The Commons Education Select Committee held an interesting conference last Tuesday as part of its investigation into the purpose of education. I believe that the issues that were raised are vitally important for the future of education. The popular consensus among teachers and educationalists is that the purpose of education is either a platitude or a mystery but that, either way, it is not something that teachers should worry about too much. I believe that this assumption is profoundly damaging to our attempts to improve education—but that it is based on a consensus so deeply engrained that addressing the problem is no simple matter. As is the way with all conferences, people have their say, drink their coffee, head for the door, and leave a pile of unsorted opinions and unresolved disagreements all over the carpet. Sorting through this detritus will take some time but, as I have been criticised for writing at excessive length in the past, I will split my reflections into about ten reasonably manageable instalments, aiming to publish two or three a week. This is the first.
Why purpose matters
Carmichael: How important is it for the government to have a clear and consistent view about the purpose of education and do you think it is a good one?
Wilshaw: Every government that I have worked with…wants higher standards. No government is going to say they want lower standards. This government…wants to raise standards across the country, they want to see less variation in regional performance, they want to see the academy programme work, they want to see the free school model work, and they want to see more youngsters from across the social spectrum doing well.
Carmichael: I suppose the question really is, ‘well at what?’
Wilshaw: Well, education is a good thing. Everyone here believes that.
The purpose of education cannot be education; nor are “standards” (in the sense that Wilshaw uses the term) an objective but a measure of how successfully one’s objectives are being met. Even though the committee session to which Sir Michael was invited was helpfully entitled The purpose of education, he came without a view of what such a purpose might be.
Such an evasive attitude to the purpose of education is widespread throughout the teaching profession. Even the language in which purpose is discussed has changed. Not so long ago, one could be sure that a discussion about “the curriculum” was about what schools should teach: the knowledge, skills and understanding that they should encourage their students to attain. Not any more. Now, most people in positions of authority, including Tim Oates and the Expert Panel that reviewed the National Curriculum in 2011, use the term to describe what schools provide—the schemes of work, the experiences, and sometimes even the assessments. “Curriculum” is now generally used to describe the inputs of education and not its anticipated outcomes. We lack the language in which to discuss what students might make of such inputs or whether they align with society’s expectations—we lack the language to discuss educational purpose.
It follows from the now commonly-accepted definition of “curriculum” that when people assert that “assessment should align with the curriculum”, they mean that students should be assessed on whatever schools have chosen to teach them. They are rejecting the idea that schools should teach students those things on which they are likely to be assessed because they are contained in an accepted statement of educational objectives. Is that what people really mean to say? No-one knows. “The National Curriculum”, we are told by Dylan Wiliam, another member of the expert panel on the curriculum, “is not a curriculum at all”, precisely because it describes the aims of education and not its methods (Redesigning schooling: principled curriculum design, SSAT, p.9, here or here). If the National Curriculum is not a curriculum, then really, our terminology is in a state of crisis.
If no-one can be sure what anyone else is trying to say, it is not possible to have any meaningful discourse about education. If no-one is sure what the purpose of education is, then no-one is in a position to tailor our provision to align with society’s expectations; no-one can judge how well the education service is meeting those expectations; no-one can judge the quality of provision; and no-one can take a systematic, centralized approach to organizing that provision so that it achieves our common objectives more effectively. All we can do when the bell rings is to go to our various, isolated classrooms and carry on muddling through.
The opening paragraphs of the widely respected 1987 Task Group for Assessment and Testing (TGAT) stated (para.2):
A school can function effectively only if it has adopted:
- clear aims and objectives;
- ways of gauging the achievement of these;
- comprehensible language for communicating the extent of those achievements to pupils, their parents and teachers, and to the wider community, so that everyone involved can take informed decisions about future action.
Not only do these conditions not apply in our current education system; not only have we even stopped pretending that they apply; but most seriously of all, hardly anybody seems to think that they should.
This is a fundamental weakness in our current theory of education, whose consequences can hardly be over-stated. In its current enquiry, the Commons Select Committee has a great opportunity to address this problem, but only if it can follow the intellectual twists and turns and ignore the decoys and chaff that teachers, educationalists and administrators commonly deploy to avoid accepting that education should have any clearly defined purpose at all. I hope that these reflections might help the Committee in its pursuit of what is really at stake in this important enquiry.
The opening panel
The first panel at the Select Committee’s conference comprised (left to right) Professor Michael Young, Daisy Christodoulou, Gert Biesta and Alison Peacock, and was chaired (centre) by Laura McInerney.
In the first half of this essay, I am going to focus on issues raised by the statements of Gert Biesta and Daisy Christodoulou.
Professor Biesta said that we spend too much time focusing on the means of education (effectiveness, what works, measurement) and not enough time on its ends. He stressed that it is vital for democracy that the purpose of education should be a matter for general discussion and should not be pre-determined. The most important purposes of education, Professor Biesta argued, were not necessarily measurable: they might be to ensure that every student fulfilled his or her true potential or to create a world in which a repetition of Auschwitz would be impossible.
Daisy Christodoulou took the opposite view to Professor Biesta in relation to ends and means: she thought that we spent too much time thinking about the ends of education and not enough time on the means.
At the end of the introductory statements, I asked a two-part question. In the first part, I challenged the supposed dichotomy between ends and means that both Professor Biesta and Daisy Christodoulou seemed to be proposing. The two are not antagonistic, I suggested, but interdependent: there is no point in stating objectives unless you have the means to achieve them, while it is impossible to select or measure the effectiveness of your methodologies unless you have already stated what objectives the methodology is attempting to attain.
In my second part, I suggested that if an objective (like “fulfilling your true potential”) cannot be measured to some degree, then it is not possible to know whether such an objective has been achieved or not—it is not even possible to know what achieving such an objective might look like—and such an objective would not only be useless in practical terms but also positively meaningless.
In the next installment of this essay, I shall consider Professor Biesta’s reply.