Votewise in focus: education

Nick Spencer, March 2005
Do good exam results constitute effective education? (Photo Credit: Ian Hodgson/REUTERS)

As pre-election speculation reaches fever pitch, every major news story takes on potentially epic proportions. The Archbishop of Westminster’s comments on abortion provided a welcome reminder of its social and political importance and provoked many to ask whether it might become an election issue. A few days later Gordon Brown’s budget suggested that pensions and the ‘grey vote’ might be the key battleground.

Important as these issues are, it is likely that the ‘old favourites’, those issues that have concerned the public most over the last five years, will carry greatest weight. As discussed in the opening chapters of Votewise, the top two issues during Labour’s second term have been the NHS and education.

Education, like all major political issues, encompasses many different debates: examination standards, school discipline, pupil exclusions, paperwork, and targets, to name just a few. However, beneath these seemingly disparate issues, lies one key question that is, regrettably, only rarely asked.

What is education for?

Labour’s 2001 election manifesto pledged to increase the proportion of young adults entering higher education to 50 per cent by 2010. Its brief explanation for this objective, that ‘higher education brings on average 20 per cent higher earnings and a 50 per cent lower chance of unemployment,’ implicitly addressed that question: what is education for?

The manifesto’s answer – that it increases income and reduces unemployment – is correct and reasonable, but insufficient, overlooking, for example, education’s role in contributing to the common good or in enabling people to appreciate life more profoundly. Whilst it could be fairly argued that such explanations have no place in a political manifesto, the narrowness of vision that they reveal goes wider than the recent debate about higher education and underpins many of the contentious educational issues today.

Education has, in the opinion of many, been reduced to an employability conveyer belt, whose progress is marked by a near-continuous round of tests and examinations. The need to demonstrate continuous improvement has led to the perceived reduction in public examination standards and the accusation of artificial fixing of pass rates over recent years. The government’s objective of establishing a performance culture across the public services in order to achieve its goals has, in its turn, bred a culture of targets and paperwork in the education profession.

At the same time, ‘teachers have become social workers as a result of the breakdown of the nuclear family, which has left many parents unwilling or unable to support or help their children,’ [1] and whilst a school’s discipline problems are not simply the fault of an economically utilitarian approach to education, they too point to the need for a rounded, socially-embedded approach to education rather than one that simply fosters employability.

Ultimately, our vision of society will shape our vision of education, and it is in recognising this that the biblical vision of education and of human flourishing becomes so relevant.

The biblical vision

The idea of education is central to the biblical view of the world. Torah literally means ‘instruction’ or ‘teaching’. Its commands were to be engraved ‘upon your hearts [… and] impress[ed…] on your children.’ [2] Christ’s followers were called to be disciples, or learners. The epistles were educational documents. Education for Israel was to be a ‘360 degree’ experience, conducted ‘when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.’ [3]

The idea behind this approach was encapsulated in the figure of wisdom. Variously personified as a woman, prophet, sister, teacher and counsellor, [4] wisdom offered ‘long life …riches and honour’. [5] She was not simply a means to wealth, however, as she herself ‘is more profitable than silver and yields better returns than gold.’ [6]

It was by embracing wisdom that the people would come to know the mind of God. Proverbs declared that it was ‘By wisdom the Lord laid the earth’s foundations, [and] by understanding he set the heavens in place,’ [7] a doctrine that incidentally was central to the birth of modern science centuries later. Wisdom would ‘guide …protect …exalt […and] honour you,’ [8] helping people to live Godly lives and ‘bear …fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God.’ [9] Learning was a relational business, intended to develop and improve the whole person. As Paul wrote to Timothy:

Continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it… All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. [10]

From schooling to education

This vision for education – a universal, relational, community-rooted process for the acquisition of wisdom, by means of which all may know God, live long and well, and celebrate life to the full – may seem distant from the minutiae of debates about A-level pass rates or pupil exclusion, but it can be used to shape our thinking as we engage with such detailed, contemporary issues.

Firstly, it stresses that learning is not confined to schools. Being formally taught may be an integral part of, but is not the same thing as, being educated. Teachers cannot be expected to be official agents of social welfare or surrogate parents as well as formal educators. Families and communities need to take responsibility for schools and engage in the educational process, and schools need to be integrated into their appropriate local contexts.

Second, it advises against a narrowly utilitarian vision for schools. Education is not simply the preparation for employment. Wisdom, rather than grades, is its objective. Examinations play a vital role in education but their present ubiquity and supreme importance is unhelpful. Similarly, there is much to recommend lower levels of bureaucracy, fewer centrally-set compliance requirements, and a willingness to devolve responsibility to local levels, as well as reason to question the determination that a certain percentage of young people should enter university-type higher education, and a need to emphasise the importance of the humanities as against more obviously employable subjects.

Third, it promotes a 360-degree education, both in time, via lifelong learning, and space, via non-school environments that encourage active development. The role of parents in pre-school learning is vital, as are, at later stages, the uniformed organisations, sports, music and book clubs, public meetings, discussion groups, and adult education courses. Government support of these is to be welcomed.

Finally, it encourages the need for moral and relational education, both inside and beyond the classroom. This could foster a sense of national identity, a meaningful concept of citizenship, democratic participation, public health, a respect for cultural diversity, and the value of cultural cohesion, as well as develop relationship skills, and qualities of sacrifice, forgiveness, respect, and discipline.

Vision and values

This is not to suggest, of course, that such objectives are ignored today. The preamble to 1988 Education Reform Act states that schools must ‘promote the spiritual, moral [and] cultural …development of pupils,’ and surveys record how pupils trust teachers highly and often rate them among their best moral educators. The real need is to foster and maintain this function in the face of pressure for more obviously measurable results.

Ultimately, the vision and values of a society will shape its education system. A libertarian, materialist and relativist society will breed libertarian, materialist and relativist schools and students. A society that is rounded, relational and guided by the principle of wisdom will shape like-minded schools and students, and although achieving such a goal will be beyond any one government’s ability, education policy can, at least, help create an infrastructure that promotes such goals.

[1] Rebecca Smithers, ‘Disruptive pupils leave teachers battling to find a way to teach’, The Guardian, 27 May 2004.

[2] Deut. 6:1–7

[3] Deut. 11:18–21

[4] Prov. 1:20–21; 3:15; 7:4; 8:6–14

[5] Prov 3:16

[6] Prov. 3:14

[7] Prov. 3:19–20

[8] Prov. 4:6–11

[9] Col. 1:10

[10] 2 Tim. 3:14–17


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Category: News and Reviews

March, 2005

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