of Resources model to help rethink how we organise learning in schools. Slides 4,5,6 explain this
    in LGC we think that as well as evolving our pedagogies we need to redesign the learning institutions, we call it organisational Architectures of Participation, blog here;
    And we think that we need to have a participatory process of public target making, educational policy, that comes from practicing professionals, and not from managers and policy wonks.
    See our work o the Policy Forest (same blog).
    Bit intense but we believe that the only way to get meaningful targets and objectives in the public sphere is for us to make them transparently. As in let the community decide what schools it wants and how it will measure its success, starting with Participatory Design using the Ecology of Resources.
    I’m doing something similar in Manchester with MOSI-ALONG (User-Generated Learning Content);
    So after Purposed? Collaboratively setting our own targets based on our professional practice…

  9. mrespiers / Mar 28 2011 6:30 pm

    When we thought we were getting BSF we did alot of reserach on the architecture and learning spaces but am not sure where the money will come from now!? (lots of good links for my studies though,thanks)

    I like the idea of LGC’s and also ‘Collaboratively setting our own targets based on our professional practice…’ and have one key question for you – what should/could I be doing (or encouraging others) to do as a teacher/subject leader/assistant headteacher whilst we try and change the constraints of the system?

    Is ‘brokering’ the start point? Should we sit down on day one of a new course and say here is the spec, how would you like to learn it?


  1. Purpos/ed — #500words – Eugene Spiers
  2. The purpose of education must be to nurture optimism. « The Blog of Yog

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