Bad Ideas About the Aim of Education #3: Fitting Children to their Future Role in Society

January 24, 2011

In this post I identified a number of aims of education which can distract from the academic aim. Here I discuss one of them.

The philosopher Michael Oakeshott identified the following as the main assault on education:

…the belief that “relevance” demands that every learner should be recognised as nothing but a rote-performer in a so called social system and the consequent surrender of learning (which is the concern of individual persons) to “socialisation”; the doctrine that because the current here and now is very much more uniform that it used to be, education should recognise and promote this uniformity. …And although this may seem to be very much a matter of doctrine, of merely how education is thought about and spoken of, and to have very little to do with what may actually go on in a place of learning, it is the most insidious of all corruptions. It not only strikes at the heart of liberal learning, it portends the abolition of man.

Oakeshott (1975)

He distinguished this (in Oakeshott 1972) from the idea that society depends on its members being, in some way, educated or the idea that the qualities of educated people may be useful in achieving social purposes.

The view that schools are there to enable students to fulfil their allotted function in later life has led to a number of unfortunate trends. Firstly, it has led to schemes to mould students to fit a particular model of civic engagement. I described here how teachers who know nothing about politics, elections or democracy were left to teach about politics, to run (and usually fix) elections and administer ridiculous parodies of democratic institutions such as student councils. It doesn’t create civic engagement, it may even deter it, but worst of all it takes academic time out of the curriculum, and students out of classes, in order for the worthless experience to take place. I am not denying that there is a place for students to learn about democracy, but why not teach them the history of their own political system in history lessons as opposed to teaching them about Nazi Germany six or seven times in their school career?

The second trend, and this one has a long history behind it, is vocational education. On the face of it, it doesn’t immediately seem an inappropriate aim of education. It is perfectly sensible for people to train for careers. Nobody can really doubt that careers require some training. Some careers, such as medicine or law, are so demanding that it is only reasonable that people who intend to go into them begin studies directly relevant for this career while they are at university, even if this may pollute the academic purity of a university education. Equally hard to doubt, is that some of the skills which quite legitimately form part of one’s education, like literacy, numeracy and the use of ICT, are as useful in the workplace as in the place of learning and failures to educate students in these respects can legitimately be seen as economic issues as well as educational ones.

The problem, as ever, is in the extent where the vocational aim intrudes upon the academic one. The best place for most vocational learning is the workplace. Where training is likely to involve a certain amount of theory, or where training is practical but there is insufficient capacity in the workplace for it, then highly specialised institutions of higher and further education are also appropriate. It is not clear, and it has never been clear, what role if any schools need to play in the endeavour. Wolf (2002) describes a succession of policy disasters in vocational education. Huge bureaucratic attempts to regulate what cannot be regulated, to formalise the most informal types of training, and to create qualifications that nobody actually wants. Doubt is thrown on the ability of the government to create desirable vocational qualifications and an argument against vocational education in schools can be made on those grounds alone: that no vocational qualification put into schools is likely to be worth doing. Since this analysis was written, the general trend has continued, vocational qualifications have remained undemanding, undesirable, second class qualifications. The only change has been that more and more students are being forced to do them as a result of them being given an overinflated value in school league tables.

Even if there wasn’t a demonstrable record of failures in vocational education policy, there are grounds for wondering if our current school system could ever hope to provide decent vocational education.

“For many jobs (and most office ones) the best vocational education is an academic one; but this is not universally true. The old crafts in particular have not vanished from the occupational scene. Plumbers, hairdressers, electricians, thatchers, upholsterers and bricklayers remain as important as ever. Moreover while openings for skilled manual workers in industry have fallen dramatically, this is not the same as vanishing.”

Wolf (2002)

This describes a situation where most vocational education that a school could provide is inferior (even for gaining work) to an academic education, and the types of vocational education that are most desirable are those practical skills which are least convenient to teach in schools.

The final problem with socialisation as an aim of education is the effect that it has on existing academic subjects. Academic subjects lose some of their ability to expand the mind if they are not allowed to transcend the concerns of life as students either currently live it, or are expected to live it when they leave school. Language teaching ceases to be about understanding the structure of grammar, experiencing a whole new literature or culture and becomes about practical examples of verbal communication like booking a hotel room. Maths ceases to be an exercise in applied reasoning or mental discipline and becomes a series of algorithms carried out on a calculator. History ceases to be a way to transcend the world as you know it by entering the past and becomes just a litany of illustrations of contemporary issues. The aim of making a subject more suited to socialising students into society or the workplace is often the easiest excuse for dumbing-down the curriculum so as to consist only of the mundane, the accessible and the familiar, instead of actually broadening horizons. Worse still, appeals to the unpredictability of what skills will be needed in the workplace of the future can be used as an excuse for ignoring any substantive content at all and downgrading the very concept of knowledge. This is excuse for dumbing down is the basis of the popular Shift Happens video and the (less popular) film “We are the People We’ve been Waiting For“.

The final problem is that attempts to adjust children to fit a particular social role are likely to encourage politically motivated projects. It is an excuse for children to be taught particular political views, or (and this can be even worse) an excuse for scrutinising teachers to prevent them teaching their political views. In current debate the former seems to be the vice of the political left and the latter the vice of the political right (although I accept that this is less clear if you see racism as “a political view” like any other and an objection to openly racist teachers to be a political, rather than a moral, stance). Worse, education as socialisation also encourages policy makers to try and reshape society directly though education, not simply by making society more educated, but by educating people according to views about what role people of their class, race, ethnicity or background should play in society. Whether it is an attempt to limit the aspirations of the better off for reasons of equality, or to limit the opportunities of the worst off for reasons of prejudice, it is harmful to education. Nobody should be told that a good education is unsuitable for people with their particular background. Education should not be destroyed from the left for being an unfair privilege for the advantaged, or from the right as a way of keeping the disadvantaged in their place. Education should be seen as a public good not a means to a political end.


Oakeshott, Michael, Education: The Engagement and its Frustration, 1972

Oakeshott, Michael, A Place of Learning, 1975

Wolf,  Alison, Does Education Matter?, 2002



  1. Can’t take issue with any of this, although I do wonder when you write…

    “The final problem with socialisation as an aim of education is the effect that it has on existing academic subjects.”

    …just where you’ve taught, since where I am a hefty chunk of ‘socialisation’ is a sine qua non…as a prerequisite of education.

  2. Just seen this blog for the first time.

    I’d agree with the paragraph concerning vocational education. It has a value, but its intrinsic value for schools is often getting equivalent C grades out of borderline and D grade pupils.

    Prior to leaving teaching (after 14 yrs) I had a few conversations with pupils on my BTEC leisure and tourism course, where it turned out they wanted to do a humanity GCSE, but had been “guided” on a different path. In some cases a warranted decision in all probability, but too many were reasonably capable pupils with “issues”. I note the introduction of the English Bac appears to have kicked up a storm in the school I left.

    Too many education mandarins are making big, occasionally national, decisions on pretty flimsy research. Not mention their general confusion between education and training.

  3. Not really about the above post but…I don’t really get your objection to the Telegraph’s headlines. They’re pejorative, but accurate. If my school is anything like typical then vast majority of teachers are loyal labour voters, oppose Gove’s reforms and fit the Telegraph’s concept of “lefties”.

    • Your school is not typical. Polls of teachers rarely show an outright majority for Labour (there might have been some that did around 1997).

      The problem with the Telegraph’s headlines is that they pretend that everyone’s views on education fit easily on a one dimensional spectrum (where “progressive”, “left”, “liberal”, “Labour” and “socialist” are synonomous) and correspond with voting habits. Labelling everyone at the start of a discussion does not help and the McCarthyite flavour of the comments on the Telegraph website show this.

      • I accept what you say, as I have only worked in one school (I was a soldier before becoming a teacher 10 years ago). However, I will offer one observation I am firmly convinced of. Many teachers, even if they disagree with the detail of Labour education policy, regard Labour and the left in general as being morally on the side of the Angels. Consequently I think many teachers define themselves as being [centre] left/ Labour supports even if they actually express what ‘right wingers’ would consider to be conservative views on most specific educational issues. My maternal grandmother, a teacher in Liverpool during the 50s and 60s said she was Labour in her heart, but a Tory with her head. That’s pretty much how I feel.

        • I don’t want to claim there is no left-wing bias in teaching; it is a) a public service and b) a profession that the Tories massively alienated from the mid-eighties to the mid nineties.

          What I object to is the idea that all issues are left/right ones, that most teachers are political, vote and vote Labour and that political views and educational views fit together clearly.

          On that last point it is probably also worth noting that the recent YouGov poll on education found that 70% of Labour voters supported traditional teaching methods and 63% supported a focus on core academic subjects in the league tables (i.e. the principle of the EBacc). On the issues of powers to search teachers and set detentions without 24 hours notice there was no significant difference between Tory and Labour voters.

          Progressive education is a form of middle class radicalism, and radicals tend to be of the left rather than the right. But we can find examples on the political right:




          Supporters of a more traditional approach to education who are, nevertheless, supporters of Labour or the left are too commonplace to bother giving examples and people forget that the last Labour government started off with a very traditional approach before losing direction and eventually going in the wrong direction.

  4. I love the penultimate paragraph – it seems to encapsulate everything that has been wrong with real trends in education and educational thought in the way it has been applied in schools – especially over the past decade.
    Primary education has been corrupted by managers too eager to adopt ideas which have not been researched and have allowed the curriculum to become so crowded that reading particularly is neglected. If this is holding children back when they get to secondary school it is a danger that they will be misguidedly ‘funnelled’ into a vocational cul-de-sac before they are ready, and their chances of achieving their full potential – something all schools say is a driving force for them – are gradually eroded.

  5. […] Bad Ideas About the Aim of Education #3: Fitting Children to their Future Role in Society […]

  6. ‘Academic subjects lose some of their ability to expand the mind if they are not allowed to transcend the concerns of life as students either currently live it, or are expected to live it when they leave school.’

    Aye, there’s the nub. Progressive education has always been about keeping the working classes firmly in their place; ‘relevance’ is the weasel word that is always employed to achieve this.

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