“What is education FOR? Is it to teach us the nature of reality, or to give us the tools to deal with it?”
So said Melvyn Bragg in the introduction to his “In Our Time” programme which focused on education, that was broadcast back in November 1999 – a programme whose expert panel included Ted Wragg and Mary Warnock.
Like all the programmes in the In Our Time archive, this one can still be listened to online.
November 1999 was just over two years into the first Labour government to be in power for nearly two decades. By then the teaching profession had realised that Blair, Blunkett and New Labour had nothing radical or interesting to say about education, in spite of making “Education, Education, Education” their 1997 election slogan.
Of course nobody voted for them on the basis of that meaningless slogan, any more than they voted for them on the basis of trusting Blair to be a good prime minister, since he was such an unknown quantity. He’d never even been in government or held a ministerial post before he became the leader of the Labour party. No – the landslide election victory was handed to Blair and New Labour on the basis of most people wanting to get rid of a much-hated Tory administration that had clung to power for far too long.
By November 1999 it was clear that New Labour was Continuation Thatcherism as far as education, as well as a lot of other things, was concerned – apart from a willingness to spend a lot more money on mainstream education than the Tories had allowed since 1979. To that end they had even extended the contract of the much-hated head of Ofsted, Chris Woodhead, and went all the way with publishing league tables of exam results and making test and exam success the be-all and end-all of their education policies.
So, as the summer of 2012 comes to a close and we approach the start of the new school year, we ask the question – has anything changed, and is it likely to?
This evening BBC Radio 4 begins broadcasting a series called The Education Debates. The first programme last for 45 minutes, beginning at 8.00pm.
In the first of three debates to mark the most dramatic reforms in education in decades, John Humphrys asks leading education thinkers WHAT we should teach.
Whether it’s to get to university, to launch a fulfilling career, or to be a useful member of society, what our children learn at school today will profoundly shape their lives, the society we live in and the health of our economy in the 21st Century.
The web gives today’s schoolchildren access to previously unimaginable amounts of knowledge – and yet across Europe there has been social unrest among young people who are angry and terrified that what they know will be meaningless in a future with no jobs.
At home, Government reforms have led to big changes in the national curriculum, increased university fees and parents running their own schools.
Has there ever been a more important time to come back to the fundamental questions of education? In this first programme, leading educationalists including Anthony Seldon, Estelle Morris and Rachel Wolf debate WHAT we should teach.
In programme two, John Humphrys asks a panel including union leader Mary Bousted, cognitive scientist Prof Guy Claxton and inspections expert Roy Blatchford HOW we should teach.
And in the final debate, Shadow Education Secretary Stephen Twigg, Neil O’Brien of Policy Exchange and Prof James Tooley, an expert on private schools for poor children, discuss WHO should teach.
3Di has written about many things, including what we should teach (curriculum content), how we should teach it (pedagogy), and who should teach it (the characteristics, qualities and qualifications of good teachers). None of this, however, really addresses the issue of what education is FOR.
Anthony Seldon will no doubt talk about the current over-emphasis on academic tests and exams, and the importance of lessons in happiness. Estelle Morris will no doubt emphasise exam success as the key to bringing about ‘social mobility’ – a well-worn Blairite theme.
Let’s see whether any of these contributors has anything to say about the factors that have made education in countries like Finland outstandingly successful, or, for that matter, whether they say anything about the need to develop all six of our intelligences so that every individual can achieve his or her full potential and become a creative and fully evolved human being.
3Di is very much in favour of an education system that sets out to teach the nature of reality – except that none of us can really agree on the nature of even quite small things, let alone the nature of ‘reality’ in any broader sense. Therefore, enabling young people to develop the tools for ‘dealing with’ reality (i.e. all of our six intelligences) is a much more practical proposition.