We, the education professionals, need to escape the closed circle

There are an awful lot of books about education and a great many more pamphlets and articles in learned journals. They cover every possible subject from every possible angle. If truth be told there’s an awful lot of repetition as every reflection on what constitutes good education and how the developing human brain works to absorb knowledge appears to be revisited for every generation and re-presented with only minor variation. Authors from both academic and practitioner sectors write prolifically lengthily citing and crediting each other but so often appear to be travelling in a circular rather than linear direction. An observer from outside the academic circles within which the numerous theories are minutely examined might well be forgiven for wondering why it is that in the twenty-first century, we appear still not to have achieved an accepted view on what actually works so that we might move forward with genuinely new ideas.

Perhaps the problem is ‘politics’.

At the centre of it all, there are essentially two different views of what education is for. Those who identify themselves as education professionals generally hold to the view that education benefits the individual, that it satisfies the human ambition to know and equips each individual to live in complex society and enjoy the benefits of human endeavour. Education matures the individual. It opens opportunities and provides the means for self confidence and personal satisfaction. Knowledge derived from education liberates the individual to be a thoughtful, sensitive rounded human being.

But politicians generally have other priorities. For them education serves a purpose of the state, and often, dare it be suggested, a rather more cynical purpose of “the party”. National economies need educational “success”. The outcomes of education must be to make intellectual and technical skills available to secure wealth. For political leaders, the identification and wise exploitation of educational achievement is crucial to the purpose of good government.

It is not then that the academics and practitioners ignore the collective interest. Far from it. But their belief is that the health of society is proportional to the educational well-being of every individual, that societies and their economies are better when the maximum number of individual participants can realise their personal potential.

Likewise political leaders, particularly those who support the idea of wealth through profit in the societies we think of as ‘free’, do not scorn individual liberty, but their natural inclination is to prioritise the ranking of what is perceived as success, to separate the so-called high fliers, categorise them as leaders and reward them accordingly.

It’s a conventional approach and it serves politicians well. Defining success goals and laying claim to the policies for achieving them is an obvious vote winning message delivered to parents with aspirations for their children, and it is a far more straightforward message to deliver than the far more complex essays of education experts.

Nonetheless in the end the two camps want the same thing, a healthy prosperous society of rounded individuals. The real difference between the two approaches is in the definition of success. It is there that some radical thinking is needed.

The political definition of success, if it can be called that, is traditionally English and heavily influenced by English class based assumptions of the inevitable superiority of academic ability. It is no accident that when a new category of publicly funded schools was created in 2000, the word chosen to describe them was “academy”. Academies are presented as the centres of excellence in a fundamentally reformed education service for the 21st century. The word was no doubt intended to bestow on these publicly funded independently managed schools a quality to which parents might aspire and employers admire.

In fact of course this nomenclature was not a forward looking step at all, but a thoroughly backward vision, an echo of past elitism that once again excludes from high status technological and manual skills. Accompanied as this development has been by an obsession with scores derived from spot testing, league tabling and OFSTED style inspection, the definition of success in the education system elevates ‘clever’ far above skilled or for that matter ‘intelligent’. Only in this environment can it still be thought rational to be debating the restoration of selective secondary education based on arbitrary spot testing of academic competence.

The challenge is now clear for those of us who call ourselves education professionals. We need to acknowledge that not only have we not been winning the debate on the purpose of education but we have scarcely been keeping the debate alive. We have to recognise that despite the great volume of worthy and valuable study which is undertaken and committed to papers, decision makers are simply not listening, or if they are listening they are uninfluenced. We need to escape the closed circle in which opinion about how to educate is shared, expressed and recycled. This body of work may not be complete for every generation but it is thorough and its objectives are clear. We now need to find a way of articulating what we believe in a way which excites attention and offer genuine realisable goals for popular aspiration. We need show how opportunity for educational success can be offered to every talent.

Graham Clayton
November 2017