'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.

Points to consider

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

Vincent Iyengar says:
January 26, 2016 at 05:24 PM
In view of the fact that nobody knows the nature of the world our youngsters will be living in 20- 30 years on from now, what jobs they will have to do, what future skills they will need as a result of disruptive technologies on the horizon, they need to be educated with lasting skills of a timeless nature, I.e. those useful in any context.
Subjects such as mathematics, music, philosophy and critical thinking skills, art, PSHE, PE,science (in the sense of scientific method) should be central to the curriculum.
For example music, when taught well, addresses many of these skills, some of which are likely to include:
social skills
emotional control
quick adaptability to changing situations in real time
pattern recognition
physical control of one's body, including gross and fine motor skills
artistic appreciation
auditory perception and discrimination
physical fitness
Music also can enhance brain health by increasing in some circumstances oxytocin and certain dopamines.

Arguments in favour of the other subjects in the above list could also be made, but I have focused on music as a subject which covers many important areas.
Michael Newman. Summerhill School says:
January 26, 2016 at 12:09 PM
Evidence to the Select Committee on Education on the Purpose and Measurement of Education from Michael Newman, Summerhill School
The following paper urges the committee to see how its enquiry is part of an historic past in which a community of educationalists and creators of culture in the arts, music and theatre, struggled to create, share and promote the practice of education, teaching and schooling with the shared value of the rights or liberty of the child. These figures and their work leading up to and including the World Wars help us to see how innovation, practice, review and promotion can create a school system founded on humanising the child. Too many times politicians and education commentators speak of what these people feared, of schools as grounds for training and measuring of outcomes. If we cannot see the arguments now because we have lost their tradition, their sense of the importance of ‘why’, then this is all the more reason to recall their words, and their actions.
Children are a group that we too easily perceive and treat as ‘trainee’ humans. We have moved from a culture of the child as labourer, as property of the adult, but we have yet to see our culture, as these heroes did, of the child as liberated, as a dignified human being. With our claim for being a society striving to be based on equality, social justice and human rights we need to develop the history, the successes of the story below and develop the rights of the child in our schools.
1. Response to inhumanity of cities, poverty and industrialisation.
2. Coming together of different practices.
3. Key figures.
4. Creating a movement.
5. International influence.
6. Changing schools through legislation.
7. Defining the good primary school.
8. Two heroes - Scouting and treating shell shock.
9. The threats to liberating the child.
10. The threat posed by exams.
11. Measurement that creates obedience.
12. Present situation defined by curricula and measurement.
13. A sixth former speaks out.
14. An aim to join.
15. What to do next.

Purpose of Education
1. Before the First World War there was a growing community concerned about how children learnt within the expanding cities and increasing issues of poverty, weakening of communities and industrialisation. They observed and worked with children in schools, prisons, communities, orphanages and developed their views within a framework of respecting and developing the freedom and humanity of the child, and the child’s active membership of their communities.
2. The Kindergarten movement, Montessori’s work with poor and special needs children in Rome, the ideas of Pestalozzi and Froebel, experiments in child prison communities in America, ‘Ford Republics’, and then England, the ‘Little Commonwealth’, the growing importance of human rights for women and for the working class, and for suppressed groups, lead to the formation of a community in England called the New Ideals in Education conferences.
3. Rev Bertram Hawker, Lord Lytton, Edmond Holmes, Beatrice Ensor, Lillian de Lissa, and Sir Percy Nunn formed the core of a committee that included key figures in the educational world, chief inspectors, cultural contributors such as the Editor of Punch, organiser of the Shakespeare festival, professors of education, President of Arts and Crafts, politicians and suffragists among others.
4. This community expanded, sharing and celebrating experimental practice, it grew from a conference of 270 people in 1914 in East Runton, Norfolk, to 350 and 400, during the war years. On its third annual event it organised two days extra in the conference to share models of practice, this became a regular feature of the conferences. It published a report of its annual conferences, with complete texts of presentations, published by the Women’s Print Society. In 1925 it started its own magazine, New Ideals Quarterly, with reviews, articles and reports of the conference presentations, and ongoing news from examples abroad, as well as promoting international citizenship with the National Union of Students.
5. This activity went on to inspire similar organisations in France and America, and the International Education Fellowship, founded by Beatrice Ensor in 1921. This community included nearly all those at the forefront of the fields of child psychology and education around the world, and contributing to the founding values of UNESCO.
6. This community of practitioners included state school teachers and headteachers and inspectors, and helped frame the values of the H.A.L. Fisher Continuation Act 1918. Fisher, President of the Board of Education, rushed from London during the war year of 1917 to open the New Ideals Conference, and he went on to contribute to later ones. Earl Lytton took the act through the House of Lords. In a review of the Act’s implementation Lytton writes about schools becoming cultural and local museums with the children as curators and researchers.
Paul Woodin says:
January 25, 2016 at 08:02 PM
It's really simple. The purpose of education is to equip our children with the confidence to question and the desire to 'know'.
R Hallam says:
January 25, 2016 at 03:16 PM
This contribution is submitted by the Music Education Council (MEC). The MEC is the umbrella organisation for the music education sector across the UK. Through its corporate and individual members MEC represents tens of thousands of music educators across the four countries. This contribution has been prepared in consultation with MEC members.’

In the broadest terms the MEC believes an education should enable the child to live well and fully flourish as a human being now and throughout their lives. [1]

In order to achieve this three separate yet interdependent purposes are proposed. [2] We have moved to the case of music but the essence of each can be expressed in general terms in direct response to the first bullet point.

A music education provides for

Qualification: the ways in which music education qualifies the child to do things-equipping them with knowledge, skills and dispositions to make music well and to think about it critically.
Socialisation: the induction of the child into existing cultures of making-music with the potential for the regeneration and creative transformation of practice.
Subjectification: the child becoming a unique individual, subjectively enriched and able to know a sense of personal freedom, even emancipation through music making.

Music must have a place in education. It is a unique form of intelligence (Gardner [3]; and should be present both for its own sake and for the contribution it can make to personal, social and spiritual development. [4]


[1] To expand the source of this statement one commentator writes:

‘In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle says that eudemonia means ‘doing and living well and being content’. For Aristotle this implies that eudemonia involves activity and a striving for excellence. It is human nature to strive for self-development. Therefore the best form of eudemonia is gained by the proper development of one’s best powers and the most humane attitude. This identifies us as ‘rational animals’. It follows that eudemonia for a human being is the attainment of excellence (arête) through the use and application of reason.’

Eudemonia represents a life-long goal. There is no point of arrival and ‘happiness’, merely being a state of mind, is not what Aristotle is thinking of. And ‘well-being’ misses the mark too.

The concept of human flourishing enables highlighting and attending to the structures that prevent this from being the case, to inequalities and social injustices.

NB the MEC is not suggesting that Aristotle be the definitive source of the concept of human flourishing.

[2] the MEC is indebted to the thought of Gert Biesta for proposing a three-part framework for thinking about purpose. These three purposes need to be seen as interdependent and probably represented as a Venn diagram.

[3] Musical intelligence involves skill in the performance, composition, and appreciation of musical patterns. It encompasses the capacity to recognize and compose musical pitches, tones, and rhythms. According to Howard Gardner musical intelligence runs in an almost structural parallel to linguistic intelligence.

[4] The Power of Music: A research synthesis Hallam S.

Michael Anderson says:
January 25, 2016 at 02:26 PM
Education alone does not prepare young people for the workplace. Unless given a real-life arena in which key employability skills can be practiced, it is all too often the case that what is learned in the classroom remains there. As an Area Manager for Young Enterprise I have seen how taking part in such programmes at school can give young people the opportunity to put what they learn in numeracy, literacy and other academic skills into practice. Managing a budget, working out a profit and keeping track of expenditure for example, are all things taught in maths lessons. However, trying these out for real are the experiences that will cement them. Literacy lessons can teach how to write coherently, form a balanced argument and use persuasive language. While all of these skills are paramount for succeeding in the workplace, many children use them for the first time on real projects during Young Enterprise. It is this that allows young people to call on these skills when they reach employment and I believe their transition from the classroom to the job market will be a lot smoother.

Leadership skills, the ability to work in a team and communication skills are all a necessity in the workplace, yet the education system does not do enough to develop them in the school years. Having good grades or taking the right subjects for your chosen career is only half of the picture and if you can’t conduct yourself properly in a work environment, you’re limiting your potential hugely. I believe schools need to adopt schemes that focus on practicing these ‘soft skills’ in an environment that also offers real wins and gains.

Part of being prepared for life post-education is being able to manage your money well. Knowing how to manage your income and outgoings without falling into debt is hugely important and, while progress has been made in recent years, I do not believe there is enough emphasis on this in schools at the moment. Financial products are advertised heavily, making choosing the right options for your own circumstances a complicated and confusing task. I believe personal finance should be embedded into the curriculum in all schools from as early an age as possible, as part of statutory PSHE education, to make sure young people leave schools with the confidence and knowledge to navigate this area and make decisions that will benefit them.
Leah K Stewart says:
January 25, 2016 at 01:23 PM
There is no Purpose of Education. For a thinking species, with individual will to continue living or not, education either is or is not the overarching purpose of all activities we engage with. If we engage in activity not ultimately for personal education or the opportunity for that (but instead for money only, for praise only etc.) we suffer. The question then is not - What is the Purpose of Education? - but, what is YOUR purpose within this tapestry? This question applies to the individual as much as it applies to schools and organisations like the Select Committee. And, based on that, how do You measure the Quality of what You choose to do? To extend this, and invite in the people you elect to serve, consider how you can best express this to them with empathy and compassion so they have the opportunity to gain the most form your service. Thank you for your time.
Nathaniel Adam Tobias C———, PhD says:
January 25, 2016 at 11:57 AM
The history and philosophy of education show that the British Empire was built, justified, and sustained by our Empire’s universities. They show that the main purpose of education has been ensuring the long-term stability of the Empire. They show that young people have been, and continue to be, taught a whitewashed curriculum, which fulfils that imperial purpose.

Young people are not unaware of this. Far from it. As Michael A. Peters, in his editorial for Educational Philosophy and Theory, argues, across the planet, transnationally, young people are united in asking 'Why is my curriculum white?'. How, then, should traditional scholarly disciplines respond to the charge, by John Willinsky, in Learning to Divide the World: Education at Empire’s End, that they are merely the skewed products of eurocentric empire? If our most prestigious universities have been shown (by Tamsin Pietsch, in Empire of Scholars, Craig Steven Wilder, in Ebony and Ivy, and Richard Symonds in Oxford and Empire) to be complicit in eurocentric exploitation, what implications does this fact have for their admissions, their recruitment, and their research-led teaching? How do we progress from Audre Lorde's pessimistic teaching that The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle The Master’s House, to Lewis Gordon and Jane Gordon's optimistic exhortation, in their Not Only The Master's Tools, to 'devote attention to using those and other tools to build new, more open houses'?

It is only by answering these questions that we can decolonise the whitewashed curriculum we teach our young people and, thereby, equip them them to engage on terms of equality (not on terms of empire) with other persons across the planet.
Jennifer Saul says:
January 25, 2016 at 11:55 AM
The most important element of education is training people to be citizens: this requires a full, rounded education which includes arts and humanities. It is impossible to have a fully functioning democracy without an educated, critically thinking populace.
Peter Worley says:
January 25, 2016 at 11:55 AM
Education has (or should have) two overarching aims: understanding and well-being. Education should enable those educated to understand the world better and it should also provide those educated with the means to achieve greater wellbeing for themselves and for others.

Education needs something to make sure that it is meeting its aims as well as it can. So – to take the aim of understanding as an example – education cannot succeed if it simply attempts to ‘understand the world’, it also needs to ask this (second-order) question: ‘how do/should we understand how we are currently understanding the world?’

This idea can be explained historically. There was a time when the chief way through which we understood the world was myths and legends; later, it was religion. And it was through philosophical lines of inquiry that these paradigms were challenged, either by philosophers such as the Pre-Socratics, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, and later Popper and Kuhn or by scientists adopting a philosophical attitude such as Galileo, Newton, Einstein and Feynman. (Interestingly, Newton was known in those days as a ‘natural philosopher’ not a ‘scientist’.)

By extension, when ‘how we understand the world’ is taught uncritically there is, of course, the ever-present danger that those undergoing the education programme may be subjected to indoctrination, either political or religious. The ‘philosophical attitude’ that I claim any education programme should include, safeguards those undergoing it from these very real dangers, that history has shown – and continues to show – to be much more than the paranoid delusions of conspiracy theories.

Philosophy – done well – is dedicated to understanding, and if understanding is at the heart of education, then, wherever possible, philosophy should be included in any education programme. There are now ways of doing philosophy with nursery children and teenagers, as well as undergraduates and others, so why is the teaching of philosophy not more widespread? In addition to all of this, it has been recognized time and again that there is an understanding gap in the current system. We should, of course, know the ‘what’ but we neglect the ‘how’, the ‘why’ and the ‘should’ at our peril.

Understanding consists in a unity of these outlooks. Yes, everyone has a right to be able to read, write and count, but what is less often argued for – and very often forgotten – is that everyone has a right to better understanding and to greater wellbeing.

Through our (The Philosophy Foundation) work in schools across the UK, we have seen the impact that Philosophy can have by helping children develop their analytical, critical and problem-solving capabilities. Beyond our own experience, there is also a growing body of evidence that the practice of Philosophy helps builds these skills, ones that are not only becoming increasingly important for the economy but can also aid greatly in improving mental health and well-being.
Ian Dewes says:
January 25, 2016 at 11:51 AM
This is a question which has been asked many times before. If either of the following two could be achieved it would be worthwhile: a) something original added to the list of ideas about what education's purpose is or b) a consensus could be found across the education field. Neither of these things will happen, so it is disappointing that the Select Committee is not spending more time on the actual issues facing the education system today. The recent report on RSCs by the Select Committee was useful, timely and boring. This is the sort of work the SC should be concerned with rather than pointless philosophising and grandstanding. Ian Dewes, headteacher, Dunchurch Infant School and Nursery, Warwickshire