What is the Point of Education?

Last Updated Mar 25, 2010 7:52 AM EDT

The simplest questions are often the hardest to answer: they are the questions smart managers always ask.

If you ask ten educationalists what is the point of education (do not write your answer on both sides of the paper at the same time), you will get at least twelve different answers. So it is a question well worth asking.

In days long gone, education was there to prepare the elite to rule. So the Greeks taught philosophy and rhetoric. In the medieval era young aristocrats were taught martial arts, religion, French, Latin and some philosophy: these were the skills expected of the rulers.

In the nineteenth century British public schools created leaders for the Empire: any hardship or humiliation they endured in the outposts of Empire would pale into insignificance, compared to how they suffered at school.

So what is education about today? Clearly, education is not just for the elite. It is for all. For a while the simple formula of the three R's sufficed: reading, writing and arithmetic. But looking at the more feral youths of today, wouldn't it be great if they could learn five other R's: responsibility, reasoning, relationships, right and wrong?

And so the fog of confusion descends. Here are some of the things people tell me education is about:

  1. Making sure your school achieves five A-C grades at GCSE (including English and Maths). If you are a B or E grade student you will be ignored. Borderline D/C students get more help than they can possibly want. Teach to test, not to learn.
  2. Ensuring social mobility by enabling all kids to go to any university: but this conflicts with goal 1, because elite schools deliver elite results. More kids at Eton got A grades at A level than all the kids in the UK who receive free school meals.
  3. Ensuring social harmony: avoid any streaming or selection. But then this runs into the problem of faith schools and community ghettos which arise around them.
  4. Preparing kids for the world of work: so let's ditch the focus on academic achievement and focus on vocational training: see conflict with priority 1 above.
  5. Make kids into good citizens: throw in lots of stuff around citizenship, healthy eating, sex education, self esteem and extra curricular activity.
  6. Provide care on behalf of parents who are unable or unwilling to do so: welcome to the world of breakfast clubs, homework clubs and more.
  7. Be a dumping ground for the latest, greatest idea to eminate from a think tank, official report or ministerial "brain": say hello to community involvement, well being, behaviour management, literacy hours, curriculum management, academies, the Vetting and Barring scheme to name but a few.
As managers, if your department has seven fundamentally different objectives, with new objectives and initiatives being thrown at you every month, you will be in trouble. And that is where we are with education. It is a mess, to the great frustration of many talented teachers.

If education is to work it does not need more management and more initiatives and task forces. It needs about 90% less: that means clear choices about what is important and ditching the less important stuff. Making hard choices exists in political rhetoric, not in reality. Expect more initiatives: each one will sound great in isolation, but will only add to the cumulative chaos.

The education system is an object lesson in how not to manage. Occasionally, less management is better than more.

(Pic: Lentini cc2.0)

  • Jo Owen

    Jo Owen practises what he preaches as a leader. He has worked with over 100 of the best, and a couple of the worst, organisations in the world, has built a business in Japan; started a bank (now HBOS business banking); was a partner at Accenture and brand manager at P&G. He is a serial entrepreneur whose start-ups include top 10 graduate recruiter Teach First and Start Up, which has helped over 250 ex-offenders start their own businesses. He has and has spent seven years researching leadership, strategy and organisation in tribal societies. His books include "Tribal Business School", "How to Lead and How to Manage." He is in demand as a speaker and coach on leadership and change. His websites include Tribal Business School and Leadership Partnership