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Why we need a new vision for education

200193780-001I have benefited hugely from selective education. My parents were the archetypal middle class couple—mother a teacher, father an accountant working in the City—and we lived in the south-east London suburbs. My parents paid for my older brother and sister to be educated privately, but by the time my turn came they had run out of money. I was rescued, though, by Conservative education policy of the 1970s; having passed the 11-plus, I was eligible for a local-authority-funded place at Dulwich College, a prestigious public school (at the time third in the league tables). In my sixth-form science class of 14, 13 of us went to Oxford or Cambridge. (The one who didn’t was called Dudman; we thought it was an example of nominative determinism.) In my year, the school sent 73 to Oxbridge, more than half with scholarships; our primary question was selecting from the teachers’ alma maters which of the Oxbridge colleges we should apply to. When I arrived at St John’s, Oxford, I was one of five from my school that year.

There is no doubt that selection benefits those who are selected. But the real question, for the education system as a whole, is the effect it has on the whole cohort. Had we continued to live in Poole, Dorset, we would have tried to send our children to the local grammar schools, since we knew they would be in a social and intellectual environment that would suit them and enable them to thrive. When we moved to Nottingham, we had a dilemma: the choice was between a comprehensive Church school, with a great Christian ethos, but a very diverse social mix, or paying for private education which would offer great resources, but felt a bit like a spiritual desert. We opted for the former, but it was a difficult decision. Our children had fewer people at the same level as them academically, and access to fewer resources than they would have had. There is no doubt they learned some key life skills, and the Christian context was important. But one of my nagging questions has remained: what does it do for those at the lower academic end to be with such a wide mixture, rather than amongst a group of their peers?


Having been a governor now at three secondary schools, I am conscious of the unrealistic and contradictory pressures being applied to secondary education in contemporary political and cultural discourse. The first is a kind of industrialisation of the educational process, where widget-children come in at one end of the process with a set of scores, and they pass through the educational production line, during which value is added, so that they exit the process with comparatively better scores. Those running the educational factories are assessed on the amount of value added, even though they are the ones who actually score the widgets at the beginning and end of the process. And the companies who provide the end exams can also run training for teachers to show them how to teach the children to pass the exams, so the system is inherently open to both corruption and reductionism. No wonder those of long experience complain that this is less education, and more exam-pass training.

But the second, contradictory pressure that I hear in political discourse is the assumption that schools and teachers operate in loco parentis. How do we tackle religious extremism? In schools. Who is responsible for good sex education? Schools. Where do we disseminate a vision of what it means to be a responsible citizen? In schools. I listen to the news twice a day, and the BBC News is my browser home page—yet I don’t think I can remember a single statement from any politician which suggests that parents have responsibility in these areas. And this is despite it being well established that the single greatest determinant for children of success in gaining qualifications is…parental involvement.

Given these twin and contradictory pressures, it is not surprising that the teaching profession feels under pressure. The level of turnover in teaching is quite astonishing.

Almost four out of 10 teachers quit within a year of qualifying, with 11,000 leaving the profession before they have really begun their career and record numbers of those who remain giving up mid-career, according to analysis of government figures.

When I was a personnel manager in industry, if my departments had anything like that level of wastage (for that is what it is) both I and the department manager would be out on our ears. And yet when has Government ever been held to account for this? The administration and bureaucracy is similar in other public service sectors; my wife, a GP, reckons that she now works about an hour a day longer than she did ten years ago. At our Governor’s meetings at my children’s school, I think it is fair to say that only a small proportion of us really understood the statistical measures that the senior staff were working with—yet we were the ones to whom they were supposed to be accountable.


Into this context comes the latest Government volte face is the announcement of the introduction not just of new grammar schools, but the possibility of any school to be ‘selective.’ This is in defiance of any support from research, that is, what actually happens and what the evidence actually says. The best guess on this new ‘policy’ is that it is an attempt by Theresa May to assuage those who are disgruntled with current policies, and might be upset when it turns out that Brexit doesn’t actually mean Brexit, since the word has no actual referential content. When, oh when, will a Government stop treating public policy as a political and ideological football, and in education do what is best for education? When, for example, will anyone take notice of the fact that current educational strategies mean that girls do better than boys in every subject?

The apparent purpose of this new policy is to assist ‘upward mobility.’ Never mind that it won’t actually do this; can we ask what this actually means? If some people are going to be upwardly mobile, and given that we are not all ‘moving up’ all the time, this means that, correspondingly, some other people will need to be ‘downwardly mobile’. I wonder who the Government proposes these people should be? Will it be those who, in our increasingly unequal society, already have a monopoly on wealth and influence? The hint at questioning the charitable status of public schools might suggest this, but overall it is unlikely. Societies, like free market Western economies, who apparently prize social mobility, actually turn out to be the least mobile, since, when it is easiest to ‘move upward’, those who corner the market in wealth and influence simply use this freedom to consolidate their own grip on power. Or, as Charles Moore puts it, in Theresa May’s meritocracy, what will become of the useless and stupid?

The soapy answer is, “Well, everyone has merits. In a well-run society, these will all be recognised and so everyone will be fulfilled.” In principle, this might be true, but we tend to judge merit by comparing the behaviour of one person with that of another. Experience teaches us that relatively few people are outstandingly good, brilliant, brave, entrepreneurial and so on.

Social systems based solely on merit therefore tend to be harsh…One of the tricks needed to run a nation as opposed to a big company or a team of rocket scientists, is to accept that people can be pretty useless at lots of things. There are millions of us, Mrs May. Please don’t forget us.

And attempts to socially engineer mobility always have perverse results. The fact that I went to Oxford actually puts my children at a disadvantage, since in their applications they have had to state how their parents were educated. If we have made sacrifices to send them to a more academically demanding school, that too would disadvantage them. So, in order to do the best for them, I have to choose an academically weaker school, so that they will get preferential treatment due to the disadvantages meted on them by my previous decisions. If you want your children to do well, you need to put obstacles in their way, so that the educational system will be able to compensate them for it!

And how is ‘upward mobility’ characterised in this public narrative? I recently heard someone from Liverpool bemoaning the lack of aspirations of people ‘in the north’ because they were not aiming to be ‘doctors and lawyers.’ I was struck: does not being a skilled artisan constitute aspiration? What about someone who does a great job working in manufacturing industry, or mining, or farming? If the education system is designed to enable people to be aspirational, and being aspirational means making everyone middle class, is it any wonder that we continue to lack any respect for working culture? And if there is no vision for education to equip people to do these other jobs well and effectively, as rounded and responsible citizens, is it any wonder that we are chronically dependent on immigrant labour in order for these jobs to be done?


What might Christian theology contribute to all this?

First, it contributes a rounded and integrated vision for human flourishing. We are not individualised units of economic production, and the purpose of education is not simply to give us employment skills, even if that is part of the task.

Secondly, it contributes a better vision of work as vocation. Employment is not simply about making and economic contribution to society (though it does do that); neither is it simply about ‘adding value’ to whatever we are involved with. Pay is not a recompense for the inconvenience of labour as it prevents us undertaking the leisure we would otherwise make use of. Nor is pay something determined by market forces that depend on the power of our negotiating position to determine.

Instead, work is about using the gifts and skills that God has given us, in line with the vocation or calling of God on our lives in order to participate in God’s sovereignty of the world by exercising his dominion as his vice-regents, created in his image and sharing in his creative purposes for the world. Pay is the reasonable remuneration as part of this process.

Thirdly, it contributes a vision of both society and family, where the importance of family structures and stability provide a safe and secure context for the flourishing of children and their full participation in education. The education system should complement strong family structures, and not replace them.

Finally, the Church will continue to make its key contribution to education at every level, through national structures and interests, but also by calling individual Christians into teaching at every level. Much of our modern education system arose out of Christian initiative and concern in the nineteenth century—not to turn people into operational economic units, but to help them grow into mature adults, able to contribute to the greater good of society and to fulfil their own vocation.

(If you are working in any aspect of education, as teacher, parent or governor, don’t forget to check out the excellent  Grove Education series.)


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8 Responses to Why we need a new vision for education

  1. Fr Richard Peers September 11, 2016 at 7:04 am #

    Ian this is a superb piece, thank you.
    You have said much that I was going to say in my Education Sunday sermon at Leicester Cathedral this morning – but you say it far more succinctly and systematically than I would.
    So, at 7am I am rewriting my sermon and referencing this blog. Hopefully to complement it.

    • Ian Paul September 12, 2016 at 8:33 am #

      Sorry to cause you work—hope it was worth it!

  2. Chris Bishop September 11, 2016 at 1:12 pm #

    Ian,
    You are right that parental involvement is the single biggest factor in the success of getting qualifications. However many teachers will tell you that the quality of parenting is so poor that the parents of children who need it the most can barely bring themselves up let alone their kids. Hence successive governments are quite content to pass the parenting problem over to schools which is a major reason why so many teachers leave the profession. And this is not solely due to poverty.

    I think it was the late Spike Milligan that once said that prospective parents should need to pass an exam before they are allowed to have children -not a view I would agree with you understand, but I can understand his sentiment.

  3. Peter Kay September 11, 2016 at 2:39 pm #

    Thank you Ian – a good analysis of where we are, which is a complex politicised mess.

    Looking at your list of Christian values, there’s nothing to disagree with but I wonder where we might fit ‘excellence’ into the scheme.

    Of course here’s always some degree of a trade-off between excellence and accessibility, but I can’t help thinking of a school speech day magazine from my late father’s school we found in the loft. It was from 1961, the year that he left his boys grammar school in Sheffield.

    It makes astonishing reading. The highlights of the year’s music concert were performances of Dvorak and the Schumann piano concerto (played by a boy on the school’s Steinway !). There was a madrigal group, lieder and other ensembles. My father’s choral scholarship to Magdalen College, Oxford hardly got a mention in the music report – he was just one of many very talented musicians. There was an annual Shakespeare play, and a full fixture list in major sports against the likes of Manchester & Bradford Grammar schools & QEGS Wakefield. 3 scout troops. (One interesting society, of the many, was an SCM group – can’t have everything!)

    My father was from humble origins but was one of 28 from that year who went to Oxbridge. The head described 28 as ‘satisfactory’. He then became a very successful barrister, about to become a head of chambers before his untimely death at the age of 31. I mention his latter career because the magazine included university and further progress reports from pupils – there was a clear expectation of further success after school.

    I compare that with my comprehensive education in the 1980’s in Lincolnshire. An ex-grammar school. No Schumann or Dvorak for us: musically, we had a few talented individuals, but the school wind band played Lloyd Webber medleys and the like. No Shakespeare – ‘My Fair Lady’ and ‘West Side story’ were the offerings every other year. Out of hours sports hardly existed – the teachers were on strike. In our year 4 pupils, I think, got to Oxbridge – described by the head as ‘outstanding’. Education was hit and miss – if our very odd Head of Maths hadn’t retired in my lower 6th, to be replaced by a much better teacher, there’s no way I would have got the grades for Oxbridge.

    That old magazine was jaw-dropping in terms of the school’s record and expectations both in and outside the classroom. Whilst recognising the changing world and the need to attend to the whole ‘hive’ I don’t think my generation has any idea of the loss that occurred in education in the 1970’s when Grammar schools were either made comprehensive or went private. I quite understand why Theresa May is seeking to bring them back.

    I never got to discuss education with my father, but I remember my grandfather shaking his head every time we drove past the comprehensive that my father’s school had become. He was heartbroken. At the time I thought he was being morbidly nostalgic – now I understand.

    Picking up on your comments about parental involvement, I think that hope and ambition and the desire for something better for our own children are still some of the most powerful drivers in the education system. Looking at our little boy I don’t want Lloyd Webber medleys to be the height of his cultural involvement, or to feel that academic success is ‘uncool’. That’s why I think the push for grammar schools hasn’t gone away, in spite of its non-egalitarian nature and its questionable role in raising overall standards.

  4. Penelope Wallace September 11, 2016 at 4:50 pm #

    Ian, this was a deeply interesting and thought-provoking piece, absolutely excellent… but I was a bit put off by the first para! “Dudman”!!!? And is a social mix a bad thing? I have not regretted sending our children to the local comprehensive rather than to a specifically Christian school.

    • Ian Paul September 12, 2016 at 8:32 am #

      Um, the reason I mentioned the anecdote is because it gives insight into the impact of being super-selective.

      I clearly don’t think social mix is a bad thing—but I have some serious questions about it. Does it benefit those at either end of the spectrum? Do you have any answers?

  5. Joshua Heyes September 12, 2016 at 10:20 am #

    Hi Ian, thanks very much for this, as someone just embarking on a PhD in education (focusing on sex education) this is a great example of the kind of thought through Christian response to these issues that I would like to be able to give!

    On the issue of sex education, to my knowledge our government saying “it’s the parents responsibility” is very common. However, this is more because the issue is so fraught that it’s easier to dismiss than face head on (e.g. One of Philip Davies favourite things to brutally filibuster). As Cathy Newman recently said it’s a political “barnacle” on the bottom of the boat.

    School sex education is probably rather inconsequential compared to parental influence etc, but it seems to me like sex ed might be a rare case where we need to move beyond the idea of parental involvement!

  6. Mike Todd September 15, 2016 at 10:26 am #

    Unlike successive governments, and not a few middle-of -the-road parents, I do not accept that ‘excellence’ is an objective term nor value-free. It is entirely dependent on what aspects of human performance are considered by society to be desirable. Increasingly, education policy has been driven by a ‘what you may/will earn in the future’ imperative – nothing much there about Christian or other values. And church schools end up having to buy-in to this just as much as secular ones.

    I listened yesterday to a fascinating radio programme about the physical characteristics of humans that allow some to be able to dive for extended periods of time and depth. We may, in a sort of weird way, admire the few (‘freedivers’) that do this but be unaware of those societies in other parts of the world where this ability is core to ‘success’, even leading some to continue to do so into their 90’s.

    What is even more fascinating is that specific female characteristics makes them better at this than men. What of our faith, theology and ecclesiology might be different if it had developed in such a context?

    Before we can assess the rightness or otherwise of specific education policies we have to debate and, to a degree agree, what are their purpose. Exposing some of the hidden purposes behind policy shifts of the recent and not so recent times might cause us to stop and think not a little.

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