Education - you learn something new every day
When I was at school, many moons ago, there would be frequent reference in assemblies to education being a drawing out of an individual’s talents, whatever their background. And being impressionable, I took this to heart, and all my life I have believed that the word ‘education’ meant to ‘draw out’, and was a bigger concept than ‘skills’ or ‘training’. So much so that I try to avoid talking just about skills or training and always talk about how important it is to educate the whole individual. So, when the Labour party announced their National Education Service consultation, I was pleased that the word ‘education’ was used. Great, I thought, recognition that teaching is about educating not just training. Then I checked my own understanding and took down the dusty Oxford English Dictionary from our library shelves. Its first two definitions refer to the process of nourishing or rearing a child or young person and then ‘the systematic instruction, schooling or training given to the young’ (although there is reference to extending this to adults too). Looking further afield, I see that there is a whole debate about the definition of the word, what its roots are, and whether it’s ‘Educatum’ ‘Educare’ or ‘Educere’. And at this point, I realised why I didn’t do Latin. So, closing the dictionary, I think it is up to those of us working in the world of education to redefine what we mean by ‘education’. And to define what we would want for our young people, and what all age education should look like. Despite the OED, I do believe that education is more than just training, and I do believe that we have a duty to draw out the talents in everyone, whatever their background. But I am concerned about our ability to do this at the moment and I am concerned about what this does for the young person who may not have access to wider experiences. Let me give you an illustration of this. As most of you know, I started my life in FE teaching music. This was a time when FE was well funded, we could design our own courses, and we had time to plan really enriching experiences for our students. I was working in East Lancashire at the time and, even though it was one of the most deprived areas of the country, it had a mill town heritage and consequentially music thrived. Virtually every town had its own brass band (and still does), more than one choir, amateur dramatics and a range of other societies (including the wonderful ‘Nelson Gramophone Society’ which is still going strong). The young people were thirsty for new experiences and would fund raise so that they could go on trips further afield (many had not even visited Manchester). We went to the opera, to free concerts at the BBC, to the Halle and BBC Philharmonic, to the Rocky Horror Picture Show in Blackpool (I sat in the balcony for the second half – if you know the show you will know why), and we covered the full range of musical experiences. This, in my view, was what education was all about. I am absolutely confident that those experiences provided nourishment and much more than instruction; they opened the ears and provided an insight into what was possible. I still hear from many of students from those days and I know that their horizons were widened by these early experiences, often literally. We weren’t doing anything unusual for the time and I have no doubt that there are colleges up and down the country that are still working really hard to protect this type of education for their students. However, I do have serious concerns about the breadth and quality of education that is funded today which barely covers the teaching required for the qualifications on offer let alone anything broader. We seem to be adopting a utilitarian Gradgrind approach to the education of our young people and we no longer have the breadth of educational opportunities available for the older student, even if they are willing to take out a loan. It’s a tragedy that we rely on the goodwill of (underpaid) teachers to provide a rich education of our young people, the once buzzing night class culture has been lost, and many college corridors are dark in the evenings. I know that the internet is now facilitating a completely different approach to self-education, and even systematic instruction is out there on video clips. And that has to be a good thing. However, education is a social activity too, and there is something for me about the challenge to preconceived ideas and the learning and thrill that comes from personal human interaction and groups of individuals working together. The night class tradition, the broadening of possibilities, the liberating power of education can lead to the most wonderful achievements, and we see these every day in our colleges. Let’s redefine education for our own time and take seriously the responsibility we have to make sure that opportunities remain open for all in our communities, and that education is and remains truly nourishing.