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What Is The Purpose Of Education? Shaping The Education System To Meet The Challenges Of Modern Life

15/11/2016 16:23
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"In today's world, higher standards are demanded than were required yesterday and there are simply fewer jobs for those without skill. Therefore we demand more from our schools than did our grandparents." (Rt Hon James Callaghan, Prime Minister, speech at Ruskin College, Oxford 18 October 1976)

Jim Callaghan's speech at Ruskin College was a landmark in our nation's educational history but his words surely resonate even more deeply today than they did 40 years ago. In a rapidly changing world, with all the challenges and opportunities posed by a modern economy increasingly focused on digital developments and automation, we place ever greater demands on our schools to prepare our young people for adult life. If we throw into the mix the challenges posed to our prosperity by our departure from the European Union, the question of how we shape our education system to develop the confidence, skills, and resilience of young people to meet these tests is one which is more important than ever.

It was in this speech that the then Prime Minister posed the question: what is the purpose of education? The House of Commons Education Committee, which I Chair, decided soon after the 2015 Election to revisit this fundamental question. A variety of answers have already been suggested; employability certainly features prominently in many views of what the goal of our education system should be. Others will, of course, argue there should be greater emphasis on broader academic knowledge, on greater value being placed on the idea of the intrinsic value of education, while still others will believe that schools should do more to foster social mobility.

Of course, we know it isn't possible to discover one satisfactory, definitive answer to the question, 'what is the purpose of education? ' but it's important that Government has the issue of goals in mind when considering policy. Too often policymakers of all political stripes embark on major educational reforms without appearing to engage, or at least acknowledge, the fundamental question of what the purpose of education should be. As Michael Barber notes in his recent TES essay, the impact of Callaghan's speech stemmed largely from its desire to move away from an education policy which looked only at inputs (for example, teacher numbers) to a policy which shifted to outcomes, asking questions about what knowledge and skills were needed and how might they be acquired.

In an increasingly competitive world there is much we can learn from education systems in other countries. Certainly the Department for Education picks up on international examples, such as South Asian maths teaching. However, the DfE's approach is often rather faddish. Education, like so many other areas of policy, depends on many factors--society, culture, economy--and it can be problematic to cherry-pick individual initiatives in the hope that they can effectively slot into our own system. For our part, the Education Committee has tried to take a more holistic approach, considering how other countries have defined the purposes of their education systems and taking a look at the structures these countries have created to fulfil these purposes.

We identified Finland and South Korea as countries with strong but different contrasting conceptions of the purpose of education and high performing but very different education systems. The South Korean system has historically prioritised teacher-led learning and intensive study as a means to socio-economic progress. The Finnish system has traditionally emphasised the development of students as individuals and focused on instilling creativity, ethics and social responsibility. An interesting facet of both countries, however, is that while not abandoning these central themes, the Governments of both countries are now in the process of re-examining some aspects of their systems. South Korea is seeking to introduce greater student freedom in order to reorient its economy towards more knowledge-based industries. Finland is experimenting with a more holistic approach to teaching with discrete subjects replaced by more topic-based learning.

The priority for the Committee's visit to Finland and South Korea over these coming days will be to investigate how these countries are carrying out their current reform programmes and whether there are any aspects of Finnish and South Korean practice that could usefully be adapted into English policy. While there has been plenty of noise in recent months on side-show issues such as the expansion of grammar schools, it is important that politicians and policy-makers take a broader look at what our education system is for to help them in setting policy. With a clearer sense of purpose, we can be better equipped to build an education system which provides young people with the well-rounded skills and capacity to meet the challenges of modern life.

Neil Carmichael, Conservative MP for Stroud and Chair of the House of Commons Education Select Committee

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