Education: skills for work?

It is confirmed from the mouth of the Education secretary in his latest speech:

“We must never forget that the purpose of education is to give people the skills that will lead to a fulfilling working life.”

Although this speech was made in the context of a speech about the government’s response to the Augar review of post-18 education and therefore, presumably, had the specific post-18 educational arena in mind, I still found myself doing a double-take. Is that really all we are doing as academics: upskilling the future workforce? In fact, is that what the whole education system is about from the earliest years, to produce fodder – albeit happy and contented fodder – for the labour market?

Following on from a team discussion this week about why our students often seem unwilling to engage in collegiate discussion and sharing of work or ideas with fellow students or even with staff, this explains a good deal. Seeing the academic journey as about the development of a portfolio of personal skills for employability can narrow the student perspective on how and why they would share their emerging thoughts, insights and ideas in this competitive and individualistic context.

Going further back into the educational journey, this explains the emphasis on performative approaches to learning and development in the Early Years and Primary schools; of course, we are preparing our children from their earliest learning experiences for an appraisal-based system.

It is concerning that we limit the scope of a person’s attainment and value to the purely economic and distort what it is to be a constantly learning and developing person in relationship with others. Is there no longer any consideration of the cultural, the spiritual, the societal and the intellectual aspects of life which are supported by a strong education system, and what does Gavin Williamson’s view suggest about those who are not working, take a break from working or may never work for many different reasons?

I go back to the Early Years characteristics of effective learning which help me to consider what supports children to learn, and how that learning develops their uniqueness, their creativity and their relationships. Being a learner throughout our lives happens both within and outside the education system and is about so much more than building a career portfolio. Here’s to those of us who envisage the enrichment, power and fulfilment in education beyond the limits of workforce development.

Julie Kent

I can’t help but agree with Julie’s sentiments. I’d remind the secretary of State of something that his Chief Inspector of Schools said in 2017:

“Education does have to prepare young people to succeed in life and make their contribution in the labour market. But to reduce education down to this kind of functionalist level is rather wretched.”

She went on to say that education is ultimately “about leaving the world a better place than we found it.”

For me this is a far more optimistic and meaningful view than that of Gavin Williamson. I wonder how many children and young people in our schools would recognize that philosophy in the curriculum that they study?

Nick Gibb, Minister for School Standards, said that

“the purpose of education is to open up a pupil’s mind to the finest examples of human endeavour.”

In doing so he paraphrases the introduction to the National Curriculum for England which states that it

“introduces pupils to the best that has been thought and said.”

Leaving aside the thorny questions around who decides what is “best”, and who the thinkers and speakers are, this selection of quotes demonstrates some inconsistency in governmental thinking, and perhaps the systemic tensions between neoliberal and neoconservative policies.

The neoliberal viewpoint seems to be the utilitarian one, in that education must prepare children to play a part in the economic activity of society. The neocons are more concerned with the traditional content of the curriculum and the way it is taught. In my view neither has it right, but the dilemma for schools, colleges and early years providers is how to plan a curriculum that sits comfortably with their values and aims, but also meets the needs of a punitive accountability framework.

Education is much wider than either the National Curriculum or that planned and taught by providers, and surely about more than achieving a fulfilled working life. Richard Schaull, in his foreword to Freire’s classic, believes the purpose of education is to enable people to “deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.” All of us involved in education owe it to young and creative minds to help them to become active and critical agents of change, rather than passive cogs in the machine.

Chris Rolph

You might also be interested in this post: Education: what is it for?

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