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What is the purpose of education? Views of a grandmother whose grandson is about to start school

By Cathy Silman

Cathy Silman is a member of Dorset Humanists, until recently serving as their Secretary and Membership Secretary. She is a trained school speaker and retired primary school teacher.

Humanists UK's website summary of their views on education statesf that they believe that all children have a right to receive a broad and balanced education and to access accurate, evidence-based information, free from undue influence. They also say that humans should aim to be happy and care for others and the environment. I so agree.

The state, which in medieval times was often strongly dominated by religion, wishes pupils to be educated so that they will fulfil the employee roles demanded by the current economy. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, literacy was mainly thought of as being necessary for the very few who were to become priests, lawyers and clerks. For a long time, their education could be best provided by the church. Agricultural workers would learn the necessary skills alongside their parents, army recruits would be taught as they marched, and the children of aristocrats could be educated in their ancestral castles. Guilds (associations of artisans, craftsmen or merchants) taught apprentices practical skills as they worked alongside experienced tradesmen. Very few required literacy, and anything more than very basic numeracy, essential in their adult lives. But many scholars found much joy in their study of the world.

After the Industrial Revolution, more and more skilled jobs required some level of literacy and now we have reached the stage when the ability to use IT, read, communicate well and think scientifically are required for nearly all well-paid jobs. The role of the church has declined. I may be cynical, but the introduction in 1870 of compulsory education for all from 5 to 13 (mostly state funded) was to ensure that there were enough skilled workers for the changing world. The push for more and more children to ‘reach the average’ (I may be revealing a lack of mathematical understanding of averages here) is demanding higher and higher levels of education.

Unfortunately, some people do not naturally have the ability to learn these skills. Just as I am almost musically illiterate, though not through lack of trying, some people are being made to feel they are failures if they do not meet the required standard of literacy. They can be marked for failure before they have even begun. I question whether the state places happiness very high on its agenda.

Most schools in the state system do not have the privilege of deciding the purpose of education. The state instructs them, often changing these instructions according to the background or whims of the current Prime Minister or Education Minister. They are rigidly focused on ensuring that as many pupils as possible reach that year’s agreed standard, for example in the Year 1 phonics test. According to my son, father of my 4-year old grandson, the purpose of learning to read is to pass this test.

The government insists that Standard Assessment Tests (SATs) are tools to help teachers understand their pupils' levels of understanding. As a teacher, I assessed this every day as I taught. Schools are judged by the Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted) and SATS results play into their assessments.

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Schools can decide how they teach to these tests, but not the fact they have to do so. A harsh comment maybe, but I taught through different phases of education. When I started teaching in the 1960s, many schools advocated giving the children some degree of choice during the school day. Then the National Curriculum was introduced in 1988, with the aim that all children had to be offered a fairly balanced curriculum with a greater emphasis on literacy and numeracy. Schools could still mostly decide on their style of teaching. Then literacy and numeracy hours were introduced, with fairly specific outlines and guidance but still allowing some wiggle room. Around 2005, there was a move to make teaching more holistic. I felt this was the best time in primary education in recent years, the aim being that children would acquire the literacy and numeracy skills they needed to enable them to easily access a wider education, but alongside this they were encouraged to use their skills to investigate the world. Imagination and enquiry were positively encouraged. Then Michael Gove, as Education Minister, killed off these green shoots. Because he had done so well himself by learning through direct teaching, often by rote, he decided that this was the way for all. I worry for my grandson.

I imagine that most humanist parents would wish their child to attend a school where their individuality and curiosity are allowed to drive the curriculum. They expect that teachers will help them to develop an inquiring mind which, as it matures, will be able to differentiate facts from opinions. They expect teachers to model caring, empathy and respect for others and the world. Parents are also realistic enough to know that, in order for children to survive in our world, they need to learn to read and write and, hopefully, pass some exams. They do not want them to be indoctrinated with any one else’s view of life. Above all, they want them to be happy and to experience learning as an exciting and enjoyable activity.

Most four-year-olds have a zest for life, the ability to concentrate for a long time on something that holds their interest, and a curiosity to understand how the world works. They are social beings who wish to communicate with others and they love being entertained. Their minds don’t all develop at the same rate, nor do their fine motor skills. They want to play with others, they are often egocentric, but despite this they show an innate sense of fairness and empathy. They can be fascinated by numbers, words, music, colours, and creatures. They have not yet realised that delayed satisfaction is a virtue. They are only slightly aware that in order to be able to do things they long to do, such as play the piano, ride a bike, or know how giraffes live, they will have to put in the effort required. In short, they wish to live a happy life, caring for others, satisfying their curiosity by investigation, and understanding evidence.

As a humanist, I believe it is the duty of educators to provide stimulating, caring environments where pupils are enthused to learn. We also have a duty to foster the best in our children and try to negate some of the worst influences that children, some more than others, are surrounded by in their daily lives. How we do this with thirty children and one teacher I am still trying to discover! If the Labour leader Keir Starmer truly wishes to use education to enable us to ‘smash the class ceiling’, we the taxpayers will have to be prepared to help him fund this.

Above all, we want our children to be encouraged to think for themselves, to form their own opinions based on reason and evidence. These opinions, as they grow, may or may not coincide with ours. We should celebrate these differences. Hopefully, in conjunction with the state, we will have taught our children to think for themselves and to enjoy life.

Note on the UK government's view on the purpose of education

In a 2015 speech, schools minister Nick Gibb said "Education is the engine of our economy, it is the foundation of our culture, and it’s an essential preparation for adult life. Delivering on our commitment to social justice requires us to place these 3 objectives at the heart of our education system. We all have a responsibility to educate the next generation of informed citizens, introducing them to the best that has been thought and said, and instilling in them a love of knowledge and culture for their own sake. But education is also about the practical business of ensuring that young people receive the preparation they need to secure a good job and a fulfilling career, and have the resilience and moral character to overcome challenges and succeed."

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