The Meandering Social Worker

wandering : wondering : learning

What is the purpose of education?

As I’ve visited other parts of the world, not the tourist destinations but where people really live, I’ve seen all kinds of economic lifestyles.  Of the many things I’ve considered, one has been children and education.

There are plenty of places where education is not available for one reason or another.  Sometimes there is simply not enough schools for all children to attend – such as the Kibera district in Nairobi in Kenya: declared an illegal settlement the Kenyan government provide no services whatsoever while NGOs fill the gap and enable around 50% of Kibera children to attend primary school (up to the age of 14).  That is of course if their parents can afford to buy them a (second hand) uniform and a pen or pencil.  In other places the cultural lifestyle doesn’t make it easy for children to attend school – such as the nomadic tribes in Mongolia, where the only way for a child to attend school is to go into the towns and live away from their parents most of the time.  Or for the Himba people in remote parts of Namibia where they can be cut off for months at a time during the rainy season.  It might be absolute poverty, pure and simple – uniforms have to be bought, along with pens, pencils and notebooks, and often school fees paid.  Where there is not enough to put food on the table, where basic needs are not or cannot be met, then school looks like an unnecessary expense.

In these situations it leads to the question: what is the purpose of education?  What is the role of school in education?

For most Mongolian nomadic tribespeople, they will want their children’s education to include an understanding of the seasons, animal husbandry, how the rotational cropping of the sparse vegetation between different herds which graze at different levels can best be achieved through community co-operation and their nomadic lifestyle, how to ride a horse and manage a herd of sheep, cattle or yak, possibly several hundred in number.

For the people living in Andean mountain villages in Ecuador, their education needs to prepare their children for a life on the farm, herding cattle, displaying the courage and confidence to handle the bulls, while providing the opportunity for some to take advantage of their country’s position as a developing economy.

In the 1940’s Abraham Maslow didn’t rate child education high enough to specify it in his hierarchy of human needs.  Hardly surprising in the context that our modern education system only really took effect with the 1944 Education Act (which only made education compulsory, not school, and which has not been rescinded).







But the needs of a modern education are vastly different from Maslow’s time.  Much is made of the benefits of young people going to college and university post compulsory education, which is being extended to age 18 in 2015.  But what is the purpose of education in England?  What are we preparing our young people for?

Perhaps it’s time we were more honest with our young people.  We want to prepare them for possibilities.  Possibilities of fantastic opportunities to work in industry, education, business, primary healthcare and more.  We set their expectations high.  But do we meet the needs of the majority?  The real majority today who will not get the opportunity to experience these fantastic opportunities because there are simply not enough of them.  It is a question I’ve often thought – and one that sits uncomfortably for many people.  It harks back to the bad old days when grammar school selection syphoned off those considered better equipped (intellectually) to take advantage of those fantastic opportunities.  The majority, deemed to have ‘failed’ the 11+ as it was called then, were left to deal with the mental and emotional impact of being labelled ‘failures’.   Yet in our efforts to deal with this societal error we have surely opened the door to a new one.

Young people for years have instinctively recognised the lie that qualifications lead to good and well paid jobs.  They do, but there are only so many of those jobs, and as we know getting those jobs is not just about intellectual capability.  This week the largely tabloid headlines, picked up in a handful of blogs, declared Britain is now a ‘nation of shop assistants’.

Under the heading World of work’s becoming more polarised the Western Daily Press, reports:

Britain is a nation of shop assistants, cleaners and waiters despite increasingly better educated professionals, according to a new report.

The top five largest single occupational groupings include 1.1 million sales and retail assistants, 600,000 cleaners and domestics and 450,000 in kitchen and catering work, said the Jobs Economist consultancy.

Are we preparing our young people for those jobs alongside the possibilities of ‘fantastic opportunities’?  That’s the challenge teachers face every day.


Additional References:

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs can be found in numerous places online.

Wikipedia provides a basic introduction to the current position of education in England today, including the raising of the school leaving age to 18 in 2015.

The Education in England website provides a more detailed history of education in England.


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