'Purpose and quality of Education in England' web forum

As part of our inquiry into the purpose and quality of education in England, the Education Committee would like to hear your views on what the education system is for. Before submitting to the forum please consider the following points:

  • How much of  a focus should there be on preparing young people for employment through focusing on skills such as numeracy and literacy?
  • What role should the education system play in developing 'soft' skills, such as leadership and communication?
  • How much should education prepare people for adult life in terms of areas such as healthy relationships and personal finance?

Send us your comments on the following question:

  • What should the main purpose of education be? What should young people be taught to fulfil that purpose?

The deadline for comments is midday, Monday 25 January 2016.

Comments will be used to inform the Committee’s thinking on this issue. This forum is pre-moderated and comments that breach the online discussion rules will not be posted.

Image: iStockphoto

123 Responses to Send a comment to Purpose and quality of education forum

Michael McEachrane says:
January 25, 2016 at 11:49 AM
In light of recent YouGov polls according to which the British public is overwhelmingly positive and and even proud of British colonialism it is high time that British school curriculums include more thoroughgoing education on the history and legacies of British and other European colonialism!
JDH says:
January 25, 2016 at 11:45 AM
I believe the purpose of education is not primarily to prepare young people for employment. It is to develop the minds and capacities of young people, to inspire curiosity, to generate critical and creative thinking.
Whilst numeracy and literacy is crucially important, for a range of pursuits, I believe it is crucial that interest in these skills is not constrained by a picture of them as purely instrumental to economic and industrial purposes.

In order to inspire all young people equally - and as a matter of justice - it is important that our educational curriculum is adequately representative of certain topics which, and the scholarship of thinkers whom, have historically been marginalised, in particular women and black and minority ethnicity scholars.

In terms of preparations for adult life and understanding our social world, I also believe it is important that the curriculum also contains accurate resources concerning the relations of oppression and domination (gender, race and colonial, inter alia) that have shaped our social world; and regarding the activism movements that contributed to transformative social movements (feminist, antiracist) that are still ongoing today.

These are the sorts of topics that can inspire and empower young people to envisage different kinds of opportunities and futures for themselves and others.
Amira Chilvers says:
January 25, 2016 at 11:39 AM
What should the main purpose of education be?

The main purpose of education should be, as a previous poster has suggested, to enable human beings to live out wise answers to Socrates' question "how, then, should I live?" It should foster the knowledge, skills and habits of mind that lead to wise living. This indicates a much broader view of the purpose and nature of education than is currently in evidence in our education system.

As a former teacher and someone still involved in education, I am aware that the current assessment system undermines this overall purpose of education. It undercuts genuine interest in the subjects being taught or the big questions that they raise, particularly at secondary, in favour of a "will this be on the exam, Miss?" attitude. Whatever the original intentions may have been, the upshot of the current examinations and accountability regime, through schools and higher education, is that children and young people increasingly seem to believe that the purpose of education is to pass examinations, to gain qualifications, and thereby to get a job and earn enough money to survive. Surely education has a higher purpose than this?

Of course there are core basic skills that all of us need in order to play our roles in society - not just in employment but in relationships, in our communities, in our families. Literacy and numeracy are crucial to this and should be taught, not simply for the purposes of passing examinations but because they unlock so many doors for all young people.

In a context where information has never been so readily available - and indeed, there has never been so much poor quality information, and often outright misinformation - a key purpose of education is to develop qualities of wisdom and discernment when dealing with this wealth of information. Critical, thoughtful "reading" of all media types, allied to the habits of mind that allow one's own preconceptions to be challenged, are therefore important areas for 21st century students to develop.

I would also argue that this is an unprecedented time of social and cultural diversity. While Britain has always been a more diverse nation than some of us like to think, young people today are likely to meet more people who are socially and culturally different from themselves, with different views of what is good and how one should live. Equipping them not just with the skills to deal positively with diversity but also with the attitudes of kindness and solidarity towards others is therefore a central purpose of education.

Finally, as sentimental as it sounds, education should enable every child to find and develop their passions. Every child should have the opportunity to engage with and develop an area of expertise that excites them, whether that is in engineering, the arts, sport, the humanities, the sciences, literature, or any other field of human endeavour. Education should inspire children to discover their passion, perhaps in areas where they may not have expected it, and to experience success and achievement in an area that excites them. They should be encouraged to experiment, to make mistakes and learn from them, to allow their curiosity some freedom. This of course needs to be balanced with opening doors for children in introducing them to experiences that they might otherwise resist or be excluded from. There is a delicate balance to be had between furthering a child's existing interests and opening them up to new possibilities that they may not yet have considered or may even actively resist. But this can, and should, be achieved through thoughtful and professional selection of learning experiences.
Neil Williams says:
January 25, 2016 at 11:38 AM
I feel that there is often too much emphasis on "preparing children for employment" in education. I think we should be talking about preparing children for future life, only part of which is employment. The role of education should be in part to teach young people how to be a good human beings, how to be good citizens, and how to engage with others.

A great many young people who leave education might be numerate and literate, but they know very little about themselves and the world in which they live. This can lead them to enter un-beneficial relationships, or make life decisions which can damage their chances at happiness permanently. More of an emphasis on relationships, on critical thinking, and on understanding the body and emotions, might allow young people to avoid such situations, and will generally increase their self awareness and capacity to engage with others.

A democracy is built on the assumption that its citizens can critically assess the various political options which are available to them. As such, education in a democratic society has a duty to educate a populace that can meet this requirement. Educating children in thinking critically, and understanding the political system, would be a good step in this direction.

We often talk as if preparing young people for employment and preparing them for practical and political life are different things. But, of course, these do not need to be at odds. Teaching children how to think critically in early years tends to lead to improved literacy and numeracy, but it will also lead to them being more reflective and capable people in general. These are traits which more and more employers are looking for in an economy based not on manufacture, but service and innovation.

In short, education should be preparing young people to meet life as fully rounded, capable, and thoughtful people. Such a person will be far more likely to lead a happy and fulfilling life, and will be far more likely to contribute to their society in meaningful ways. But such people are also the kinds of employees most jobs would appreciate: flexible, capable, considerate, and critically minded.
Francis Verity says:
January 25, 2016 at 11:22 AM
Francis Verity - Appendix 1.
When we talk about quality in education, more important even than teacher supply is headteacher recruitment and retention. The one thing schools need most of all is stable, reliable and inspiring leadership.
Heads are currently notoriously difficult to appoint. The incidence of re advertisement by schools for these posts is testimony to this. One of the reasons is the unjustifiably punitive approach to schools by Ofsted. Heads are in short supply generally and deputies don’t want to become heads. They’ve seen enough. There is another half of the equation which needs adding soon. A ‘critical friend’, preferably one with local knowledge of the school, would not only advise the head on important issues but would also motivate them especially when doubt or tiredness set in. Add this to the accountability function performed by Ofsted and you are beginning to assemble a resilient and potentially successful education system.
Dr Tom Cochrane says:
January 25, 2016 at 11:20 AM
It seems to me that two important aims of education are 1) to increase the student's autonomy and 2) to help the student contribute to society. However both of these aims are somewhat external to the education process itself, which in the first place should be about stimulating the love of learning, and valuing knowledge for its own sake. This value is more intrinsic to the education process. It is what primarily motivates students, rather than external rewards or punishments, or vague ideas about building to a career that might not exist when they reach employment age. I think that focusing on the intrinsic value of knowledge also is the best way to achieve the external benefits. Stimulating a love for learning gives the students the capacity to educate themselves, and thereby to help them further develop their own autonomy. It also gives them the capacity to develop whatever skills are necessary to contribute to society.

An application of the above point: I would rather see students have philosophy classes than management classes. Philosophy is focused on the mysteries of the world and human nature, but in doing so also encourages critical thinking skills, communication skills and considering the value of personal relationships. There has also been recent evidence that Philosophy for children improves literacy and numeracy skills
Owen Rees says:
January 25, 2016 at 10:50 AM
Education must look to the future! Today's children will operate in a very different work environment when they grow up. Communication and creativity should be central in the curriculum with an emphasis on problem solving and research. Schools must ensure IT is up to speed and that pupils have the freedom to explore, learn from their mistakes and make their own decisions. How important will hand writing and basic arithmetic be when our world is driven my mobile communications and the internet?
Professor Angie Hobbs says:
January 25, 2016 at 10:42 AM
I believe that the main purpose of education should be to enable children to live flourishing individual and communal lives in which they are able to actualise their best emotional, intellectual and physical potential. An understanding of what constitutes healthy relationships, some basic financial knowledge, communicative and leadership skills should all be part of this, as well, of course, as good literacy and numeracy and some knowledge of the history and geography of the world, some exposure to music and the other arts and at least one other language. Preparing children for work is of course an important part of all this, but by no means the only part: education should be about enabling the child to live well. Education should not even just be about preparing children for adulthood, as the years spent at school are a significant part of our lives and should be enjoyable and enriching in their own right (and, tragically, for some children they are the whole of their lives). I am a passionate advocate of incorporating more philosophy into the curriculum, both an optional examined subject at A Level and (ideally) a new GCSE, but also as an unexamined subject in primary and secondary schools. Studying some philosophy can enable children to think about what constitutes a flourishing life, and also show them that there are different ways of living, thinking and being than those immediately on offer to them in their own postcode. Philosophy teaches basic skills in conceptual analysis, the construction and analysis of deductive and inductive arguments, and, in general, encourages children how to ask questions and consider whether there are any good reasons to believe whatever it is they are being told. It may therefore be a useful tool in helping reduce the risks of indoctrination. It improves both listening and speaking skills and, crucially, fosters the ability to engage in robust yet respectful dialogue and improve their interpersonal skills. It allows children to differentiate between intellectual critique and personal attack and thus strengthens resilience. An independent study conducted by Durham University showed quantifiable and marked improvements in both English and Maths amongst primary school children who received one hour per week of unexamined philosophy classes for a year; the same study also showed perceived improvements in both interpersonal skills and confidence. I spoke about these issues at more length at the World Economic Forum in Davos last week, and the discussion was filmed:
I also wrote an accompanying piece which was published in The Conversation. I would be more than happy to discuss all or any of this further in person.

Virginia Moffatt says:
January 25, 2016 at 10:34 AM
To enable children and young people to learn about the world they live in. To encourage critical thinking in a wide range of disciplines: science, arts, culture, politics, history, geography, religious studies, ethics. To give children and young people the opportunity to both develop skills to ensure they can gain employment in the future and to develop an understanding and life long passion for subjects they can enjoy in their leisure time.
Francis Verity says:
January 25, 2016 at 09:36 AM
House of Commons Education Select Committee
Submission to the Purpose and Quality of Education Forum - January 2016.
This is a welcome and worthwhile exercise. Let’s hope that by the end of the consultation exercise we have a reasonably clear idea of what the country actually want from its schools ( and colleges!).
It might be worth remembering, however, just how much work has been done over the years on the curriculum by professionals like HMI ( at their peak, who suggested a framework of studies for all schools to follow based on their findings and considerable expertise), and academics such as Robin Alexander who gave curriculum studies depth. During this time, on the whole, schools found themselves able to teach a valuable and significant range of subjects, providing an effective education, which also included cultural awareness, socialisation, and preparation for adulthood.
The legacy of this body of work is still seen in our schools as it formed the basis of the national curriculum. So if we take any recent version of the national curriculum it might be worth adding the following to prepare young people for the demands of the present and the uncertainty of the future:
Political literacy, political processes and debating skills
International affairs
IT and complete coverage of modern and mooted technology
Ecology, self sufficiency and anti - global warming strategies
Effective powers of discrimination in an increasingly materialistic world
Having said this, the single most important thing an education system can do for its students is to encourage a love of learning and to stimulate a high level of curiosity. So that when they leave school they continue to want to learn. ie lifelong learning. There are plenty of opportunities for them to do this.
Surely we want to develop a population that is curious, tolerant, skilled and healthy? HMI recommended an approach in schools which promoted the acquisition of knowledge, the increased understanding of concepts, the accumulation of skills and the development of attitudes. Between these we have enough ideas to create a learning economy for the whole country for some time to come!
As for quality, if Ofsted is going to continue in its present , challenging form, then schools should also be supported by and external ‘critical friends’ who will have dialogue with and guide the head and senior staff through important education developments. After all, with more than 10% of children going to school hungry and 28% living in poverty, teachers often have things on their minds other than SATS and league tables. Just how do you teach these children well?
Finally it would seem only sensible to take note of education forecasts by such respected bodies as the World Economic Forum, the Economist Intelligence Unit, TED, and IPPR among others.
Francis Verity