What is education for?

I listened to the crime writer Val McDermid talking on the Jeremy Vine Show yesterday (Friday 20th March) about an educational experiment in the 1960s of which she was a guinea pig. http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b055jv7n

The experiment by Fife Council in Scotland took the brightest and best kids from primary school and put them into secondary school a year early – a class known as 1E.

“Everyone knew that we were the weird kids,” she said. “There was this great burden of expectation. We were supposed to be the brightest and the best. It was a pressure cooker environment. Some people came out very successful and very driven. Other people crashed and burned and never reached their full potential.”

McDermid is a balanced enough person to weigh her anger at the experiment against the formative role it has played in her subsequent life. For example, although from a small Scottish town (Kirkcaldy) and from a working class background, she went to Oxford University. She also said that it took her to age 50 to realise she didn’t have to be first or best at everything.

Then this morning I read (in the Independent newspaper but I couldn’t find the article on its website so reference The Times instead (http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/education/article4001716.ece) that the UK is looking to follow the US (the UK always follows the US for no obvious reason) in promoting the idea of instilling grit, resilience and perseverance in our children via the education system. Presumably, those who crashed and burned in the Fife experiment would have benefited from some additional grit training.

My immediate and cynical thought was: If such a move is necessary then it is probably required to address the unintended consequences of creating an education system which has nothing to do with children and their enthusiasm for learning and everything to do with targets, performance indicators, levels of achievement, dumming down the curriculum – in short, poisoning education’s humanist roots and replacing them with a de-humanised scientific management model instead.

And this is the crux of the education debate, I think. The question is: What is education for? It is a subset of a bigger question: What kind of society do we want to make?

An emphasis on individualism and competition, and a focus on social mobility as a measure of success (based on an assumption that every child coming into the education system has the same potential for improvement as any other) will tend towards seeing education primarily as a preparation for work. We need educated people to stoke the engine of progress and development. The USA might be the model.

An emphasis on the emotional well-being of the child will tend towards an indulgent, comfort-zone, risk-averse society that might stagnate or regress as economic vitality waned and the more dynamic left for more exciting environments. The European Union might be the model – or at least parts of it. If London was in France it would be the fourth largest city in terms of its population of French-speakers. Lithuania’s population has reduced dramatically since membership of the EU gave its citizens the right to move freely inside its boundaries to look for work.

As in all things, the answer is to seek a balance. The Fife experiment on one measure achieved some of its aims but at too high a human cost.

The idea of bringing in ‘grit, resilience and perseverance’ lessons to counter what I suppose (I’m not actually sure what anxiety in the establishment this is meant to address) to be the falling levels of engagement and increasing alienation amongst young people who are killing themselves, self-harming and substance abusing at record levels.

We need to ask ourselves ‘have we got the balance right’. My answer is ‘no’. We are forcing our children to achieve in order to address our adult anxieties around economic competitiveness. A kinder, more humane, compassionate and humanistic education system is needed – one that doesn’t need to bolt on ‘life skills’ subjects to the curriculum.

What do you think, dear reader?