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The Purpose of Education

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    The announcement this month by Theresa May, the British Prime Minister, of her commitment to creating new grammar schools and expanding existing selective schools, has released a burst of emotional, as well as rational, responses in the media and from parliamentary colleagues across all parties. She has clearly touched a nerve in the British psyche and reopened old sores that had begun to heal following decisions by successive governments not to expand selective education.
    She has not, to my mind, clearly articulated the reasons for her commitment. Somewhat paradoxically she said that the grammar schools would be inclusive and not exclusive and would increase social mobility. Those on the other side argue that they lead to social segregation in that they favour wealthy families who can pay for coaching for their children to pass the selection tests.
    Supporters argue that bright children are more successful in grammar schools than in non-selective schools. On the other hand, a study recently published by the Education Policy Institute provides evidence that grammar schools do not improve the exam results of bright students beyond what they would have achieved at a good comprehensive, while more grammars would widen the attainment gap between rich and poor.
    Those in favour argue that we need to ensure we give the brightest and best the opportunity to excel, whereas critics say that grammars are elitist, socially divisive and that they harm the prospects of those who don’t make the grade in the selection tests.

    And so the arguments continue.

    It seems to me that this is a classic case of arguing about the answers before we have agreed what the question is.
    What is the purpose of education? How can we equip all our children to be able, to the best of their ability, to contribute to society regardless of social background, financial means or intellectual differences?
    How do we engage the debate with our politicians, our educationalists, our children?
    Is it possible to reach agreement on this emotive topic in our socially and financially divided society?



    My own take on this is, sadly no, it will not be possible to reach agreement whilst education is treated as a political football with little apparent regard for those who need and want it.. One recalls the mantra of ex-Prime Minister Blair that “education, education, education” would be his priority, forgetting to add that this priority was to help destroy it over the 10 years or so of his supremacy. Coming from a socialist/collectivist perspective one can understand why he might want to do that: reducing the people to a low common denominator of knowledge and wit enables political leaders to achieve their personal ambitions without threat. The alternative viewpoint in the UK has come from Mrs May and those following her political philosophy. In this she seeks, I think, to provide choice which can respond to the varying wishes of the populace. Clearly, this poses the problem that Jim sets out of division due to social background, financial means and intellectual differences. Mrs May appears to recognise that which is why she is placing emphasis on access. But it is not obvious how this will work and the risks of it not working are clear to see.

    What is plain is that the current system in the UK, despite the self-praise of those who created it, is not working. Educational attainment in the UK whilst at one time leading the world has now fallen sharply behind. The answer seems to me to be either to adopt the hugely successful model of China which relies on hard work and few external distractions for young people, or the model which offers choice. One thing is certain: whilst UK politicians, many of meagre education, keep arguing about it our young people will suffer from their promotion of their political mantras.

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