What is the purpose of education?


Confused by the conflicting messages we receive about both the state and the purpose of our education system? Perhaps it is time to go back to first principles to find some clarity, argues Dr Newman Burdett.

The English education system is really rather good overall, that is the suggestion from the recently published Pearson report, The Learning Curve.

But this is in contrast to the 2012 PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) results which, some claimed, showed it was rather poor, and again in contrast, I have a cutting above my desk from the 2009 PISA results that proclaims (from almost identical results) that England “is among the elite”.

So which view of the evidence is correct? More importantly, does our international ranking really matter? Do Finnish teachers feel dismayed that their results in the PISA tests mean they are slipping down the rankings? Or, like Ireland losing the Eurovision, are they secretly thinking “thank God for that – now we might just be left alone to get on with it”?

International surveys such as PISA, TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study) and PIRLS (Progress in International Reading Literacy Study) are important and, as I and some of my colleagues have asserted several times, provide a huge amount of useful information about our education system beyond some ill-defined “rank”.

And I believe there is some justification in the claims that in terms of performance we are “stagnating”. It is a stagnation that has been going on for decades and under many watches. But it is a stagnation of standards as measured by tests such as this, not a stagnation of education practice – a quick hit of Educating Essex, or wandering into any good classroom, contrasts strikingly with education from 20 or 50 years ago.

This may sound like a contradiction – our practice is improving but our standards are not – so is this possible? The answer probably lies in the measures that we are using to judge the system.

To find better measures, we have to understand what it is we are trying to achieve with our education system – and herein I find England’s education system stands out (except maybe from the US) in that we do not seem to have an agreed idea of what education is for, other than it is a “good thing” and “important for the economy”. 

Other education systems often seem to have a more clearly articulated sense of the purpose of their schooling – often with national and cross-party support.

This then makes it straightforward to align new interventions or developments to the agreed purpose. In England, the education system is something that has evolved and accumulated purposes, and the only political consensus is that it makes a great football.

So what is the purpose of our education system? This is a very complex question – and one that has diverse answers because the needs of different groups within the system are, well, very different. High-fliers with university in their sights have very different needs, for example, from the White working-class boys at risk of dropping out.

We need to get much better at agreeing what is important, then asking the right questions and using the right measures to evaluate whether we are achieving this. Then we might go some way to answering the real question – “are we happy with our education system and what do we need to do to keep improving it?” – and getting an answer that is better than “we’re not the same as Korea”.

The foundations of success

The first and primary purpose of education must be to ensure that all children gain early on basic numeracy and literacy skills, because without these skills then nothing further can be achieved.

This is the core of the new accountability system in our primary schools – progress measures from a baseline in early literacy and numeracy to an end point of the key stage 2 tests in reading and mathematics.

One of the “lessons learned” from The Learning Curve is that: “Developing countries must teach basic skills more effectively before they start to consider the wider skills agenda. There is little point in investing in pedagogies and technologies to foster 21st century skills, when the basics of numeracy and literacy aren’t in place.”

This is not only true for developing countries, this applies equally to England, where we know from the international survey data (the International Survey of Adult Skills – PIACC) that a worrying number of people lack these basic skills.

The first purpose of education (both in importance and chronologically) must be to ensure that every child is given the basic foundations on which they can build the rest of their learning. All learners need a solid grounding in literacy and numeracy, as well as the ability to apply their understanding in new contexts, and an interest and engagement that mean they want to go on and learn more.

Beyond the 3Rs

“Libraries gave us power, then work came and made us free” (A Design for Life, Manic Street Preachers 1996).

Any school knows that what they do is about much more than simply imparting knowledge on a core set of subjects; it is also about creating future citizens with a broad and life-ready toolkit of skills and attitudes. “Twenty first century skills” is a much abused phrase, and most of the skills lumped into this catch-all are things that schools have been developing in their students for many decades. 

If the Rugby school of Tom Brown’s School Days had had a mission statement back in the 1850s, I am sure it would have listed at least half of these so-called 21st century skills, skills such as problem-solving, communication, creativity – these things have long been woven into the very fabric of learning (with the possible new-fangled exceptions of digital literacy and global citizenship).

So one of the central purposes of education must be about making sure that students have the emotional intelligence, the team-working and communication skills, the problem-solving, creativity and innovation to make their own success in the world. You can argue this from any political or theoretical viewpoint, but the answer will always be that learners need these skills to succeed, to contribute to the economy and to make the world a better place.

Beyond skills – the right knowledge 

Putting aside the political tones of the arguments for and against powerful knowledge, there is a fundamental truth that some kinds of knowledge are necessary and that we all need to have certain facts at our fingertips – at the most basic level, number facts, so we can check our change at the supermarket.

But I believe that this “powerful knowledge” will diverge for different people; we cannot all be polymaths – we need to make sure the students learn the knowledge that will be useful for them and have it made relevant to them.

There is no point trying to teach a student abstract redox reactions if they are struggling with chemistry, but it is useful to teach a student who is studying to be a mechanic why you should not use brass bolts on steel.

What is important is that we make sure knowledge is accompanied by understanding – learning is about making a working, conceptual framework so that we can use that powerful knowledge in different contexts. Otherwise it is just a collection of disjointed facts that will quickly be forgotten once the pressure of an exam is over.

So what is the purpose of education?

If England sets out to agree a “purpose” for our education system, at a national level, it may be a tortuous path towards achieving agreement. However, I feel the following basic aims would be at its core: 

  • To give all learners the basic skills to access and drive their own education.

  • To develop the softer, non-subject life skills needed to succeed.

  • To impart powerful subject knowledge (and by this we mean the facts, concepts and procedural knowledge needed to continue to take that subject further and progress in it).

By agreeing a shared purpose, we would know what it is we would want to be measured against, and what success would look like. We would know whether to place greater weight on the results of surveys such as PISA focusing on core skills, or The Learning Curve focusing on a much broader set of measures.

It would give us a shared understanding of what is valued, where our efforts should be focused, and whether we are making progress or not.

  • Dr Newman Burdett is head of the Centre for International Comparison at NFER. Part of this article was first published on the NFER Blog at www.thenferblog.org

International surveys – further reading


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