First 100 days series: what is State Education For?

First 100 Days Series.

Education Network: what is State Education For?

Taking office in May, the new leader of the Department of Education will have to take the lead in responding to a number of critical questions. What is the role of academies and free schools within the English state education system? How do you close the gap in educational achievement? How should you assuage a workforce which feels overworked and disgruntled? Though these issues are pressing and deserve immediate responses, they all implicitly presume that we know the answer to a more profound question: What is state education for? This critical question has rarely been on the political agenda, resulting in a state education system bloated with inadequate responses to these urgent issues. This piece seeks not to provide any answers, but rather argue that even just careful deliberation of the question could be catalytic for positive radical transformation of the English state education system.

Though policymakers argue for improvements to the English state education system, the scope of their vision – and hence the efficacy of their policies – is currently severely restricted by the almost zero discussion of the purpose of state education. The resultant reforms therefore end up being piecemeal and incoherent, predicated upon inherited tradition rather than reason. If politicians consider the purpose of state education, however, it will provide them with the opportunity to ponder on a set of problems which could energise their thinking. Should it be the role of teachers to create a workforce equipped for an ever-shifting globalised economy? In an atomised society where people – especially younger people – are increasingly disengaged from parliamentary politics, perhaps schools should be nurturing civicness? How should the state education system cater for those who are more creative-minded? How does all this sit with the Enlightenment ideal of creating independent critical thinkers? The responses to these questions are crucial, as they each lead to radically different conceptions of the English state education system, thus delineating the limits to the ideational boundaries of any new policies.

Yet, whichever path is taken will be accompanied by a further set of problems which demand consideration. What is the relationship between STEM subjects and the arts and humanities if the role of state education is to indeed equip young people with the necessary skills to compete in and cope with the demands of the market? If it is to nurture intellectual curiosity, why should free state education stop at the age of 18? Are teachers the appropriate people to deliver civic education? These problems of how to balance idealism with pragmatism are ones which the Secretary of State for Education ought not to ignore, but rather, face head on. Despite requiring more effort than accepting the status quo, proper consideration of these questions would ultimately lead to the production of more efficacious, resilient policies.

The Young Fabians Education Network will seek to address some of these problems over the coming year. Though there may well be no final solutions to these questions, the mere process of tackling them should yield the sort of new ideas which a new Labour government will hopefully be able to contemplate and put into practice in the future.

Jun Bo Chan is a Young Fabian member and Secretary of the Young Fabian Education Network

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