In case you missed it…
The House of Commons Education Committee has launched an inquiry into the purpose and quality of education in England. The deadline for receipt of evidence is 25 January 2016 and submissions may be made via the Committee’s website or its online forum. We hope that readers of this blog will respond.
Or do we? When the mother of parliaments asks ‘What’s the point of education?’ we might retort, descending to even greater depths of cynicism than usual, ‘What’s the point of telling you? What’s the point of contributing to yet another consultation when on past form nobody takes any notice?’ and indeed, ‘You ask about educational purposes now? After hundreds of so-called reforms? Are you telling us that these reforms have all been, in the strict sense of the word, pointless?’
But then the voice of moderation gently interposes: ‘It’s true that governments have a lamentable tendency to invite consultations and then ignore the results, for good measure lambasting less than obsequious respondents as “enemies of promise”, “the blob”, “Marxists hell-bent on destroying our schools” and worse. But the House of Commons Education Committee is not the government. Its cross-party gathering of backbenchers tries to hold government to account. It launches enquiries in good faith, inviting evidence, listening to witnesses, and by and large represents fairly their views in reports to which the government is obliged to respond. So while government may continue on its reckless rollercoaster of ill-conceived initiatives that capture headlines, massage ministerial vanity and create scholastic mayhem while never asking the really fundamental questions about educational purpose, our backbenchers deserve credit for attempting to redress the balance.’
So I’ve talked myself, and CPRT, into adding this inquiry to the countless others to which we’ve contributed in the hope of making a difference, and we’ll make our submission in the new year. Please add your voices to ours, for the Committee’s three questions are no less important for being at least a century overdue. They are:
- What should be the purpose of education in England?
- What measures should be used to evaluate the quality of education against this purpose?
- How well does the current education system perform against these measures?
There is no better source for tackling the first question – ‘What should be the purpose of education?’ – than chapter 12 in the Cambridge Primary Review final report. Entitled ‘What is primary education for?’ it traces and compares the rhetorical and actual purposes of public primary education from the nineteenth century to the present day so as to warn us, before we get carried away, that the old utilitarian habits, mindsets and policy vocabularies die hard and in England efforts to promote a more generous vision of education make headway with difficulty if at all. It’s not so long ago that a minister announced, crushing any optimism generated by the national curriculum review, that the purpose of primary education is to make children ‘secondary-ready’, no less and, especially, no more.
Undaunted, chapter 12 then synthesises answers to its question about educational purposes from the thousands of witnesses who gave written or oral evidence to the review before coming up with the now well-known statement of 12 aims that informs the work of CPRT and an increasing number of Britain’s schools. These aims balance individual development and fulfilment (well-being, engagement, empowerment, autonomy) with responsiveness to social, societal and global need (encouraging respect and reciprocity, promoting interdependence and sustainability, empowering local, national and global citizenship, celebrating culture and community). The first eight aims are manifested and nurtured through four pedagogical or process aims (exploring, knowing, understanding and making sense; fostering skill; exciting the imagination; enacting dialogue). Each aim is carefully defined and discussed, and the full set adds up to a vision that celebrates the power, vitality and infinite possibility of young children’s development and education: a long way indeed from that tired ministerial mantra, regularly trotted out in BBC interviews, about ‘learning to read, write and do their times tables’. Yes, that, but so much more as well, and how about practising what the national curriculum preaches and using the not overly technical term ‘multiplication’?
So CPR’s exhaustive consultation on the purposes of education does much of the Select Committee’s work, and we may well send them copies of the CPR final report to remind them.
When we consider the Select Committee’s second question – ‘What measures should be used to evaluate the quality of education against this purpose?’ – we collide once again with political habits, mindsets and vocabularies. For the evaluation procedures preferred by governments entertain only what is measurable (the Committee itself has unwittingly perpetuated that one) and in any event attend only to the narrowest segment of educational purposes and outcomes, deeming the rest not so much unmeasurable as not worth the effort.
Since even in relation to literacy the current assessment procedures are said by many to be barely fit for purpose, prospects for a pattern of assessment that does full justice to the larger educational purposes proposed by CPR’s witnesses, and to the rich curriculum that these purposes require, look pretty bleak. So if questions about educational purposes are to have any point at all, they must go hand in hand with reforms of curriculum and assessment considerably more radical than any recent government has either permitted or had the imagination to envisage.
The Select Committee’s third question – ‘How well does the current education system perform against these measures?’ – plunges us deeper into the quagmire, for it muddles ‘ought’ and ‘is’. That is to say, it appears to ask us to adjudicate on the achievement of current educational practice by reference to evaluation procedures which either exist but are unfit for purpose, or which have yet to be devised.
That’s as maybe. But will teachers contribute to the Select Committee’s inquiry or will it be left to others? I ask because during the past few weeks I’ve been visiting schools in connection with CPRT’s project on classroom talk and social disadvantage and for every teacher who is excited by the power of talk in learning and teaching and is eagerly striving to improve it, there is another who is so overwhelmed by government requirements and directives – the new national curriculum, new assessment arrangements, safeguarding, the spectre of Ofsted, endless form-filling and box-ticking – that they can barely entertain anything else.
Too poleaxed by policy to think about pedagogy? Too addled by assessment to think about aims? Has teaching come to this?
All in all, this well-intentioned Select Committee inquiry is a bit of a minefield. But let that not deter it or us. There may be a point. Happy New Year.
- Download the Cambridge Primary Review Trust statement of educational aims here .
- Submit evidence to the House of Commons Education Committee inquiry here .
- Join the inquiry’s online forum here .
- One of CPRT’s eight priorities is ‘Develop and apply a coherent vision for 21st century primary education; enact CPR’s aims in curriculum, pedagogy and the wider life of the school.’ Read about CPRT’s work in pursuit of this priority here.
This blog was originally published by CPRT on December 18, 2015.