The Chief Inspector, Sir Michael Wilshaw, recently published his annual report on school inspections.

This 38-page report contains few surprises: tackling underperformance, teaching and learning, academies; it’s what you would expect. But one quotation for me stood out:

“…the basic purpose of schools has not changed. Fundamentally, whatever their size, type or status, schools are places where children are taught knowledge, acquire skills and develop understanding so that they are well prepared for a successful adult life.”

Sir Michael Wilshaw

I think the purpose of schools has changed. I think that teachers know it and I think the kids are latching onto this as well.

As a teacher, I noticed a growing tension between professional and policy values that has steadily worsened over the past decade. Though professional discourse is hard to articulate, there is one response to this topic that teachers convey with some uniformity: when questioned about why they are leaving the profession, the majority state that “government initiatives” underline their discontent. Studies by those like Ross reveal that a staggering 45% of teachers leaving the profession, move to posts which pay less! Teachers were never in it for the money; they’re not moving out of it to find it either. It must be something more fundamental.

The word “vocation” is perhaps overused in discussion of the profession but when trying to articulate professionalism as concept, there is an attempt to conceptualise teaching as more than a prowess gained from delivering the “outstanding” and financial reward for one’s efforts. Instead we need to see it, as Goodson might, as ‘a form of work overlaid with purpose, passion and meaning”. So can it be defined?

Schools have become an extension of capitalism. I know this sounds a bold claim – let me justify it. The purpose of education underpins a nation’s economic performance, their growth. This perspective is largely shared by the consumer of education (the student) who views their education as a means to an end, that of materialistic success and ultimately, therefore, happiness. If education is “fundamentally…where children are taught knowledge, acquire skills and develop understanding” then they are places where knowledge too has become an instrument, an agent, of that system. The corollary is that knowledge becomes two-dimensional: education focuses on either theoretical knowledge (‘knowing that’) or practical skills (‘knowing how’).

Other languages akin to our own even demarcate this distinction; take German for example where “wissen” (know that), “kőnnen” (know how) are quite separate entities of knowing. But linking knowledge to enomic goals prevents a third kind of relational knowing: this knowledge of the ‘personal’ enables individuals to connect far more meaningfully to the world around them and serve it.

One of the unfortunate byproducts of Capitalism is the movement towards individualism and a disconnection of the young from, as Robert Putnam has it, the “the public and collective” and a movement towards the “personal and private” and underpins certain statistics that seem logical in its light:

“[the] middle-aged and older people are more active in organization than younger people…vote more regularly, read and watch the news more frequently, are less misanthropic and more philanthropic, are most interested in politics, work on more community projects and volunteer more”.

The purpose of education, rather than supporting traditional conceptions of knowledge, needs to engage once again with a much bigger debate – that of what it means to be human.

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