What is the Purpose of Education?

24th February 2011

As I follow the #purpos/ed debate I’m reminded of some of my favourite discussions with my Sociology class at St. George’s about this topic. We’d had a messy start in Year 10 but I think these lessons marked a turning point in our relationship. I’ve decided  to draw out some of what we learned together during those discussions in this blog. I’ll even try and get in touch with them and see if they will add their comments.

Pupils often asked me “what jobs do you get with sociology?” It was an example of a pervasive message: that the purpose of education is to get a job. Pupils are told “ You need to revise hard for exams if you want to get a job when you leave school” “Maths is an important subject because you need it for all jobs”. Yet after a couple of lessons discussing this idea, pupils seemed to change their mind. I’d like to argue that the most important functions of education are “meaning” and “freedom.”
I remember painting a picture for the class:
“Imagine this, I said: You wake up in the morning and the sun is rising- you’re not quite sure why. You walk down the street and see signs around you- but can’t read them. You get the bus and the price has gone up – you’re not sure who’s responsible, you go to the doctors and they explain that your stomach hurts because you have a ‘stomach bug’ (you imagine some kind of grasshopper or lady bird?) you get a flu vaccine whilst you’re there but don’t see the point or what questions to ask about how it will work. You head home and cook dinner for friends and watch the liquid white of your egg ‘magically’ turn solid as it is heated. You sit through dinner in silence as you don’t quite understand their discussion of the Egyptian revolution.  The day ends and the sun sets- you have no reason to believe it will rise the next day.”
It’s a picture of meaninglessness and powerlessness (I like to be dramatic in my teaching). It’s not about the specific examples but about imagining what it would be like to live without understanding what is going on around you. Taking this extreme scenario we widened it out and compared their experience of social phenomena in school- how pupils played on the playground, differences in male/female behaviour and perceptions of young people in society. They began to realise that having studied socialisation (for example), they were able to interpret and understand their experience very differently to their friends who weren’t in the class. They began to value this qualitative change in their life experience and interaction with the world and I began to notice them (and their behaviour) change.
On a more practical note, we discussed how education “buys freedom”. Rather than seeing GCSEs as leading directly to a particular job we recognised that education increases the number of life options available to you. If you have 0 A-levels (or equivalent), you have a choice between a few jobs. If you have 2 A levels you have a choice between those jobs AND some universities. If you have 4 As at A level you have a choice of those jobs AND the initial universities AND all the other universities. Education therefore buys you the freedom to make your own choices. Without education your life is a function of the few options available to you. With an education your life is (to a much greater extent) a function of your choices. New problems, demands and challenges inevitably arise but an education that takes into account “learning to learn” etc.  gives you the tools to take these on independently. You are therefore free from dependence on others.
 The 2020 Public Service Trust defines the purpose of education as equipping people with “the skills and confidence to write their own life story” I love this definition because the idea of writing a life story perfectly captures the themes of meaning and freedom . That’s why I use it in my “manifesto”
Purpos/ed are currently gathering 500 word pieces on “What is the purpose of education?” (OK,  I admit it- mine’s 600). You can follow the debate on their website or on Twitter (@purposeducation / #purposed)