27 May 2015

On Education

Hail readers!

I have a most unusual proposition in store for you today: one not only concerning education (at which, as you are doubt familiar, I am most adroit) but also one of collaboration. That’s right; there’s a guest with us today, and he goes by the name Oli.

In any case, I feel I ought introduce him. His full name is Oliver Woolley, and I guess you could call him a friend, or perhaps ‘unfortunate acquaintance’. Yes; that would be rather more fitting, I believe. But, anyway: we studied at the same inclement school—he in the Sixth Form; I lower down—until he left for university. I do believe he intends to study philosophy. This, as you can guess, is quite unfortunate for him; nevertheless, he considers it more… intellectually stimulating, than literature.

Which brings me onto our pet secret: both of us are writers. You can just see what a troublesome pair we make, can’t you?

I tend to refer to myself as an occasional writer. I prefer reading and talking about a topic to writing about it, and honestly I often struggle to iterate the complexities of an issue within linguistic bounds, let alone write them down. I’m often stuck in a state of what linguists and psychologists refer to as ‘mentalese’—thoughts or ideas that form without words with which one can describe them. This has lead me to write poetry more than articles, and indeed to study philosophy—the love of knowledge. (Shut it, Stargazer!)

Monsieur Stargazer: for the record, Oli is referring to ‘philos’ (friend; from GREEK) and ‘sophia’ (knowledge) in that little etymology lesson.

In a roundabout way, allow me to use this as in introduction to our topic of education: for me, complexity is key to the issue. The world, the universe, existence itself—and everything we may try to learn about it—is incredibly complicated. There’s just so much to it, so much of it. So many relationships to understand, forces to calculate. Horizons to observe and progress towards.

We as a species have developed the ability to express ideas through language; translating mentalese, in this particular case, to English. We can not only define a horizon, but describe it in greens and reds, as rolling hills or cityscape, as an ever-distant hue of beginnings and ends, or the edge of the world. Even more abstractly, as a frontier of knowledge itself. And through words, we can teach and learn about horizons. Because there is much more to a horizon than the word alone.

This is education: teaching, sharing information and, more crucially, sharing an understanding of the world around us. It is a beautiful, wonderful, complicated thing. So why are we getting it so wrong?

The Purpose of Education

To discuss the topic of education in any meaningful manner, one must first understand the very purpose of such an endeavour. And, believe it or not, this is a topic debated. Some propose—as my friend so eloquently does—that education is the act of inculcating knowledge, from wiser folk to younger prodigy. Others yet propose education to be a question of… economics. Specifically: that education is meant to prepare the young for the world of work, and to transfer to them skills imperative in their financial success.

The more sceptical among us may take issue with such an economical approach to education; it degrades knowledge to a matter of mere supply and demand. Teach a man to fish only if we need fishermen, or he won’t make money and we don’t have a use for him. Perhaps more worryingly, we may say in the current climate ‘he won’t make money and therefore we don’t have a use for him.’

I believe it important to possess a fundamental grounding in economics in order to discuss issues that concern it. The question of supply and demand is somewhat more subtle than the simplistic need and money, as Oli makes clear. Supply and demand is more connected to the concept of allocative efficiency. Specifically, the idea is that ‘demand’ is merely consumer desire. Neoclassical economists believe economic agents (that is to say, you and I) act according to their needs and desires in such a manner that they are able to maximise their utility for given resources. Wiser economists are more aware both of the inherent complexity of the current economic system (do you really believe you’ll select the exact combination that grants you the greatest utility from a supermarket offering millions?) and of the fickle nature of consumerism (e.g.: Apple zealots).

Oli’s point on fisherman making money is extremely important: for the fisherman’s labour does indeed produce utility—in the form of fish. However, current economies don’t use labour and utility as tradable quantities; rather, they use a proxy, in the form of money. Fisherman do not earn a great deal of money, not because their efforts are in vain, but because the nature of the market (and the body of consumers that effectively runs it) leads consumers to devalue and disconsider the fisherman’s fruit.

It may be worth mentioning at this stage that the economic argument tends to negate any notion of our fisherman wanting to fish. Or, in a less clearly fruitful pursuit, he may wish to create art. But if his education has focused on financial viability, it seems he’s even less likely to paint than he is to fish. He may end up unhappy in his financially lucrative career, or lack motivation to work at all if he cannot do what loves: fishing or painting.

My point being, however, that the nature of the market is ephemeral; temporary; the antonym of immutability. It is dangerously naive to believe that a skill not in demand now will not be so in the future; or that, even, future economies will demand skills hitherto unknown to the present day. Programming is one such example.

So, if education even in the economic sense must be considered carefully, what do we say of preparing the young for the world of work in general?

It is my belief that education is not a process that ought fundamentally attempt to meet the desires of the market; but nor is this to say that it can be divorced from it. The fundamental skills of any examined life (the only life worth living, to quote that ancient philosopher)—writing, logic, critical thinking and what have you—are the foundations by which any satisfied individual relies on. Such skills as coding, or writing fiction, or engineering cars; these rely on such skills as much as, say, philosophy.

My key point is that these are the virtues that a successful education system needs impel. Specific skills—such as engineering—cannot be ignored however. These particular skills, though, are damned by their virtue: they are specific enough to possess direct application, but also specific enough to be left obsolete, like the Luddites of old.

The question regarding economics, ultimately, is to some degree one of choice. Education must never attempt to machine its charges into productive workers, but nor must it ignore their needs in the field of work.

So, we’ve established that on a pragmatic level education must reflect not only the current job market, but attempt to meet the needs of the future as well. To some extent this can be an organic process of incorporating modern interests and advances which youth are often a part of. But this is limited by the scope of the visionaries who have control of the educational system, who are sadly often neither educators nor economists. On top of all this, there’s the troublesome issue of agency itself; we’ve already acknowledged that agents are unlikely to select greatest utility for even themselves, so asking each youthful agent (read: naive student) who we are trying to educate to consider the needs of society as a whole seems unfair, ludicrous even. But of course, there must be a limit to the removal of agency, and we cannot force STEM subjects upon everyone who does not want them.

All these issues aside, one thing is clear: there are certain virtues—the ability to think clearly; to analyse accurately; to research, and to consider evidence; to be conscientious thinkers—that are the staple of any successful system. And if we cannot do this… all else will, to some degree, be useless.

In essence—if we can give them the very basic tools of learning from the world and making useful sense of it, at the very least, they’ll be good at whatever they may choose to do. Indeed, one could say that a working populace who excel in their chosen fields would be more useful to society than abundant mediocrity in STEM subjects. A good fisherman compared to a bad engineer, if you will. I bet the fisherman is happier, too.

Ultimately, the purpose of education can be interpreted as either to manufacture students and workers as a machine of utility, or to simply educate them in a sense of achieving worldliness, wholeness, akin to the Aristotlean concept of Eudaimonia (literally: ‘flourishing’; to become ‘virtuous’ in the sense of appropriate action). This brings us back to Socrates’ ‘examined life’ and an idea of ‘education qua education’, or rather, learning for the sake of learning. The education system needs to strike a balance between the two interpretations. I think we’re somewhat in favour of the latter.

The Powers that Be

The purpose of education aside (I believe we have reached a reasonable consensus) there are other matters that concern education. Such as: leadership.

The exam boards are a particularly British peculiarity. Whereas most other nations have marking undertaken by the school (though the curricular may be made by an agency) the UK differs in that the entire process of marking is done by a centralised, and—more worryingly—virtually unaccountable exam board.

Let’s take a real-life example. A few years back, (2010 to be precise) the Edexcel board had a conundrum: their science paper and marking system had resulted in vastly lower grades than average. B grade students ended up with Cs—and Ds. A grade students got Bs, A* students got Bs; tears were shed; anger unleashed.

Their solution? Cut down the grade boundaries by an average 20%. This had the wonderful effect of leaving students that got just 60% of the paper right… with an A.

This not only shows the UK system to be dangerously dysfunctional, but also disconcertingly arbitrary. What decides an A or a B? Why do boundaries vary by subject; by paper; by year? Is there some sort of reasonable objective standard by which we are judged… or are we merely separated into strata for the purposes of employment, class, and future?

In fact, one exam board is so dysfunctional that it produces two versions of its own paper and mark scheme every year. I am of course talking about AQA, with their ‘A’ and ‘B’ papers reminiscent of the two earlier exam boards of the north and south who combined for no discernible purpose other than to continue to disagree (but, like the couple from Modern Family, refuse to get a divorce). I believe they’re under strict instructions to get their act together, but the damage has already been done; equivalent qualifications in equivalent subjects from the same exam board have produced differing papers—if that isn’t an arbitrary goal post, I don’t know what is.

What concerns me is not merely the board’s incompetence; rather, the boards seem to operate under a very different axiom to both the majority of the pupils’ and teachers’ expectations. Most of the students, teachers—and the rest of the world—regard ‘doing well’ in education to be a question of… doing well. That is to say: understanding the subject matter; knowing the basics; applying one’s knowledge; and perhaps even bringing something new to the subject.

To the exam boards, ‘doing well’ has no objective meaning. To them, possessing a superficial understanding whilst regurgitating some facts (for example) is ‘doing well’ provided that you manage to superficially understand a tiny bit more than your peers. It is not so much a matter of being capable, as it is being in the top decile. This also conveniently allows them and the government to dictate what grades will be achieved year on year; for they can easily decide that instead of awarding an A, to, say, 20% of candidates—they’ll award it to 10%. If our former education secretary wanted grades to drop—definite proof of ‘toughening up’ the exams, or declining standards in schools (whichever best fits your narrative)—he would merely need to regulate the exam boards.

What the students actually learn is quite irrelevant to this process.

And this is where the teachers and students most disagree with the exam boards and government on education. Because, we say to them, education ought to be about learning. Former education secretary Michael Gove very publicly disagreed with this, instead focusing his policy on ‘toughening up’ of exams, removal of coursework, restructuring of A levels into more focused events of unnecessary stress (by removing January exams). And the story continues as the current government wants to abolish AS exams, talks of introducing SAT style papers as early as six months into the education system, and whittles away at coursework until only exams remain. Throughout all these changes and proposals, teachers and students alike have complained, rallied, reasoned with the powers that be, to let them know that they are missing the point of the system entirely.

But it is to no avail—whilst the narrative of a ‘competitive’ system can be woven from the grades and figures which Alex already proved arbitrary, they’ll listen to neither sense nor sensibility. Never mind that self harm, mental illness and stress-induced anxiety are on the rise in our youth. Never mind that children leave school clueless about how to vote or who to vote for; how to pay taxes or why they pay taxes; how to cook; how to perform basic first aid; how to conduct their own behaviour in public, in interviews, in professional positions; how to apply for a job or write a CV; how to cope with the stress of all of the above, or how to value themselves based on anything other than the grades they were given.

Yes—the system is failing them. But it is a fundamental issue with the structure of the system, not the minutiae of the courses our students are taking. It is the exam boards, the exam environments, the fact that they have to be taught exam technique separately in order to be recognised for their ability in a subject. The fact that their coursework efforts, whilst more stimulating and a more realistic representation of the world of work (as well as their own abilities), are considered less worthwhile than their performance on one particular paper on one particular day.

Britain could learn from countries such as France, where philosophy and politics are taught within the national curriculum. Students are resultantly more aware of their political position, and of how the education system functions as part of society. Perhaps then, when we are told by the education secretary that education is an economic tool to advance our position in the world as a nation, those within education will be heard to say it is a social tool of progressive thinking, and ought not be reduced to a sophists’ auditorium.


Firstly, some numbers. A great many schools in the UK—mine in particular—operate on a budget of around £4000 per student. This allows schools to pay teachers competitive salaries; procure sports and science equipment; and equip their schools with modern tools such as computers and projectors.

What it doesn’t allow? Enough teachers. GCSE classes are understaffed; interested students are not given enough attention to help develop their interests outside the curriculum; and teachers are often subject to long working hours: 50 hours is typical for many, but some work even more than that.

Nor is funding quite adequate for all equipment—as the unfortunate business students discover when they struggle with the sluggish computers in the business department.

In short: yes, the education system needs more money. But this money needs to be spent where it matters. Building shiny new buildings won’t make students learn better; and if renovating and expanding existing buildings is cheaper, well… frivolity at its finest.

An unfortunate truth of the education system in its current state is that shiny new buildings increase both ratings and funding for a school (by increasing student capacity). The idea, of course, is to then be able to use the additional funding to the benefit of students. This is no bad thing in itself—but it perpetuates a system of misplaced funds. Just a microcosm of the larger picture of misplaced goals.

A Few Benevolent Suggestions

I, for one, would recommend the following:

  • That any who are appointed to run an education system know and understand both the crucial tenets of any successful education (the need to inculcate reason, a desire for knowledge, and the skill of the written word) and also the practical requiems, both present and potential;
  • To view the education system not as one designed to attempt to reactively meet the market, but rather, to lead it;
  • To understand that to regard education as some sort of ‘filter’ for candidates is a pernicious idea.
  • And also, to know that a great deal of funding is not necessary; but nor is this to demand unrealistic budgets from schools. Of notable concern also is how one spends the money…
  • Exams can serve a purpose… but coursework, too, can be a realistic and feasible way to assess students.
  • A test must measure a student’s understanding of a subject—not how well they’ve memorised the mark scheme, or their degree of exam technique.
  • If exams are easily passed, assume either that students are good, or that the content itself is too trivial.
  • A note from me: education needs to have the student’s learning as its core interest, not more arbitrary career-oriented targets that treat learning as a means to an end—or serve only to make the education secretary look competent.
  • Note also that the number of ‘C and above’ targets result in teachers teaching to the test in order to scrape out a pass. Learning itself is made even less desirable in the process. The problem of ‘bad schools’ is a deep one, and cannot be fixed by arbitrary target-setting.


We have discussed at length. Perhaps we may have even bored you; apologies if this is the case, dear readers. Though education is not the primary topic of this blog of mine, I believe we have learned some important lessons—for future, for present, and in hindsight.

For all its numerous failures, our education system may at least be commended on what it does right. I do not presume to wonder what would have been had I not been so determinedly taught English, when I was but young; nor whatever would have happened had not generations of good English teachers (and libraries) not brought out this passion in words.

Let us consider that. We may think ourselves independent and impervious, but education is a process that shapes us deep inside; a fundamental feature of our early lives. It would be good if we didn’t screw it up.

Education in Britain has got us this far, and that is no mean feat. But it must continue to move forwards, and be a tool of progress for future generations. We all have something we can thank it for, so give a little back, look to the future, and help to foster a system of support, innovation and enlightenment—not one of solely economic benefit. I therefore fully support Alex’s suggestion of closing sentiment: let’s not screw it up.

If you wish either for me to write more on this topic, or if you have valued my friend’s contributions (and wish for more), contact me; feedback is always welcome. For the record, Oli is on Google+ and has provided an email address: woolleyoli AT gmail DOT com

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