Commentators have been having fun with the announcement that the next Education Select Committee’s inquiry will be into ‘the purpose of education’. Members of the Committee have clearly spotted that we don’t all agree on what education is for, or at least that part of it undertaken in schools run by the state (which is the actual remit of the Committee). I find it strange, this kind of high-level angst. You don’t get the Transport Committee querying the purpose of transport, or the Environment Committee pondering the reasons for having an environment.
The education committee will no doubt be calling the Secretary of State for Education to give evidence. She must know the purpose of education. After all, without some clear idea of the point of education, we couldn’t have so many education policies and initiatives, could we? Policy makers must have had some sense of purpose in mind when they came up with academies, free schools, UTCs, area reviews of FE, a new national curriculum, ‘level free’ tests, ‘more rigorous’ GCSEs, decoupled A Levels, the 'compulsory' Ebacc, Progress 8, floor standards, compulsory resits in maths and English, British Values, Prevent, National Reference Tests, value added measures, apprenticeship levies, student loans, ‘character and resilience’, financial education, legislation against coasting schools… I'd better stop there.
Nobody would set all that in train without having a clear vision of the purpose of education. Anyway, it’s a bit late in the day to be going back to first principles. What if the committee came up with an answer that didn’t quite fit with all these policies? It’s difficult to imagine Nicky Morgan and Nick Gibb declaring, ‘My word you’re right! We need to fundamentally rethink all our policies’. Or does the fact that they spend some £80 billion on it mean that their ideas trump all others?
I was always taught you must first define your terms when answering a tricky exam question, so I looked up ‘education’ on the Cambridge online dictionary and it provides the following definition: ‘The process of teaching or learning, especially in a school or college, or the knowledge that you get from this’. Is that it? I thought. Surely there’s more to it than that? Other definitions were available on the internet, including: ‘A process for making other people more like us’.
But knowing what education is can’t be the same thing as knowing what it’s for. The truth is education has many different purposes and it will be a struggle to get agreement beyond a Mark Zuckerberg-style advancing-human-potential-and-promoting-equality catch-all. Ofsted, the DfE, HMC, the CBI, ASCL, Higher Education, Cambridge Assessment, not to mention individual teachers, parents and the students themselves are each likely to come up with a different emphasis.
So I was left wondering what the Select Committee hopes to gain by investigating the purpose of education. The answer lies in the second and third areas of the same inquiry:
What measures should be used to evaluate the quality of education against this purpose
How well the current education system performs against these measures.
It seems clear that the Committee is looking for a set of metrics that can be used to measure the quality of education provided. A better opening question might have been: What are the things we most value in education and how can we measure them?
If this is really what’s behind this inquiry, then there is a glimmer of hope it will deliver something worthwhile. It has picked up on a general unease that is heard throughout the education system – that school accountability has become a bean-counting process fed solely by data from tests and exam results. That isn’t to say that exam results aren’t important (I do work for an exam board after all) but they aren’t the only thing that matters and they can’t be a proxy for everything valuable that goes on in a good education system.
There is more to education than exams, and despite the risks of perverse incentives and bureaucracy, it makes perfect sense that we should strive to measure those things we most value, not just those things that are easy to measure.
Chief Development Officer, OCR