What is Education For?


Two articles about education have caught my eye recently both in the Independent.

One, in today’s paper led with a story about OFSTED Inspectors coaching schools so that they could fiddle OFSTED INSPECTIONS! Well to be frank I’ve never been impressed with OFSTED. During the last decade I worked with them on about six projects whilst working as a Peer for the Audit Commission. Frankly it was like trying to work with a bunch of Muppets. To paraphrase a northern saying, “them as can do; them as can’t inspect!” For all the gallery of inspections and regimes there is little evidence that all these inspections have led to improvement. League tables which measure only certain types of actions and certain types of attainment distort much of our education system.

The other eye catcher was the one showing that most of the jobs that graduates were employed for did not need a graduate qualification. The qualification was used, apparently, simply to weed out a number of potential recruits. So you can end up massively in debt for a degree which might get you a rung ahead of others without debt.

If I was 18 now I simply wouldn’t go to University unless I was absolutely certain that I wanted a job where a degree was vital. I rather hope that brain surgeons and bridge engineers are suitably qualified for example! I link that with a discussion that I had in the Lib Dem Federal Policy Committee before the debacle of the student loans of 2010. Why I asked did we accept a target of 50% of our young people getting a degree when there is no way that any economy will ever have 50% of jobs needing graduates.

As with society generally a lot of false assumptions have been made about what education is about. That set of false assumptions have led people to set a series of targets and ambitions for our education factories (which when I was a lad were called schools) which led to good outputs for the schools but not for their scholars.

If I was 18 now I would spend 3 or 4 years doing all sorts of things. Not wandering around the World in faux-charitable projects funded by the bank of mum and dad but real work. Perhaps with a charity for a while; then behind a bar; then learning something different overseas? I would want to try all sorts of things to find out what I was good at and what I wanted to do before settling down to anything that looked like a career. And do you if I was still an employer that is precisely the sort of person I would want to hire people who had learnt from life rather than learning from text books.

I believe that an education system should do 3 things:

  1. It should create in individuals a thirst for learning and knowledge. I am always amazed at the number of houses that I go into where there are no books. This is not because everyone now uses Kindle or other machinery but because so many people stop reading when they don’t have to do it.
  2. It should create a multiplicity of paths whereby people can use their aptitudes and desires to fashion a future for themselves rather than be sent down pre-destined routes.
  3. It should be available to people all the way through their lives and available in a variety of ways to suit part time or full time situations.

In short I believe that examinations and assessments are not the be all and end all for the education system. Now how do I avoid seeming patronising when I talk about all the other types of qualifications which this country needs and which are looked down upon by the educational establishment. We are desperate for young men and women to take up all the physical sciences. We need just about every type of engineer imaginable and particularly for us to end the inhibition amongst young women in particular to take up subjects like engineering.

We need to give far more weight to the concept as well as the practices of apprenticeships. Too many of our modern apprenticeships are rubbish. I don’t mean we should go back to 7 year indentures where you spent the first year making the tea but I do mean a very high quality of apprenticeships where practical skills are linked closely with theory but with the practice leading the theory.

Operating a modern lathe requires old skills of hand and eye and new skills of understating maths and computers. A long-term decently paid apprenticeship is so clearly important not only for the individuals but for the Country. Look at the thousands of top grade engineering apprentices being turned out by the developing work in countries such as China and India.

There are those who will say that these ideas are just pie and the sky and certainly far too expensive. I believe that these ideas will save money. For example look at the burn out in teacher training establishments before graduation never mind the number of people who graduate but don’t start teaching and the number of people who give up teaching after 2 or three years. If those people had had a year or two doing things before going straight on to study we would have people who knew what their vocation as and would stick at it. If we had people who could provide high quality vocational skills more companies would keep or bring their manufacturing here rather than send or keep them in other Countries.

Heaven forfend we might have our own plumbers, brickies and sparks instead of pinching them from Poland. We might have enough nurses and medical technicians instead of stealing them from Africa.

Whenever I have written articles like this before or made speeches on this subject the same tired army of educationalists has criticised me BUT organisations like the CBI and other business groupings agree with the paucity of our provision and the failure to turn people with the confidence and thirst for knowledge and innovation that our industry needs. So let’s have a real debate on this and try and end up with an education system that meets our needs and not those of the educational snobberati!

About richardkemp

Leader of the Liberal Democrats in Liverpool. Deputy Chair and Lib Dem Spokesperson on the LGA Community Wellbeing Board. Married to the lovely Cllr Erica Kemp CBE with three children and four grandchildren.
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1 Response to What is Education For?

  1. Carl Minns says:

    ” 1. It should create in individuals a thirst for learning and knowledge. I am always amazed at the number of houses that I go into where there are no books.”

    What amazes me is the number of graduates I have come into contact with who have not read outside of their undergrad reading lists and thus know very little

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