The Blog

Time for a Good Old-Fashioned Debate on Education

We don't know what education is and, as a consequence, we do not know what debate means. Debate is at the heart of education and if there is a crisis about one there is a crisis about the other.

Whether it's grammar school education, Classics and Latin, O-levels , 'Gove levels' or EBaccs, basic grammar, or uniforms and discipline, the coalition government's ideas about education are always variations of one simple idea, which is to go 'Back to the Future.'

These policies often seem to reflect the public or grammar school experience of members of the coalition, and this leaves them open to the criticism that they are the result of the nostalgia of an elite about their 'Toff's education', or their fantasy of a non existent 'golden age' in the school system.

Looking at the steady stream of them, these initiatives at least embody something positive, if only a fading memory of what 'education' once meant. This is something to appreciate and is more worthwhile than the focus on a thousand fads and fashions that replaced education under New Labour and the educational establishment they created. Those fads and fashions involved replacing subjects and disciplinary knowledge by rag bags of skills and social engineering activities on the assumption that knowledge was redundant in an era of constant technological age. Knowledge and understanding - argued the ideologues of the new 'learning age' - was Victorian, elitist and old fashioned. 'Learning to learn' in various formulations became the focus of educational thinking from the nursery to the university.

In this context, the use of the term 'education' has no agreed meaning that anyone can trade on. Not people's memories, or any group's supposed wisdom. Michael Gove once tried to argue that working-class parents had a 'common sense' understanding of what education was:

'What we do need to have is a recognition that working class parents are every bit as aspirational as, if not more so than, middle class parents. Often they have a common sense view about what their children need, which is wiser than that of many educationalists and professors of education.'

This may occasionally be true, but such common sense is fragile. Whatever memories policymakers have, or whatever common sense parents have, currently children from any social background, and whatever school they attend, only get a decent education by accident. Even in the best fee paying schools, a traditional education is a chance occurence. And it's getting increasingly worse. Anthony Seldon's flirtation with 'happiness' classes at Westminster College is an example of the way in which things can go wrong at places where the best education is still on offer.

The reason is that 'education' has lost its meaning and those few teachers and educationalists still holding on to a traditional view of education are few and isolated. They can only hold their positions on education dogmatically, rather than philosophically.

What is wrong with the policy proposals flowing from the coalition's apparent memory of what education used to be like is that the policies being suggested are merely forms that arose when education had meaning. When that meaning has been lost, these initiatives cannot work. As a result such proposals are parodies of what education was, the ghosts of education past. A better vision of education is needed - but it cannot just be asserted.

It's a matter of debate

The only way that education can be reclaimed is through robust debate with teachers, teacher unions, the academic education establishment, the armies of education consultants and parents. There are no shortcuts to this, and it has to be a debate about the meaning of education, a defence of knowledge and understanding against the snake-oil sellers of 'learning to learn' and the like.

The argument for education won't be easy to win for two reasons:

The first is there are few people who can consistently defend a traditional view of education and, second, there is a similar crisis of meaning about what it is to debate.

We don't know what education is and, as a consequence, we do not know what debate means. Debate is at the heart of education and if there is a crisis about one there is a crisis about the other. It is a symptom of this dual crisis that makes policy makers seek short cuts in remembered education that they hope can be implemented through consultation rather than debate.

The loss of the idea of debate as the essence of education has become confused through two new meanings of 'debate' that have emerged.

Debate is mostly just therapy. It means allowing everyone to express their views in an open unthreatening way. Even when it involves 'Socratic' questioning it consists of asking question simply to encourage more self-expression.

Alternatively, it is a process in which everyone is asked to question their assumptions and be open and 'critical' about them. This is again accompanied by 'Socratic' questioning to help people probe more deeply. The difference is that the challenge to assumptions is usually facilitated by professionals who want their debaters to get to the correct social, political, ethical or professional position. This is debate as brainwashing.

'Debate' today does not mean what it once did, and real debate is frowned upon. When I was taking recently about introducing debating to groups of school pupils, one education advisor said, in a shocked way: "You don't mean debate in the old-fashioned sense as arguing for and against?"

That was just what I meant. Call me old-fashioned, but what is needed now is a debate for and against education. An old-fashioned debate in which the defenders of old-fashioned education can get stuck into the modernisers who hate old-fashioned debate. Without this debate, all we will be left with is memories of education.


Richard Garner, Michael Gove 'backs more Grammar schools', Independent. 10 May 2012.

Graeme Paton, Michael Gove: schools failing to promote the classics, Telegraph. 1 April 2011.

Jeevan Vasagar, Foreign languages to be taught at school from age seven, Guardian. 10 June 2012.

Nicholas Watt, The return of O-levels: Michael Gove to get rid of GCSEs in exams shakeup, Guardian. 21 June 2012.

Nicholas Watt, GCSE exams to be replaced by EBacc, Guardian 17 September 2012.

Laura Clark, Thousands of teachers go back to school to lean basic maths and grammar so they can deliver tough new lessons, Daily Mail. 12 June 2012.

Paul Waugh, Michael Gove: Parents prefer strict discipline and school uniforms, Evening Standard. 20 September 2010.