Blog: What’s the purpose of education? - RSA

Blog: What’s the purpose of education?

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  • Picture of Ellen Spencer
    Ellen Spencer
  • Picture of Bill Lucas
    Bill Lucas
  • Education
  • Creativity
  • Curriculum
  • Schools
  • Teaching

Ellen and Bill reflect on their submission to the recent Parliamentary Select Committee Inquiry

It’s a rare thing when a Parliamentary Select Committee for Education asks such a profound question that you drop what you are doing to make time to respond. But that’s just what happened at the end of last year. What, they asked, is the point of school? How closely aligned to such a view is the current system and how might we measure progress towards the goals which we see as being desirable? 

We wondered if others thought as we do that the current obsession with knowledge and skills misses out an all-important related debate about the kinds of capabilities we need all nineteen year-olds to have acquired by the time they leave school. We rapidly found that they did. In fact we found ourselves at the Centre for Real-World Learning coordinating a response to the Inquiry from ASCL, City & Guilds, Comino Foundation, CUREE, Mercers’ Company, PTA UK, Royal Academy of Engineers, Schools of Tomorrow, and the RSA. We found particular synergies with, for example, the RSA’s own thinking on the Power to Create in schools.

As a collective we argued that we need a wide-ranging set of goals which:

  • work for all young people
  • prepare students for a lifetime of learning at the same time as seeing childhood and school as valuable in their own right
  • see capabilities and character as equally important as success in individual subjects
  • make vocational and academic routes equally valued
  • cultivate happier children
  • engage effectively and differently with parents
  • engage well with business
  • use the best possible  teaching and learning methods
  • understand how  testing is best used to improve outcomes
  • empower and value teachers’ creativity and professionalism, and
  • pro-actively encourage both rigorous school self-improvement and appropriate external accountability.

Aims alone do not communicate our deepest values and we realise that we are asking for many things here. But we believe that each of these goals are important and that many of them are inter-connected. Relinquishing power to a body of professionals is, of course, a risky step for elected leaders held directly accountable for performance. A step they may not dare to take. In our submission we go further by recommending the establishment of an independent Commission for Curriculum Review. Such a body would provide an authoritative analysis of a curriculum and its assessment framework cyclically once in every term of parliament to help to ensure breadth, balance and relevance. We think this is a vital cornerstone on which to build a purposeful, coherent education system, one that is not constantly being meddled with but yet which is also respectful of democratic processes.

In this blog we pick up on just four of our proposed purposes of education. They are the ones which explicitly speak to the implied issue of professional trust which we have just raised.

1. See capabilities and character as equally important as success in individual subjects

We cannot continue the tediously polarised discussion between capabilities or knowledge. Young people need both and we need to be clearer about the kinds of capabilities we value – perseverance, creativity, collaboration, emotional self-management and so forth. We need these just as we need great scientists, mathematicians and artists. A growing body of evidence links social mobility to character and resilience. Developing young people’s capabilities and character are, we argue, at the heart of a school’s purpose.

The all-party parliamentary group’s ‘character and resilience manifesto’ proposed that a shift is needed in how we value, track, and reflect growth in these important areas. Narrow measures such as ‘pencil-and-paper’ style tests drive dull environments where ‘effective’ can mean teaching to the test. Broader measures are needed; ones that reflect deep learning, over time. Ones that capture all that is important in a young person’s learning, not just retention of certain facts, and application of certain processes and undigested chunks of knowledge.

Assessment of children’s growth in ‘creativity’ is a case in point. Historically side-lined as hard to measure (or even undesirable to measure), its measurement is gaining momentum with PISA recently recognising its importance. 

2. Empower and value teachers’ creativity and professionalism

The shortage of teachers – serious in some areas – bears testament to a shameful fact: that teaching is not given its due as an honoured profession. Instead, as Research-Ed’s Tom Bennett has commented, the teacher has become a delivery system whose replacement is inevitable. Teachers are seen as isolated resources to be held accountable: data-driven rather than evidence informed; dispensed of at the hands of technology – or untrained staff – instead of assisted by it.

Nowhere is there more disempowerment of teachers than in the current introduction of EBac. Those who teach subjects in the newly created second division are feeling sore and confused. Government needs to review carefully the consequences of omitting certain key subjects from the proposed EBac framework, and its impact on practical and applied learning of the current selection of preferred ‘core academic subjects’.

Instead of a top-down system of accountability that distrusts teacher professionalism, stifles innovation, and perpetuates teacher ‘wastage’, we need one that recognises and develops the collective ‘professional capital’ of teachers. Educators as a responsible, self-organising community can research and develop their own practice to attack non-routine problems in creative ways.

Professional capital empowers teachers to make appropriate changes and drives them to pursue excellence. Informed by data, led by well qualified experts, they – as a body – can hold themselves accountable. ‘Pedagogy’ – the art, science, craft and gumption of teaching and learning is still not appreciated and understood. It needs to be! For within that single word is the essence of what teachers do. If education is to serve the many important purposes we assign it, we need to recognise the professionalism of teachers, then enable and trust them to educate.

3. Proactively encourage both rigorous school self-improvement and appropriate external accountability

Schools, as centres of local innovation, need to be self-improving. While government is ultimately responsible for outcomes, and rightly so, their best means of ensuring this is not to focus regulatory regimes on shifting the bottom up by a few percentage points. The opportunity gap between affluent and disadvantaged will not be closed by raising test scores. Of course, schools where outcomes are poor are failing young people. Nobody would suggest this should go unchanged. Simple, well-evidenced measures for outcomes are needed in order to ensure the basics are right. As the RSA propose in Creative Public Leadership:don’t reduce accountability – rethink it.

We do not suggest that teachers should become all-powerful and their practice closed to scrutiny. But we need to unshackle educators from the culture of compliance they are bogged down by. ASCL has developed a ‘blueprint’ for the education profession as a self-improving system. Its proposal that an expert independent commission review curriculum and its assessment is a key concept we took forward to our inquiry submission. A core curriculum framework would be evidence-informed and serve only as scaffolding upon which school leaders can build. National standards for assessment would be guided by research and evidence.

Accountability needs to be horizontal, not solely vertical. This is where teacher research comes in. And the sharing of practice as teachers work across schools.

4. Engage parents properly

When schools, families and community groups work together to support learning, children ‘do better in school, stay in school longer, and pursue higher education’. Parental engagement in the form of good parenting (providing high aspirations, a stable environment and so forth) has greater impact at primary level than even differences associated with variations in school quality. In fact, parents have five times more influence on achievement at age seven than school.

Certainly, parents want to have a say, and 90% want education to be about more than just exam results. Yet how many find themselves putting these hopes on hold and teaching their children to ‘play the game’ as they tread water to high stakes tests? In a world where schools are compared by exam results, and Ofsted assessments are a key benchmark, how many parents can truly see the justification for focusing on character and capabilities?

At its best, the education system will not just achieve reluctant buy-in from parents who see school as a hoop to be jumped through, but it will share a deeper set of core values about what education is for. Parents and carers are only in a position to reinforce what the school does if they have access to tangible information about learners upon which they can act. Conversations teachers have with parents need to centre on what matters in order to realise the power of the natural ally they have in that 90%.

Shifting the conversation with parents means that parents and teachers can begin to take on the challenge of developing character, cognition and competence in the young people they care for. As Carol Dweck memorably suggests:

‘If parents want to give their children a gift, the best thing they can do is to teach their children to love challenges, be intrigued by mistakes, enjoy effort, and keep on learning. That way, their children don’t have to be slaves of praise. They will have a lifelong way to build and repair their own confidence.’

You may notice a common theme of accountability these four points each share. A re-think of the current centrally driven accountability could see parents, learners, and other stakeholders within the community as contributors and collaborators in the design and governance of education. A flattened structure of accountability; one that ‘distributes power through alliances with a broader set of stakeholders’ could be key to developing a successful, innovative, worthwhile education system. And an independent Commission could be the critical friend the education system needs is if it is to be truly fit for purpose.

Professor Bill Lucas and Dr Ellen Spencer are part of the Centre for Real-World Learning at The University of Winchester. Together with their colleague Professor Guy Claxton, they created the Expansive Education Network.


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  • These are major goals of our education department. This is one of the good post on education. Thanks

  • Hi and thanks for this post. If anyone reading this is interested in learning more about what Bill Lucas said at the recent Politics in Education Summit (the transcripts of which went to the Education Select Committee right before they opened this enquiry) - his presentation is featured alongside Tim Oates' and Laura McInerney's in my free 5 Day eCourse based on the Summit content. Over 50 individuals interested in the future of education have taken part to 'learn how to recast our Government as a lever we can learn to understand and use effectively, rather than the provider of a service we critique' - more info here As part of this I've recently started an ePamphlet series for course participants on events happening now linked to the Summit content, the most recent being the failure of the College of Teaching crowd funding campaign and a comparison with the story of our scientists from the 19th Century scientists determined to forge a place for science on the a national agenda dominated by funding and interest in art - they did so well, in fact, that now the general perception of the value of science vs art has completely revered. What can we learn from them? Is a question I explore. 

    • Leah- I'd love to follow up on this conversation as I'm completing a report on some of these issues.

      • Hi Michael, that's exciting! Happy to talk with you. I'm actually this moment awaiting confirmation of my fellowship so we'll be able to connect more easily soon. In the meanwhile, feel free to check out my full article on the beginnings of science (is this the part you were interested in?) which is on my blog "What 21st Century Teachers Can Learn from 19th Century Scientists" and just pop me a message via the contact page to reach my inbox if you'd still like to follow up.