Education in Britain

: 3/12

I. Arguments about the purpose of education.

There is a feeling that the schools are not succeeding - that standards are too low, that schools are not preparing young people with the skills, knowledge and personal qualities which are necessary for the world of work, and that schools have failed to instil the right social values. These are the criticisms and therefore there have been changes to meet these criticisms.

However, the criticisms take different forms. First, there are those who believe that standards have fallen, especially in the areas of literacy and numeracy - and, indeed, unfavourable comparisons are made with the other countries as a result of international surveys. For example, the recent Third International Mathematics and Science Survey (TIMSS) placed in England and Wales very low in mathematical achievement at 13 - although very high in science. Therefore, these critics emphasize back to basis and the need for more traditional teaching methods.

Second, there are those who argue for a rather traditional curriculum which is divided into subjects and which calls upon those cultural standards which previous generations have known - the study of literary classics ( Shakespeare, Keats, Wordsworth) rather than popular multi-cultural history, classical music rather than popular music, and so on. Since there are many children who would not be interested in or capable of learning within these subjects, there is a tendency for such advocates of traditional standards to support an early selection of children into the minority who are capable of being so educated, separated off from the majority who are thought to benefit more from a more technical or practical education.

Third, there are those who question deeply the idea of a curriculum based on these traditional subjects. Many employers, for instance, think that such a curriculum by itself ill - serves the country economically. The curriculum ought to be more relevant to the world of work, providing those skills, such as computer, numeracy and literacy skills, personal qualities (such as cooperation and enterprise) and knowledge (such as economic awareness) which make people more employable.

A very important speech which expressed those concerns and which is seen as a watershed in government policy was that of Prime Minister Callaghan at Ruskin College, Oxford, in 1976.

Preparing future generations for life was the theme and he pointed to the need for greater relevance in education on four fronts:

the acquisition by school leavers of basic skills which they lacked but which industry needed;

the development of more positive attitudes to industry and to the economic needs of society;

greater technological know-how so that they might live effectively in a technological society;

the development of personal qualities for coping with an unpredictable future.

In what follows I give details of the different contexts in which this concern for change was discussed.

Economic Context

It is generally assumed that there is a close connection between economic performance and the quality and context of education and training, and that therefore the countrys poor performance economically since the second world war (compared with some other countries) is due to irrelevant and poor quality education. During the thirty years from the end of the Second World War not enough pupils stayed on beyond the compulsory school leaving age. There were too many unskilled and semi-skilled people for a much more sophisticated economy. Standards of literacy and numeracy were too low for a modern economy. There was not enough practical and technical know-how being taught.

As a result, it was argued that there must be much closer links between school and industry, with pupils spending time in industry, with industrialists participating in the governance of schools, and with subjects and activities on the curriculum which relate much more closely to the world of work.

Furthermore, there should be a different attitudes to learning. So quickly is the economy that people constantly have to update their knowledge and skills. There is a need for a learning society and for the acquisition of generic or transferable skills in communication, numeracy, problem-solving, computer technology, etc.

Social Context

There are anxieties not just about the future economy but also about the future of society. Preparing young people for adult life was what the Ruskin speech was about, and there is much more to adult life than economic success - for example, living the life of a good citizen, of a father or mother, of involvement in social and political activity. Therefore, schools are required to prepare young people for a multicultural society, to encourage tolerance between different ethnic groups, to promote social responsibility, to encourage respect for the law and democratic institutions, to develop sensibilities towards the disadvantaged and to ensure girls enjoy equal opportunities with boys. And schools have. Indeed, responded with programs of social education, citizenship, and parenthood. Moreover, they have often done this in practical ways such as organizing projects.

: 20/09/2009