Note: If you want to know the official education statistics please visit the gov.uk. But with the assumption that upon experience or observation people reading this will have their own impression of how appropriate they think the school system is in general or for specific groups of people.
Realistically how does an education system effectively cater to the demands of all the different characters, needs and perspectives in the U.K? As an institution that’s programmed to polish the masses (not the individual), to what extent can schools and their respective agents (i.e. teachers and assistants) really get it right? What or who should the education system prioritize? Education is both a theory and a resource, and so true equilibrium may be reached at the point where philosophy and pragmatism are in sync. Admittedly, this may mean that given finite resource- and time-management preconceived notions of what a suitable school system looks like and delivers may have to be reduced to a realistic compromise. When we assess the education system in the UK we must use our own experiences to add to the conversation but also acknowledge the many other narratives that exist, equally believing they deserve the undivided attention of the government.
It seems like we all have a lot to say on how the education system in the UK is failing students, apparently never wasting an opportunity to make our dissatisfaction known. These failings, it is argued, have pushed young people into idleness (if not crime and violence), perpetuated mental health issues, suppressed self-esteem, consolidated social stratification and ostracised the ‘creative’. The ‘business’ of education is becoming more apparent, notably demonstrated in the rise of academies, where those at the top sit on thousands of pounds whilst teachers complain about increasing workload and diminishing salaries, and students are struggling under exam pressure. The blame gets passed from students to parents to teachers to the government. Society has changed so much, cultivating different needs and demands from a variety of different groups in Britain but the nation’s institutions are clearly lagging behind.
Beyond obvious observations, it is necessary to accompany complaints with preferable alternatives. Answering the more fundamental questions, such as what we actually want from our education system would go quite far in informing those with the power and remit to redesign the system on what to do. Do we need skills more than we need self-esteem? Do we need money more than we need relationships? Is value of technology greater than that of diplomacy?
What is education?
According to the Oxford English Dictionary education is defined as ‘the process of receiving or giving systematic instruction, especially at a school or university’. Education just means learning, originating from the Latin word ‘educo’ which means ‘to train’ or ‘to lead’. Ancient civilisations from time immemorial had forms of education that focused on community elders teaching the younger generations the skills necessary to survive in society. Passing down knowledge in a variety of media was a common way to preserve culture and custom.
Over time the sources of education evolved but the importance of it hasn’t. Every country in the world has a formal education system to ensure knowledge and culture is reproduced, and the learners are equipped to be active participants in their respective societies. Depending on the era and the philosopher of the day, education also claims responsibility for building character, developing logic and reasoning skills, instilling morals and socialisation.
Education takes form both informally and formally. Schools, colleges and universities are the most common examples of orthodox hubs of learning. However a person can learn from anything or anyone.
From the [social] media, or religious text, to lived experiences and coffee shop conversations, people all over the world have an unlimited supply of information for which they can develop a sense of others and themselves. Anything consumed is developing your perspective and provoking cognitive activity. Practical skills can be picked up from YouTube tutorials for free whilst other people spend years in a classroom paying thousands of pounds for similar lessons. The more people know the more productive they should be. Eventually specialising in a particular area could make innovation or progress more likely. For whom? Whether the individual or society, somebody is always benefitting or utilising the consumed knowledge – for good or bad. We each have our preferred media of education but since educating the masses is a key objective of the state, it makes sense that individuals, families, communities, organizations and politicians are keen to crack the education formula to serve this end. Education does not exist independently of other state or private institutions but each, in general, should reflect and cater to the populace. Institutions should complement each other to ensure society is functioning and meeting the needs of the people. In the modern world though, sometimes it seems appropriate to substitute the term ‘people’ for ‘consumers’. Since everything is considered a transaction, where products, services and human beings have a price and are in some sense for sale, we must consider how our current economic system has affected our concept of education.
As capitalism matured its influence on society began to infiltrate the ethos of every institution, moving them away from their initial functions, to accommodate or adapt to capitalist culture. Productivity, measured in money created in a given time, accumulation of wealth and general improvement to living standards yields a nation geopolitical power. Therefore it is no surprise that society has restructured itself to ensure economic success over social cohesion. ‘The trickle down effect’ is a theory coined in an attempt to reconcile capitalism with widening inequality, stating that wealth generated for a few will slowly but definitely reach the ‘bottom’. Education evolved into a measurement of a student’s value to the state rather than an obligation of society to cultivate the potential of an individual in order for that very individual to thrive in their given environment. No doubt capitalism is an integral part of society but because its economic nature is heavily weighted towards extracting the monetary prowess of the state, it can often fail to meet our other equally important human demands.
Mentioned previously, if schools concern themselves will producing workers then where will people develop character, interpersonal skills and look after their mental health? If a fixed set of resources are invested into a speculative-economic approach to education, in the absence of nurture and self-expression would the wholesome objective of education in the country be fulfilled? This is not to say there is no positive attempting to increase gross domestic product (GDP) but the use of knowledge for an individual can differ to that of the state and sometimes be in conflict. How do we bring these challenges into harmony?
A Self-fulfilling Prophecy
The debate around schools is reduced to the philosophy of learning, in the context of a given time and place. Do schools meet the needs of not just the state as a whole but the individual learner who turns up to class at 8.30am? If a there’s an inner-city London child, for example, in close proximity to deprivation, crime and violence, should the schools located in these areas provide an educational experience that acknowledges these circumstances as well as their academic performance? Should a pupil in South West England, whose family are on the poverty-line and have no history of higher education receive the same level of academic expectations as a middle-class student from Hampstead?
What is interesting is that in these examples, capitalism has created both predicaments and by custom preserves them through classism. Without getting too into class theory, social classes are not just defined by income but access and performance of the resources at their disposal. Poorer people tend to live in poorer areas with few well-funded schools, thus worsening their socio-economic prospects. The privileged classes are closer in proximity to opportunity and investment. Capitalism perpetuates these relationships and experiences. Since education is considered a vehicle to social mobility schools must also acknowledge how capitalism projects a self-fulling prophecy unto it’s ‘players’. The reason why people can’t achieve is very much to do with literal and perceived concepts of self. Sources of education are many in number but your choice or exposure to educational sources are informed by your environment. What you choose to consume or research is an extension of your experienced curiosity of the world and your place in it. Whether it’s to change your life or to confirm a truth, education is not objective, in both content and consumption.
Rewards and Signalling
Schools are trying to create environments that they believe are appropriate for their students but are still benchmarking grades and school leaver destinations as a measurement of success since they indicate economic productivity. Many schools don’t know the mental health status of their students or even realise the importance of monitoring it. Exposure to crime, in particular youth violence and drugs, is still not really considered a reason to approach teaching and learning differently. There is an elitism to what attracts the empathy of the government and even amongst society. This is probably a fundamental issue that distorts and undermines the impact of education on select communities in society.
The education system rewards those who are socialised to thrive within its walls. Again, under the auspices of capitalism, those who are perceived to have the talent and skills to complement the state’s productivity will reap the benefits. However, regardless of background, ableism is a feature of the school system that still needs to be addressed. To excel academically, the ideal student seems to be construed as the child who is without a learning difficulty. Wages are linked to jobs but if to succeed you need to get top grades then what are we saying about those who cannot? This is different to the scenarios where the child or student is held back due to low-self esteem and socio-economic factors. It can be argued that all else being equal, these students would thrive under better investment. However there will be students who, under economic theory and subsequent institutions, will not end up [or thrive] at a Russell Group university even on their best day. Even with tutoring and completing all their homework, some students cannot learn either given the teaching style or a disability. Does this mean that they do not deserve to earn £30K and above straight from university? The government needs to be aware of what the education system is signalling to different groups in society. Disabled students and those with learning difficulties need to be better incorporated into education theory or we risk systematically punishing them for their biological make-up. This is just food for thought; the an assessment of the education system involves an assessment of education and economic theory.
Food For Thought
The factory-farming approach to education means one glove must fit all and those who don’t fit are the problem. There is little diversity of teaching styles despite having a class of over 30 different children with varying learning needs.
What other institutions or networks in society need to pick up what schools leave behind? Are parents and families doing what they can to ensure that their child is not relying on formal education to teach them about life? Do communities ensure the younger generation recognise their self-worth so when they are in a classroom they have the confidence to interact accordingly?
There are so many things to consider. You will have your own concerns and areas of interest. As we sit thinking about the flaws of the system, to what extent are the complaints formed in our image and not considerate of the wider philosophical debate surrounding mass education? In theory and practice, what is missing from the 21st century education system that all pupils and students could benefit from? Given the major differences and intersections of race, gender, sexuality, religion, geography, aptitude and upbringings, are education systems operating to their optimum?
Considering the economic objectives of politicians and the downward pressure senior leadership teams apply to teachers and school staff, to what extent can the student protect their dreams from wider agendas?
Essentially, what does an education system look like under capitalism?