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Head’s blog – re-evaluating the purpose of education

Head’s blog – re-evaluating the purpose of education

As with many aspects of life, recent events have sharpened  questions about the nature and purpose of education  At face value, teaching is a seemingly straight-forward affair; ours is the business of helping students better perceive and understand the world around them, through the lens of a range of specific yet interconnected subject areas.

Yet this view hides a more complex picture and a myriad of issues. Which subjects are worthy of teaching, and how should they best be taught? What emphasis should we place on being part  of society, or how one forms relationships and deals with the ebb and flow of human emotion? Is it truly possible to teach resilience or how to handle failure? What is it that we are preparing students for, and where does our responsibility end?

Exploring the university admissions process

The final of these questions has been thrown into greater relief by a recently announced consultation on the nature of university applications. The government wishes to explore a system that sees students receive university offers only once they know their grades. The question about  whether applications should be made before or after exams are sat remains open, but the hope is that such a move will do away with vagaries around predicted grades and some of the perceived imbalances of the current system.

In principle I am in favour of such a system, although there will undoubtedly be logistical issues to resolve and various caveats to be considered. Presently, too much emphasis is placed on a short window of time in the Sixth Form life of students when applications must be made, personal statements drawn up and the delicate dance around predicted grades undertaken. This all happens at a point where students should be hitting their stride in their studies and exploring possibilities beyond the curriculum. The danger is that the focus on the process in the Autumn Term of Year 13 creates a distraction that might paradoxically hinder a student from ultimately realising their potential.

Time to reflect

However, there is a bigger, more fundamental, question about the purpose of education. Given the disruption we have all faced this year, should we look more carefully at the goals we are helping students to reach?

Having two years without public examinations has promoted a degree of deeper deliberation around the purpose of our exam systems, and this is perhaps a thread that should be pulled at more firmly as a crucial part of this conversation. We have already seen that teacher assessments can form a meaningful part of the picture and more could be done to incorporate this into our approach permanently.

There is a danger that the nation’s current educational approach can create the feeling among students of being on a conveyor belt, where they must maximise their outcomes at various stages only in order to reach the next predetermined goal. This situation has been exacerbated by the seemingly higher stakes that students are contending with. Expectation to achieve the best possible grades has grown steadily over the past decade. Subjects of passion are cast aside, lest it not offer the best possible path onto specific courses. University selections are made via league tables and perceived reputations, rather than whether the course offered is a positive fit. If such pressures continue, there is a risk of leaving students burned out by the time they enter the workplace, rather than inspired to step out into the world.

Finding one’s own path

It is not my contention  that there is no worth in examinations and that the whole system is in need of redress, nor that we should simply lower our expectations for what students can achieve. It is instead to acknowledge that currently, we are in danger of placing the emphasis too much on the end product, instead of the feelings that are evoked when a subject really does spark our passion and take root in our soul. And when students are only thinking about the next step, they risk missing out on enjoying the present and finding the realisation that pathways are not always linear. We need to be bold when considering the future, and how to best help our students step into it, embrace it, and shape it for the better.

More could be done to raise the aspirations of students about what their future can hold, whether through universities, apprenticeships or clearer directions about entering the world of work.

Theoretical physicist, Carlo Rovelli encapsulated most eloquently what I feel is possible in an education setting, be that a school, a college, a university or any other teaching and learning environment:

“…it can offer the same riches that Copernicus found: the accumulated knowledge of the past, together with the liberating idea that knowledge can be transformed and become transformative. This, I believe, is the true significance . . . It is the treasure-house in which human knowledge is devotedly protected, it provides the lifeblood on which everything that we know in the world depends, and everything that we want to do. But it is also the place where dreams are nurtured: where we have the youthful courage to question that very knowledge, in order to go forward, in order to change the world.”

Date Posted: 12 February 2021
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