More about those Bad Ideas

January 31, 2011

In my last few posts I discussed the idea that education should be for the following purposes:

All are desirable outcomes of the process of being educated, but as I explained, if any of them is made into an explicit aim for education then it can distract from, replace, or distort the actual purpose of education, which is to make children smarter. For this reason I have been describing the problems with each of these aims individually, and looking at some recent instances of each aim in contemporary discussion of education. However, I do not wish to suggest that any of them are new ideas rather than features of educational debates going back many decades, perhaps even centuries. Nor do I wish to suggest that each aim appears only individually as a distinct call on the education system.

In practice, the above three ideas often appear together, wherever there is an intention to move education away from the academic. Often little distinction is made between them, so, for instance, attempts to improve children’s self-esteem or teach them social skills, are simultaneously about making children virtuous, happy and suited to their future place in society. A porridge of non-academic aims for education are often a feature of education debate, and contemporary initiatives in education.

Such a morass of aims was the basis of the Every Child Matters (ECM) framework that was forced on schools from 2003 onwards. This listed five vague aims for schools, demanding students:

Stay Safe
Be Healthy
Enjoy & Achieve
Make a Positive Contribution
Achieve Economic Well-Being

The details indicated just how absurdly non-academic these aims were. Under ECM schools were told that their responsibilities included outcomes such as ensuring children were “enjoying good physical and mental health”, “getting the most out of life” and “being involved with the community and society and not engaging in anti-social or offending behaviour”. Now, none of these are bad. None of these are things that schools should be indifferent to in their culture and ethos. However, none of these are what schools are there for and so any attempt to build these into the curriculum or inspect these as if they were the aim of schooling can only distract from the actual purpose of schools: educating children. The net result of such initiatives was not that these aims were better met, but that schools had to produce paperwork showing how they were deliberately trying to meet aims which cannot be seen simply by looking at the curriculum and academic performance.

This multiplication of aims then fed into the various new national curriculums that followed. The new secondary school curriculum declared:

“The National Curriculum has three statutory aims. It should enable all young people to become:

  • successful learners who enjoy learning, make progress and achieve
  • confident individuals who are able to live safe, healthy and fulfilling lives
  • responsible citizens who make a positive contribution to society.

These statutory aims should inform all aspects of teaching and learning and be the starting point for curriculum design.”

Further guidance can be found here.  We see that the second aim means that it is intended that students:

have a sense of self-worth and personal identity

relate well to others and form good relationships

are self-aware and deal well with their emotions

have secure values and beliefs and have principles to distinguish right from wrong

become increasingly independent, are able to take the initiative and organise themselves

make healthy lifestyle choices

are physically competent and confident

take managed risks and stay safe

recognise their talents and have ambitions

are willing to try new things and make the most of opportunities

are open to the excitement and inspiration offered by the natural world and human achievements.

Which could not be more clear about the extent to which moral and emotional matters have become part of the curriculum.

The third aim is quite explicitly about fitting students for their role in society, and the guidance indicates the intention that students:

are well prepared for life and work are enterprising

are able to work cooperatively with others

respect others and act with integrity

understand their own and others’ cultures and traditions, within the context of British heritage, and have a strong sense of their own place in the world

appreciate the benefits of diversity

challenge injustice, are committed to human rights and strive to live peaceably with others

sustain and improve the environment, locally and globally

take account of the needs of present and future generations in

the choices they make

can change things for the better

With aims such as these in the curriculum, almost any classroom activity beyond the explicitly harmful could be justified by claiming that it has an effect on the emotions and upon attitudes. Within the last few years the purpose of the education system has been obscured to the point where schools, particularly schools facing inspection, simply didn’t know what they were meant to be doing.

Fortunately, this has now been recognised and the education secretary recent white paper aimed to prune the miscellaneous aims of ECM. He told the Education Select Committee the following about ECM and its five aims:

…As a statement of five things that we’d like for children [t]hey are unimpeachable-gospel, even. But the point I would make is that in a way, they are what every teacher will want to do. I haven’t met many teachers who say, “I want my children to be unhealthy,” “I’m going to put my children at risk,” “I’d like them to have a horrendous time and fail at school,” or “I’d like them to be negative and unemployed.” Teachers naturally reflect those priorities. As a list, as Ian says, amen to that, but I don’t think you need a massive bureaucratic superstructure to police it. What I do think you need to do is give teachers a bit more freedom to make it live in their own environment.

Now having discussed at length what the aim of education shouldn’t be, and shown how badly lost we have got, we still need to discuss what the aim should be, and what kind of teaching would best achieve it. I will return to this in a few weeks time.




  1. Michael Gove talks sense shocker.

    • Gary, a stopped clock is right twice a day!

  2. so, in essence…”only kinda educationally-oriented…’facilitatory’…gurning-Butlin’s-redcoat…pop-psychologist…role-modelish…Miss Jean Brody…teepee-dwelling, new-age uber-entrepreneurish Polly Toynbee/ Alan Sugar hybrids” need apply?

  3. In my experience teaching children academic skills serves to raise their self esteem. The children become more confident and so can engage with the process of learning and teaching even better. However, there are some children for whom their confidence is so low that I’ve needed to start with their self esteem, so moving them to a place where teaching academic skills is relevant.

    I agree with the ‘morass of guidance’ about ECM and other stuff – just because it comes into school doesn’t mean you have to get lost in all the detail – just getting a feel for the broad aims and applying them to raising standards should be enough.

    When I started teaching between 30-50% of children were achieving level 4 in English and maths on my estate. Now between 60-80% are. Is this not evidence that children are getting smarter? And if so, we’re not lost, we’re on the right track.

    • Whether or not children ‘are getting smarter’ in general (smarter than what? Or when? All over the world?) would be a matter for huge, controlled research that is verging on the impossible. So that is a completely unsubstantiated rhetorical question.
      It just means they’re getting a better education (as measured by National Curriculum standards)at your particular school than they were before. That is probably because you are a good teacher who recognises the importance of academic work, as well as being naturally able to encourage certain children when they lack confidence; something which does not need to be prescribed to any teacher worth their salt.

  4. The objectives are really quite awful gobbledygook, and it’s amazing that anyone can be found to teach with these ridiculous verbosities as their job description. I wouldn’t touch it with a bargepole. I do like ‘make children smarter’ though – it’s what I try to do with my own.

  5. All of those “objectives” fall under “parenting.”
    Get back to teaching, please.

  6. Hello, I feel slightly embarrassed to keep commenting on your blog, as i do have other things to do -its just very engaging reading!

    I’m looking forward to your upcoming post about the aims of teaching, and i was wondering if you had heard of the people at purpos/ed and what you thought of what they’re doing? Of course they have a website. It is http://purposed.org.uk/


    • I’ve been following them on Twitter but not really had time to read much of the actual debate. I’ll probably do some reading and commenting on it soon before I start my own, much delayed, post on the purpose of education.

  7. […] have commented on the English version before (here and here) but I will summarise the problems […]

  8. […] within the remit of a school. This point has been made before, particularly by Andrew Old (here, here and here), who has argued that various international curricula are so broad in their aims that […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: