Education: what’s it all for?

The House of Commons Education Select Committee has launched an inquiry into the purpose of education and is asking the following 3 questions:

  • What is the purpose of education for children of all ages in England?
  • What measures should be used to evaluate the quality of education against this purpose?
  • How well is the current education system performing against these measures?

The committee is asking for written submissions by 25th January. The chair of the committee, Neil Carmichael MP, said: “In this inquiry we want to ask the question what is education for? What is the purpose of our education system? Is it, for example to prepare our young people for the world of work? Is it to ready our children for adulthood and provide them with the skills to lead fulfilling lives? Is it to provide them all with broad academic knowledge based on a shared culture and values?…”

He goes on to say: “It’s important that we get an agreed sense of what education is…Approaching this basic question…will pave the way for the Committee to examine whether our curriculum, qualifications, assessment and accountability systems are really fit for purpose.”

One can only welcome this attempt to go back to basics and ask the most fundamental questions of one of our major publicly funded activities. Some will point out that ‘we’ve done this before’ quoting substantial efforts such as the excellent Nuffield Review of 14-19 Education published in 2009. Cynics will say: ‘what a waste of time, surely by now we know what the purpose of education is’.

It’s certainly true that the question has been asked before, and countless times! It’s a good question and it’s one we should keep asking as long as we care about our future. It’s also right that we should try to reach some degree of consensus about education’s purpose before we decide how to evaluate and improve what we do in its name.

However, this doesn’t mean that we can reach universal agreement on the detail or that the answer is particularly simple. The very fact that the inquiry opens with ‘either/or’ propositions reminds us that education is a place where different visions of society and human development confront each other. It’s highly contested territory, but it’s good to have the discussion and to keep having it.

And so, to the 3 questions:

The purpose of education:

It’s not that easy to sum up in a soundbite. One could suggest ‘making kids cleverer or more skilled’. I would offer ‘human flourishing’ which can cover the development of fulfilled individuals as well as a good society. To be asked to choose between preparation for work, preparation for life, active citizenship or cultural literacy is clearly nonsensical. All are indispensable and interdependent and these are false choices. Any definition of purpose has to do justice to where we are and where we’ve come from, the world as it is and the world as it could be. Education has to help us join the world while also opening up the possibility of challenging and changing it for the better.

One quibble; it’s a pity that the scope has been limited to ‘children’ as this excludes consideration of adult education which has been in crisis for some time in England. This inquiry could nevertheless consider the lifelong benefits of education up to 18 as part of developing a lifelong culture of learning.

Evaluating education:

The key point here is that the committee wants the question of purpose to be prior to that of evaluation. This means that we need to decide what outcomes we value before we decide how to measure them. In other words we cannot simply define purpose post-hoc in terms of success in pre-existing tests or assessments. For England, this is a novel idea – effectively putting the horse before the cart and potentially calling into question every aspect of our current performance and inspection measures and all the qualifications and tests they are based on. It will be interesting to see if the committee follows through on the idea that our performance measures should actually reflect what we want from education for all young people.

How well the system performs against these measures:

Who knew we had a system?

Another radical idea here, but it flows logically from the first two questions. If we want to have national educational aims for all young people then it would be sensible to create the means to ensure they can be achieved. We need to give ourselves some chance of success and this requires national coherence and consistency across the board; in short a system. Our current anti-system of unequal competing providers in a somewhat chaotic market really doesn’t fit the bill.

If the committee can achieve some agreement about purpose and outcomes, will it then be prepared to make recommendations about the need for greater coherence and planning? Can we actually envisage the creation of a universal, inclusive, English education system which aims to meet the needs of all young people? Now that would be something worth debating!


It seems that taking seriously the simple and rather anodyne question ‘what is the purpose of education?’ could lead us into a major rethink of many of our current assumptions. The answer could call into question the binary thinking about young people’s capacity to learn which has young people being either ‘good with their brains’ or ‘good with their hands’. It could challenge the received wisdom that education is essentially a private commodity to be rationed and fought for and not a social good based on co-operation. It could also blow the case for selection and segregation out of the water.

The more widely and deeply these questions are debated, the more powerful the answers will be. This needs to go well beyond the Westminster bubble of policy makers, think-tanks and experts and involve as many people as possible in a Great Debate about what we want from education. Such a discussion goes to the heart of our view of ourselves and the kind of society we want. What emerges might be more subversive and creative than we expect.

See also:

Is collaboration the solution or the problem? (Dec 2015)

Starting to think about a National Education Service (Sep 2015)

Market madness: condition critical (June 2015)


About Eddie Playfair

I am a Senior Policy Manager at the Association of Colleges (AoC) having previously been a college principal for 16 years and a teacher before that. I live in East London and I blog in a personal capacity about education and culture. I also tweet at @eddieplayfair
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