What is education for?

Susan Bassnett
29 October 2007

This autumn I find myself thinking very hard about the fundamentals of education, especially in England where I work. Tony Blair declared on becoming prime minister in 1997 that education was a top priority for his government, but ten years on the problems are manifold: among them failing schools; rising teenage illiteracy levels; and violent, disruptive and obviously bored schoolchildren. In the universities, despite the apparent rise in A-level standards there is increasing need to help students with basic literacy and numeracy.

Susan Bassnett is professor in the Centre for Translation and Comparative Cultural Studies and pro-vice-chancellor of Warwick University

Also by Susan Bassnett in openDemocracy:"The education revolution" (19 February 2007)

It is not, overall, a cheerful picture. Ministers can bluster all they like about improvements in education, but the reality at the chalk-face and computer-screen is very different - and parents, teachers and academics know that only too well.

It is the right time for me to reflect on education for another reason: for the first time in thirty years I no longer have a child in school. My eldest started school in September 1977, my youngest left in July 2007, and over that time I have seen a lot of change. Moreover, I have been a school governor for some years, so have seen at first hand the way in which school budgets operate and have also seen some of the enormous social and educational problems that teachers are having to face. Finally, as an academic involved in senior university management, I also have an overview of what is going on in higher education.

These different experiences and perspectives has been very useful in helping me to gain a picture of the system as a whole, from primary to tertiary levels; without this extensive personal engagement I would have had no way of joining the dots.

Indeed, that very phrase and the integrated approach it implies is a key to the predicament of education in England as a whole - the absence of any joined-up thinking. It's clear to those inside that changes (for example) in the primary curriculum will have a knock-on effect on secondary schools and, ultimately on universities, yet so many decisions show no awareness of such connections or consequences. For example, the silly decision to downgrade the teaching of foreign languages in secondary schools has led to the closure of several university departments of modern languages, which will make it far harder to train the teachers who will implement the introduction of languages into primary schools after 2012.

The league-table illusion

My eldest daughter is looking for a school for her son, who is about to turn 4 and hopes to start in September 2008. The search is complicated. There are all kinds of constraints, most notably the catchment-area. She has been stunned by class sizes of over thirty pupils, depressed by the lack of sport and music on offer, bewildered by the vaunting of interactive whiteboards and computers for tinies.

A generation ago, my daughter started out in a Victorian building with a concrete playground in a poor inner-city area, but was privileged to be taught by gifted, dedicated teachers who excited her imagination. My advice to her today was to focus on the teachers and the head rather than on the infrastructure, the technology and the league tables.

This "league-table culture" is, in my view, very damaging to education. It creates false impressions and leads to schools and universities devising all kinds of strategies to massage their way up the charts. I was lucky enough to be a governor for years in a school with the highest incidence of free school-meals in the area, located in a sink housing estate, yet the quality of education provided for the children by the head and his team was fantastic. Unfortunately, the budget he was allocated every year was not, for many of the children failed to score highly in the standard assessment tests (Sats) and so the school failed to rise in the league tables.

It was useless to complain, as we did every year, that if you have a high number of children coming to school unable to speak, let alone hold a pencil, and often from homes with a high level of violence, usually drug-related, then you are not going to get the same results you will see in a school where the children come from four-bedroomed houses and have enjoyed top-of-the-range educational toys and books from birth. This is not what politicians want to hear. So instead, we get ministers pontificating about the elitism of universities who are failing to take students from poor backgrounds. The link between educational deprivation at primary level and ability to score highly at A-level is blindly ignored.

League-tables at all levels mislead people and create a culture of competition that damages education. They derive from a misconception about what education is for: whereas once education was seen as a process of building-blocks upon which individuals could start to erect their own structures later in life, now it has been commodified - hence the need for endless quantification. League-tables are only part of the problem; the absurd levels of testing to which English children are subjected is another. Thankfully, the Scots and the Welsh have backed away from the English testing frenzy, but our children are still the most over-examined in Europe, and certainly not the best educated as a result.

The mind-drill evasion

As long ago as 1854, Charles Dickensrepresented the horrors of bad education through the character of the unimaginative schoolmaster, Mr Gradgrind, whose name speaks for itself. Gradgrind in Hard Times taught his pupils facts and sought to suffocate their creative imagination. The endless round of examinations that, we are told, provides vital "evidence" of "improving educational standards" is our 21st century version of Gradgrindism.

In such circumstances, it is hardly surprising, that recruiting new teachers is proving increasingly difficult. Why spend three years obtaining a degree in a subject you love, then another year of teacher- training, if what you end up doing is marking tests, filling in forms and providing social care for seriously disadvantaged and damaged children who are not receiving adequate help from their families or from the community? Whatever happened to the idea of teaching as a vocation?

There are already signs of similar difficulties in universities. It is very hard to recruit good people in some subjects (even in the "Russell group" institutions) due to low salaries and poor job-satisfaction. The culture of inspection that has oppressed schoolteachers has been extended into the university world, with no obvious improvement of the quality of education on offer. Some universities are run as corporate businesses, others as degree factories.

Many vice-chancellors and pro-vice-chancellors are drawn from outside the academic world, from business and industry. Management, many academics feel, is seen as more important than the primary task of educating young people.

The thinking solution

Society is made up of individuals, who cohere into different groups at different points in their lives. Every nation needs to educate its citizens and social improvement is obviously bound up with greater knowledge and awareness. But it is important that in formulating educational policy, governments recognise that education means much more than just training a workforce.

Education is about teaching children to grow up into adults who will take some responsibility for the world they inhabit, and who therefore will understand why they cast their votes in elections; why concern about climate change is essential; why preventive healthcare matters; why history remains relevant in modern society; why it is important to learn about how other cultures operate in a globalised, computer-driven, but also divided world.

Perhaps above all, education is about teaching people how to think and how to question what they see and hear. The Burmese monks willing to risk death to challenge a repressive government are educated enough to understand that collective action combined with courage can bring about change. The Taliban hardliners who throw acid on women teachers in Afghanistan because women should not have the right to be educated are the antithesis of those Burmese martyrs.

Children in British schools need to hear about both those worldviews, need to be able to weigh them up, understand how they came to exist, debate the rights and wrongs of each and so discover the value of freedom of speech and the right of human beings of all sexes, races, religions and classes to dignity and to education. In short, they need to be educated to live fully in the world, not merely trained to perform a set of limited and limiting tasks.

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