Oxford Researcher Criticises Government Education Policies

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An Oxford researcher has released a paper arguing that the government is failing to explore the true values of education. The paper criticises the government’s emphasis on economic competitiveness, arguing that it has overshadowed broader educational aims.

Professor Richard Pring is the lead author of a report, published this week by the Nuffield Review of 14-19 Education and Training, and part of a £1 million Nuffield Review project.

Professor Pring explained that the paper asks what counts as an educated person in this day and age and argues that the philosophical and ethical questions surrounding education are no longer being pursued. He believes education is worth more than CV points, he said, “Education is about more than just preparation for the job market. It also promotes values such as social cohesion which are growing in importance in today’s multicultural society”

The paper states that attention to the broader aims of education is necessary. The government speaks of wanting to raise standards but never explains just what these standards are. The paper states, “The pursuit of economic prosperity, for example, could be at the expense of social values, such as greater community cohesion, or of personal values such as those of personal fulfilment and flourishing.” It criticises the government for a lack of deliberation about the values embodied in changes which are taking place in the education world. It cites the declining role of the humanities and the arts and the assessment and grading of citizenship on the basis of written examinations as some examples of changes which do not appear to have any justification. Prof Pring, who received a huge cheer when he spoke at an education conference last week, explained that he was willing to accept changes to the education system but that the government must first explicitly justify their decisions. He said, “They must question what they are trying to achieve with these changes. Changes are currently being decided surreptitiously with no public debate.”

The paper also suggests that the continued selection, and thereby separation, of learners at the age of 11 and at 16 may be a mistake. Professor Pring said, “There is no way one can sort out at age 11 those who are suited to one school and those who are not. There is no supporting evidence.” He condemned the policy, saying that “Many students are excluded from future education which they wish to pursue, simply because they dropped a grade. Schools refuse to accept them because they are more concerned with their position in the league table than in providing an education. There is a lot of unjustified hidden selection in the current education system.”

The paper suggests that one reason for the neglect of public deliberation is the changed language of education – one which recently has come to be dominated by the language of management. The language employed by the government and others to describe the aims of education suggests the management of business rather than the promotion of welfare of young people. The emphasis on the language of management is not unconnected with the fact that businesses are increasingly invited to sponsor, if not to manage, schools and the new academies. The paper argues that the language we use shapes the answers to the question “what is education for?”
“If one speaks the language of management, one is in danger of treating young people and their teachers as objects to be managed”, the paper says. “When education is conceived in terms of inputs leading to measurable outputs, or in terms of targets which constitute the performance indicators against which learning can be audited, or when teachers are seen as curriculum deliverers, or when learners are referred to as consumers, or when cuts in resources are referred to as efficiency gains, then education is being conceived very differently from how it was seen only a few decades ago. It is no longer seen as, and thus evaluated in terms of, an engagement between teacher and learner”.

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