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What are we educating for? - Gary Husband

12 October 2023

By Gary Husband, associate professor of further, adult and vocational education and research lead at the School of Education of the University of Sunderland

Before we get into the thick of it with this piece, I would first like you to picture a scene. Imagine a slightly unremarkable field surrounded by low stone walls on the outskirts of a small village in the Scottish Borders. It's autumn. It's cold. It's raining and it's windy. There is a small group made-up of what appear to be a ragtag bunch of muddy schoolchildren, some teenagers wearing outsized waterproofs and a group of adults looking similarly dishevelled. From a distance, they all appear to be looking into a hole in the field. The muddiness of all present suggests they may have just dug that hole and found something very interesting inside it. Given the weather, the time of year, the temperature, and the fact that day was drawing to an end, further suggests that whatever it is must be very interesting indeed. I think it's only fair to ask who these people are what are they doing. What is it that's so interesting they're willing to ignore the uncomfortable conditions and remain so completely captivated? I'll tell you.

This group of people were engaged in an archaeological excavation of a little known medieval castle dating from the 14th century. There is very little above ground - some lumps and bumps, some dents and some divots and with the creative imaginative eye, it is possible to detect the outline of half of this castle, the other half having been quite comprehensively ploughed away and robbed out for the stone (the nearby village is quite literally built from the castle). The large group is made up of some schoolchildren from local primary and secondary schools, there are some teenagers from an organisation supporting youth and transitions into work, and the adults are professional archaeologists and the ever present and ever so necessary volunteers found on nearly every archaeological dig.

What were they staring at? The dig found remains of the castle and in the hole, what was present was the beginning of a series of small walls. Laid on this wall was a small object that at some point in the past had been lost and had found its way into the remains of the castle. Whether or not it was a later dated object, remains a point of conjecture but, it was the first evidence of people having been on that site beyond the large monument of the castle. The object was a spindle whorl. This particular one was shaped like a large polo mint and made of a honey coloured stone. A quick wipe with a muddy finger revealed some purposeful spiral patterning carved onto the worn surface. Spindle whorls were used to weight the threads in weaving which gave rise to the possibility that there had at some point on this site been people making cloth. What had captivated everybody present was the sudden observation of real-life human activity that brought to life the muddy walls that had so carefully been excavated.

While I am very biased about how interesting such activities are, you will be quite rightly wondering what this has got to do with education. There are several things to observe about learning in this particular anecdote. Firstly, the work was being undertaken by the Scottish charity Archaeology Scotland, which has as a primary focus the desire to widen participation, broaden opportunities for learning, and increase engagement across a whole spectrum of society. Learning through heritage and history in an archaeological context is proving to be an extremely powerful vehicle for introducing learning to groups that may have had a deficit in opportunity or inequitable access to meaningful learning in the past.

The charity focuses on engaging new audiences (including the rather beautifully titled “New Scots”) and supporting communities to explore their own history and that of the world around them. Schools’ engagement brings in children as young as seven and eight and there are frequently volunteers on site in their eighties. By and large, they worked together with a shared purpose of exploration, excavation, learning and importantly developing a community through collaboration of shared endeavour. On this site, on this day, a group of school children, some community volunteers, individuals from the youth engagement programme, and professional archaeologists made genuine new discoveries together and shared in each other's delight and captivation in exposing and learning about what had been hidden underground for potentially hundreds of years.

If you want to unpick this further, there are several key interesting points to note. The group developed a small community of learning, supported one another in both the practical heavy work of digging and the lighter work of cleaning, and rather magically, were engaged in meaningful and deliberate guided discussion about how, why and when this particular object had possibly ended up underground in that field. All views were listened to, discussed, debated and a collaborative consensus was reached about the various possibilities and interpretations of what had been uncovered on that rainy day. Shortly after, the group made their way back across the fields to various vehicles and onward destinations, all the while chatting laughing and discussing the events of the day and how they were looking forward to the next. The day had clearly been meaningful, perhaps in a variety of ways for everyone involved.

There is an alternative story that could have been told here and it goes something like this: some archaeologists did an excavation, took some photos, and then later shared the written report and photos for dissemination. But that version excludes all of the events that make this story interesting and meaningful. The engagement in learning of those that may not have had such experiences before, the formative experiences of the very young people working collaboratively with the diverse group, the volunteers both offering expertise and engaged in learning simultaneously whilst the archaeologists led a genuine excavation of an important national monument but through a lens of on-site learning. Collaboration, community, learning through enquiry, practical skills acquisition, widening participation, enhancing equitable access to learning, inspiration and captivation and energetic engagement, are just (quite) a few of the benefits and experiences shared in that field.

If we look at this more broadly within human society, these sorts of interactions, actions, developing relationships and collaborations, are the underpinning features of a community, whatever that community happens to be focused on or around. We just need to look at the comradery between shared support for sports teams, religious congregations, political affiliation, shared hometowns/counties/countries or more topically, within school or college spaces. Humans have a propensity and a need to gather in groups and it’s those groupings that seemingly meet the fundamental need to be a part of a community. Whether as proponents of evolutionary psychology attest or not, that need is perhaps based in increased safety, shared happiness, acceptance, enjoyment or indeed, development; humans gather in groups for leisure, work and living.

We seek out likeminded people, we coalesce in shared endeavour and by and large (there’s always some exception to a rule) we are very good at collaborating, sharing, supporting and we can argue, (fairly convincingly) that a great deal of human life is enhanced by sharing it. Whether we are in our leisure time pursuing sports and hobbies, attending church, going to college/school/university or simply going to work, community is an instrumental and fundamental need for humans.

Is there then a need to acknowledge this more comprehensively as we continue to navigate the development of education and learning over the coming years? What part does community play and is there a consideration that in many instances, being in a safe group, collaborating, socialising and communicating and co-existing is perhaps more important than the subject being studied? The subject itself is perhaps the hook that allows us to offer opportunities to offer inclusive spaces, widen participation and provide a space for the fundamental needs of community where perhaps they had not been available to individuals previously? But that may be now more than ever at odds with the national discourse in relation to the pursuit of education.

While we move on now to explore education and learning in more depth, keep in mind the key points highlighted by the archaeology story, community, inclusion, and collaboration. I’ll return to these shortly… Before we circle back and link experience to subject and needs to curriculum, we need to ask ourselves a series of fundamentally important questions that may open up the discussion further. The first of these is principally, ‘why do we as a society place so much emphasis on education? In 2023 alone the budget for education in the United Kingdom was £104.9 billion. This is the second largest element in public spending (behind health) and more than is spent on defence (it's something like 5% of national income). The fact that more needs to be spent is a hill that I know many of us will die on. However, irrespective of funding models and austerity driven cuts across the whole of public sector, education is seen as being so important that it forms a significant part of every major political manifesto. Famously several politicians have publicly staked their careers on their investment in education. Tony Blair’s famous speech where he stated that: “our top priority was, is, and always will be education, education, education” is a leading example of such public commitment.

Education establishments play a huge part in public life and have significant influence on communities and local economies. While I freely admit this model is now somewhat in decline, for several centuries, the fundamental model for many villages and small towns was built around the three pillars, being, the church, the school (despite inequitable access) and importantly the pub. However, we still see the impact on what are perceived to be the best schools on things like house prices. Where schools have received significant accolades or are deemed to be of the highest standard through measurement by inspection and league tables, the houses that fall within their catchment areas have in places been as much as 30 per cent more expensive than neighbouring localities. As a nation, we by and large subscribe to the provision of education, whether it be for our children, young adults, or indeed those of us more mature in years. I acknowledge that this is not universally the case, however I have yet to hear an argument presented that convinces us as a society, that we do not indeed need our investment in education.

Education is so important to our national identity that we look internationally to league tables such as PISA and track how our education system is compared to that of other nations. Famously, Finland and Singapore interchangeably by and large are the two countries that come out on top of most international comparisons. However, it has been comprehensively demonstrated that emulating their results isn’t as simple as copying what they do… yes, some things work but, politically, culturally, demographically, historically, socially and any other ‘ally’ you care to mention, we are different. As such, what is perceived to work in one place, does not translate through directly to another… and consequently therefore, perhaps neither do the metrics forming the comparison… not entirely at least.

On top of this we subscribe to and pay attention to national league tables whether they be for the best secondary schools’ further education colleges or indeed universities. There is significant pride attached to the achievements needed to ascend the league tables and where that leads to real time improvements for student experience, I'd be inclined to support the outcomes they bring including a list of caveats that will take me longer to discuss than I have left in this particular piece! However, simply the purpose of education is not to be measured and compared, several people have famously said that weighing the pig does not make it fatter, and I believe that many of the metrics used to label schools and colleges as being the best are flawed and do not reveal fully the really incredible work that is being undertaken with individuals within learning spaces, which of course can be incredibly hard to capture.

So, what is it about education that leads us to the unquestioning support for its provision? While individuals may sometimes malign particular schools or colleges or individual educators, questioning the whole concept of formalised education in schools, colleges and universities isn’t a very well-developed argument within public discourse. We simply accept that formalised education, by and large is a good idea. But, as a nation what do we collectively believe education is for?

For a number of years, I worked in industry and trained quite a lot of apprentices. I then went on to work in a few FE colleges, where I continued to teach apprentices and managed a large engineering curriculum. In all those roles, I encountered on a weekly basis a significant number of employers who either had apprentices in the college one day a week or had students on placement. A common thread of complaints directed towards me and the college(s) from employers was, “what are you teaching them? They don’t know anything…they’re not work ready.. why all the maths and literacy” etc etc. I could understand the frustration and tried to manage expectations by inviting these same people in to do some workshop instruction or be on employer panels or act as mentors (etc, you’ve all tried similar things).

There was some success, but the frustrations often remained and it was only when I started having serious conversations about working collaboratively to develop a focused approach to learning in the workplace in partnership with the days spent in college that we made significant headway. Admittedly, this was a decade ago, but perhaps more pressingly, at a recent seminar in Barcelona, I was invited to speak about industrial partnerships and developing multisite pathways and collaborations between universities and employers. I wrote a carefully scripted opening address that I had positioned very defensively while discussing the need for students not only to be exposed to high quality subject specific teaching, but also to promote the idea and practice of students engaging in artistic and creative learning, critical engagement with social sciences (politics, sociology etc) and the provision of extended numeracy, IT and literacy.

My argument was that industry needs individuals that can, think, problem solve, create, re-create, diagnose as well as manage their subject specific expertise (see craft also) and apply all this in the workplace. My counterpart on the panel was Monsieur Laurent Mismaque who manages a section of Siemens with a budget akin to that of a small country. I had prepared my argument fully expecting Laurent to be placing the emphasis on colleges and universities to provide fully formed professional specialists. However, I had my thunder well and truly stolen as Laurent went on to describe that for his area of specialism (AI and engineering) what Siemens actually needed was creative problem solvers who could work in a team, lead a team or work on their own and importantly, fluidly move between roles. The individuals will have been exposed to a wide range of subjects and needed to be literate, numerate, creative, collaborative, and reflexive critical thinkers. As far as subject specialisms were concerned, he recognised Siemens role in that was to provide a large chunk of the required knowledge and the environment in which the jobs needed could be successfully carried out. The focus here though was on creative, collaborative, reflexive and critical.

At this stage. I’m going state clearly that I have only ever met one or two educators that weren’t passionately engaged in working towards the ideas stated above. If ever you ask a teacher, lecturer, workshop supervisor or technical trainer (pick your role) why they came into education, it is generally to make a difference to lives and be a positive influence. I don’t believe for one second we have any issues with the educators in the system, but I do believe we are heading towards something of a crisis of system.

So, if we’re going to listen to Monsieur Mismaque (and believe me, extremely large parts of international industry do), how do we do this? How do we achieve these laudable aims? Do we train individuals for specific jobs and tasks within a narrowing curriculum or, maybe, do we look at expand experiences, promoting creativity, collaboration and the ability to solve problems and apply skills by exposing students to a broader and richer and more diverse curriculum and set of learning opportunities? Do we do this following a strictly outcomes-based curriculum, or, do we look at ways in which we are able move freely within and between subjects, foci and disciplines to expose individuals to a wide set of experiences on which they can draw?

Let’s assume then for a moment that broadening experiences and opportunity is a distinct positive and needs to be explored. In order to do this, we need to move away from the idea that we are a sector designed specifically for training people for specific work and jobs, as this, for a great many in education, simply isn’t the case. As an example, in full time Level 1 motor vehicle provision, further education college students are not training to be vehicle technicians any more than GCSE physics students are training for a career at CERN. They are undertaking the basic study of fundamental principles that offer a broad basis for further study. This is not without significant challenges.

Unfortunately, the last twenty years have seen full time provision for college students undergo consistent and repeated cuts to allocated time (now circa 15 to 18 hours a week). This of course is manageable (barely) if all we are doing is offering a very narrow outcomes-based provision, but it cannot be sustainable if, as we believe, education serves a much greater purpose (I take you back to the start and reminders of community, creativity, collaboration, widening access and broad provision of experience). If we believe that “vocational” education is purely about training for jobs (and I don’t think we do), then I can save us all billions of that annual budget by simply closing every FE college in the UK and shifting the work training directly into the workplace. Let employers deal with it and that way they’ll get the “work ready” workforce they anecdotally (and falsely) so desire.

I’m going to wind my neck in (a favoured Scottishism) as I can hear the justified collective gasp coming from across the entire sector. Of course, it’s a ridiculous idea and we all know it. We know it because we all know and believe deeply that colleges and schools (and while we’re at it… prison education, 3rd sector, private training and many more parts that make up FE), do far, far more than train for jobs (let’s throw universities in the mix while we’re at it). It’s an absurdity of British education that we speak the language of business and are politically so focused on making our young people “work ready”. I’m going to stick my neck out here and say I believe that education policy has been hijacked by an extant focus on economic return and a debt to economy in lieu of an education. The fact that recent prominent government offices and officials have unquestioningly referred to “high value” degrees without any exploration of what that means beyond blind acceptance that it must be linked to earning power and economic return. It is a sleight of hand that high value has come to mean financial return and not in fact, high value, specifically to the individual and society in terms of culture, wellbeing, career (I didn’t say that that isn’t also important) and happiness.

The fact that my 7 year-old daughter has been told that the reason she has to go to school is in order to ensure that she can get a job (not by me, I hasten to add) speaks volumes about the policy and accepted language within modern schooling. Again, it’s not the teachers, it’s the policy environment that drip feeds the language of work and employability and has shifted the focus to give this primacy. The recent prime ministerial declaration that everyone should study maths to 18 years old highlights an egregious lack of understanding about why as a society we are so sure of our need to provide educational experiences and learning for our young people (or anyone that wants it). Why maths?

Would we not be far better off ensuring that everyone has access to drama and philosophy, (*add in your favourite much maligned arts-based interest). Learning to be expressive, critically engaged with the world, playing with language, meaning making and creativity… are these any less of a pursuit than mathematics (I’ve nothing against maths apart from not being particularly gifted at it)? If we want to talk in terms of employability and work readiness, is there an employer that wouldn’t want their staff to be able to do all of those things? But no, maths is seen as high value because, employees just need to be numerate, obviously… but, I refer you back to Laurent Mismaque.

I think the biggest issue here is the forced dichotomised view of subjects and ways of learning. I have for many years ranted (at any poor person who looks vaguely interested and in fact, often not) about the fact there is no such thing as separate vocational and academic subjects. I struggle to think of any subject or course that is either one or the other (there’s a challenge for you). Everything is a healthy mixture of both. Take those Level 1 motor vehicle engineering students as an example (I’m not picking on motor vehicle students, they’re lovely, all of them, I know, I was one), they learn the practicalities of some of the skills based knowledge of vehicle maintenance (vocational), which, is largely useless if they have no concept of how any of it works, why it’s being replaced/fixed/maintained or why it’s there (theory). These two not entirely distinct areas of learning blend into what Sennet would term “craft”. This model extends to all education, pick a subject, and try it…

Dichotomising simplifies and renders almost useless any discussion about “types” or course of learning, as does the notion of ‘high value’. What is actually being said is that there are low value courses, courses that are frivolous or are somehow less meaningful (to the economy). It is also no accident that these are largely divided broadly into what we may call arts and humanities subjects and, well, everything else. Which leads us onto our next useless and meaningless dichotomy, the “arts and sciences”. I am going to make a bold statement, one simply cannot exist without the other, the art of science and the science of art are quite inextricable.

I’ll pause for a breath after that..

It will be useful at this junction to look at a couple of definitions and how formalised education has been framed and why I’m making an argument for us to consider reimaging further, adult and “vocational” education. If we are to attempt to understand what we believe education is for, we need firstly to begin to try and understand how it is defined and what influence this is having on education (as I have claimed/ranted about above).

What are we educating for, and what is the purpose of education are the questions at the heart of this piece, and here I believe we as educators are partially at odds with policy makers and those walking the corridors of power. Firstly, I'm going to introduce you to the description of the importance of education given to the House of Commons in 2015 by the Education Secretary (at that time) Nick Gibb. This Is what Mr Gibb had to say:

“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 three 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 job and a fulfilling career and have the resilience and moral character to overcome challenges and succeed.”

By and large, I don’t disagree with him. However, whilst he was speaking to a particular brief, I think this does reveal a quite narrow view of education. I fully appreciate that these are the spoken words of one person, however, as a senior party representative and the individual with responsibility for the education brief at that time (don’t ask me how many ministers ago he was), I think it's fair to surmise these particular views are reflective of the broader government of the day. We can see that there is an attempt to acknowledge the cultural importance of education and there is even mention here of social justice, which are both laudable inclusions. However, these really are just footnotes as the repeated message within the statement which is,

“education is the engine of our economy, yes it's important for culture and social justice, but essentially, it's about getting children ready for jobs and supporting the economy”.

Of course, as a professional researcher, I would be foolish to present the account of one individual as the entire evidence required to come to such conclusions. I'm not going to spend the remainder of this piece listing sources that either prove or disprove the subtlety of language when education is discussed in political spaces, however, a quick review of renewed policy legislation and published bills including the below is quite revealing:

  • the schools bill (May 2022) which states the following in its introduction, ‘Education remains at the forefront of the government’s agenda because by ensuring every child receives an excellent standard of teaching in a high-performing setting, they will be given the opportunity to fulfil their future potential and secure the jobs needed to support our economy’

  • the skills and post 16 education bill 2022 which defines Further education entirely as a sector purely for training, and finally,

  • the higher education reform consultation which mentions employers 74 times and the economy 38 times and the arts, a whopping, once.

These are all randomly selected examples of legislation and policy published in the last couple of years that whilst seemingly devised to provide an improved educational experience, the underpinning reason for that improvement seems to be based on economic factors. A further caveat I need to supply here is that (perhaps surprisingly) I am broadly in favour of education having some focus on employment and employability, but, where I begin to ask more probing questions is when this becomes the driving motivation for the provision of education and the national investment in it. So what? You might quite rightly ask, it's taxpayer funded, we pay our taxes to ensure public services, law and order, justice, healthcare and so on and so forth. Will people not just take from education what they want? Why be concerned about the subtle shifts in language when the provision is the same? or is it?

This is why…

In my view by framing education as a provision designed to support training for work, with the primary and fundamental purpose of driving the economy, we change not only the perception of education itself but also its priorities, structure and subsequently, the curriculum. The issue with viewing education as an economic investment is that it becomes a commodity as opposed to a fundamental human right. A commodity that is subject to the same economics as every other, (profit and loss, efficiency, product, competition and market economy). In simplistic terms and reduced to the lowest denominator, we are faced with the reality that education is now frequently viewed as a transaction. A customer base accessing a product for which the greatest value and return on investment is sought. Education is now often discussed in the same manner as buying a car or selecting an energy supplier: value for money and return on investment. And why wouldn’t it. Undergraduates now leave with debt in excess of £50K (plus) and understandably are seeking to go to establishments that publish the best metrics and compete with one another for league places.

But this phenomenon isn’t just a university problem, it’s an education issue across all sectors. Of course, viewing education as a transaction is certainly not what everyone does, and I would not make that sweeping statement, however we are now faced with the effects of an economic crisis which in recent times has led to the discussion of what is being framed as “high value” education. High value… that is the courses that are seen to be able to provide the greatest return on investment. What then happens to the courses and subjects that are seemed to be of lower value? Who makes that decision and what is it based on?

It is a very slippery slope towards a highly controlled system that forces people into preselected “high value” training provision and leaves the arts and humanities as a plaything for those who can afford it. It is by its very nature exclusive, inequitable, and divisive.

It’s time to wrap all this up, a good place to start with that is at the beginning.

If we return to the muddy field and the group peering into the hole in the ground, we are reminded of the social, collaborative, and inclusive approach to learning. The purpose of participating in the learning of each member of the group was driven by individual motivations but they were all able to gain what they needed from the engaging, meaningful, and authentic way in which the learning was presented. Of course, this is mirrored in pretty much every workshop, classroom, salon and kitchen (other learning spaces are available) across FE provision, schools and colleges across the land. This blog hasn’t been written to decry any of the efforts of any of the educators working in any educational space, but to highlight both the wider purpose of education and the importance of recognising, it’s not just about technical curriculum and outcomes. For many people engaged in further and adult education, it’s possible that the actual subject and course is in reality only a vehicle to (re)engaging with learning. The place, the interaction, the people and the impact on self-esteem, well-being and the development of soft skills associated with learning are immeasurably important and very difficult to capture in any metric.

The narrowing of education in response to an ideological drive that fuels damaging rhetoric such as “high value” courses is a rocky road to a very difficult future. Strangling access to the arts by defunding, and incentivising those courses seen as having the greatest impact on future economy, promises a bleak industrialised future. Imagine a world without the arts, or where we are driven to engage in only one line of study (it was recently highlighted how much bleaker Covid lockdowns would have been for many without access to books, TV, music, film etc etc).

As educators, we know this. We understand it and it fuels the teaching, support, and research practices we share. We need to push back on the pernicious, divisive, and pervasive language in policy that is becoming dominant and driving a great many of the shifts in funding, sectoral development and institutional remodelling. We face significant societal challenges and as Laurent Mismaque passionately stated, we need creative, reflexive, innovative and critical thinkers that are able to diagnose, analyse, respond and lead in a variety of changing, challenging and dynamic circumstances.

We as educators have the power to use these principles to underpin our teaching and importantly, further access to cultural experience, further inclusive practices, further opportunities for wider learning, further support for social and collaborative learning and finally further life chances.

That’s what the further in FE means to me.

I’d like to thank Kerry Scattergood and Dr Beth Curtis for their many thoughtful conversations and discussions, I hope I’ve done them justice with the above.

The views expressed in Think Further publications do not necessarily reflect those of AoC or NCFE.