The Purpose of Schools

It seems it is time for my annual rage. Every year, sometimes bi-annually just for fun, newspapers run stories from often high-profile businesspeople bemoaning the fact that young people are not being taught the right things in schools. People don’t understand how to write letters in the style the company requires, aren’t sure how the specific spreadsheet works, having developed good team working skills and now most recently, they don’t get taught about timekeeping, resilience and presumably whether their potential boss wants two sugars in his coffee or where the photocopier toner is stored.

Every year I rage as they absolve themselves of responsibility to provide even the most basic training for their employees, with a simple induction booklet, complete with style guide and template for letters, plus actual time for people to explain or get to know a new system, be an easy solution to most of what they need. However, what makes this difficult is that they don’t always quite know what they need, haven’t got time to think about those things and get frustrated when people don’t get it right the first time. Can you just imagine what it would be like if we went to the press every time pupils showed they needed a little more explanation or teaching of something as opposed to just getting on with it. It would be carnage.

 Underpinning all this is of course the ongoing discussion about the purpose of education. There seems still to be three broad camps; those of us who want to provide the knowledge pupils need to be literate, numerate individuals with a wide range of information available to them in their developing schemas which means they can head off into a world ready to learn more (and preferably at some point smash the system), those who want a range of transferable skills for jobs they can’t imagine exist yet and those who want to churn out nice little workers to head into careers, well actually more likely jobs, determined by things such as postcode-everything needs to be focused on the world of work and the role of education is to ensure this runs as smoothly as possible to keep the machine running. Somewhere amongst all of that are those who just want children to be free and happy and learn about themselves, which while laudable does leave us open to question where any knowledge needs to reside in the system.

I may be swinging between the hyperbolic and reductive there, but I did warn people this was my annual rage at the start. I’ve listened to so many others bemoan all the things schools don’t do, I think it is about time I had my say.

Mortgages and taxes are something else which often get mentioned as necessary for schools to teach, not least by pupils. I spent much time debating this with my old tutor group who thought that there was a system of paying tax and buying a house that was static and complex and we were deliberately withholding. My dad spent a period of his life working for himself and at one point even employing others. He was mainly illiterate, and my slightly more literate and numerate mum did the paperwork for him. I’m not saying there may not have been ways when doing this he could have been financially more secure and the loopholes that people seem to get rich from what have alluded them. But they are often the ones who employ others to do that anyway so to get to that stage it must be more complex than we really know. My parents also managed to get a mortgage, so it seems that it wasn’t something that needed teaching at all.

At the other end of the scale, I, with my degrees and career, have only recently had to fill in a tax return, after working full time for over twenty years. It was annoying and there is that underlying worry that if you do something wrong the inland revenue are going to come and cart you away, but being able to read and do some very, very basic addition seemed to get me through ok (although at one point I did panic that I would have to replay £15,000 where I had put the wrong figure in, luckily I didn’t press submit). Actually, showing pupils the website would take approximately 5 minutes, all of which would be forgotten as, when, and if, they needed to visit it themselves with real numbers. The same with mortgages. We are better off investing time and energy into giving them lots of knowledge about interesting things which builds to learning even more interesting things so they can get decent jobs with decent pay in the system we are within. That is what will get them a mortgage, not sitting on the Go-Compare website.

 Some of the things we are also encouraged to teach pupils by those outside of education also feel a bit pernicious to me too. We need to teach pupils to have grit and resilience, assuming they don’t or that when faced with some of the awful situations they are dealing with in life, such as foodbanks and rising heating bills, what they need is a determined attitude to just get through it. It’s all a bit Dickensian to me, with Tiny Tim grinning through his pain and offering his thanks to those who don’t deserve it and have made his situation worse. I’m with Mrs Cratchit questioning Bob on drinking the health of ‘such an odious, stingy, hard, unfeeling man as Mr. Scrooge.’ Bah! Humbug to those who say the meek shall inherit the earth and find their place in heaven whilst the less meek drink their port and smoke their cigars.

Of course, there is real value to teaching pupils how to struggle through a difficult problem in maths or English, and that finding yourself stuck at the first hurdle means giving up. We need to demonstrate they have the self-efficacy to get through that, usually by indicating where they may have encountered it before and scaffolding the process, they need to go through so they can see what to do. That is why we need to spend time doing this, not quick fix assemblies or checklists on how to be more resilient when life gives you lemons.

Mostly what gets to me is the line of people who are waiting to tell schools what they should and should not be teaching though. These are often from those who are outside of education and, as in the latest example from Richard Branson, from those who celebrate their own success without the need for a formal education. Everyone it seems have an interest in what is happening in schools without any real desire to actually find out what they are doing or think for a moment as to what might be needed on a wider scale.

Schools serve a purpose in society, but most importantly that purpose should be to ensure that all are able to reach a certain level of education to be able to shape the next steps of what our society does. Education is about empowering not limiting. Let pupils learn about all the wonderful things in literature, history, science, music, drama, art, maths, geography, languages and the many other things which will allow them to live in a world which is tough, challenging and ever changing. Provide them with the good foundations to take us where they want to go.

With reference to The Times Education Commission column 26.1.2022

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