What is the purpose of education?

I’ve learned from teaching that the best way to plan a lesson is to define its purpose – in one simple sentence. Because the process of learning is so complex, the point of it must be simple and clear.

It makes sense that the same rule should apply to our education system. Without confusion, we should all feel equipped to finish this sentence: The purpose of education in Ireland is…

The basic principle of Finnish education is equity. In Japan, its purpose is to enhance individual abilities and develop a basis for their social independence.

How might our sentence read?

I can give you some options. For Mary Wollstonecraft education is the process that teaches ‘young people how to begin to think.’ For Dr Martin Luther King, ‘The most dangerous criminal may be the man gifted with reason but no morals. … We must remember that intelligence is not enough. Intelligence plus character—that is the goal of true education.’

‘The one continuing purpose of education, since ancient times,’ said Arthur W. Forshay ‘has been to bring people to as full a realisation as possible of what it is to be a human being.’ Do any of these reflect our current system? Perhaps not.

Last week, huddled in our staffroom, preparing our morning lessons, a small group of us teachers gave this challenge a go. The outcome was startling. No sentence was forthcoming. We work in the same department in the same school, in the same county, share similar world views, and yet our fundamental understanding of what education in Ireland means, couldn’t be more different.

For me, before anything else, education is a leveller. It’s a space that creates equity and fairness through learning. 

Education should bring contentment to the individual and then to society. It’s an aspirational enterprise; it’s intrinsically hopeful. 

But for this other colleague of mine, education is about learning subjects and building skills; it’s not the remit of education to make the world fairer or more equal.

What might students say? Well, I went and asked: my own kids, students I teach, students I don’t teach. Younger kids seemed to give more open accounts than their older peers. They said things like, ‘It’s about being with friends,’ or, ‘It’s where you learn.’ But the older students appeared more cynical. One looked me straight in the eye and said, ‘It’s where teachers try to make young people think like old people.’ Another said, ‘It’s about getting into universities.’ And yet another, ‘I’m not sure.’

If I’m honest, my colleague and these older students are closer to the truth. As it stands, our current system is one of reproduction; it’s assembly line stuff – a project to create carbon copies of the existing workforce through traditional university routes. Most students are funnelled through the same exam system, one that champions university qualifications and professional job titles. How could students describe education as empowering, or as encouraging individuation? How could they mention equity when they see with their own eyes and feel with their own hearts that the system is unjust. They see how special educational needs impact success when success is defined in narrow terms. They feel the power of postcode and privilege in the race they run together.

It’s at times like these that I feel sick in my stomach. I want my professional life to mean something. I’m outraged by the sentence that most accurately defines education in this country: education is about getting children into universities. Third level academics even help the SEC write national exams! It couldn’t be clearer what it’s all about! And it’s backed up by a thousand different things: schools pushing to use TY for exam preparation; toxic league tables; the refusal of secondary schools to open an adequate number of special classrooms.

It’s difficult for our country, our communities, to come to a better definition, a more aspirational goal, a new agreement, when we’re all so far apart. It’s hard to define what education in Ireland is, because it looks different in every school, under every patron. And as I have come to realise, it even looks different across a single staffroom.

The Leaving Cert seems to be the only thing we hold in common.

We rarely acknowledge the damage caused by the word ethos in schools. I’ve come to hate the word. Why? Because it defines schools as separate and distinct to every other school in the country. It’s part and parcel of a competitive system seeking to override individual autonomy and critical thought and a national agenda. It’s a distraction taking us on a tangent away from countrywide agreement, national, joined-up thinking.

We should want a country with a single ethos, a secular ethos of respect and inclusion. We should rightly baulk at the bizarre situation we find ourselves in as teachers, getting jobs in schools based on our ability to parrot its ethos in the interview. Granted, in the current system of assessment rote learning of such responses makes perfect sense. The same system demands rote learning in the Leaving.

The Green Party asked for a Citizens’ Assembly on education when they formed the current coalition. Does anyone know when it’s going to happen? Because we need it. And we need somebody with a bit of forward thinking to start with the basics. We need to finish that sentence: the purpose of education in Ireland is…

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