Sunday, 31 January 2010

On the nature of education

A few days ago somebody made a comment here when I was talking about education. This person suggested that my view of education was somewhat restricted and that other things were at least as important as a bunch of GCSEs. For example, "happiness, emotional maturity, family relationships, etc," This is an interesting view and one shared by many of the parents who took part in Paula Rothermel's research back in 1997. Quite a number of those people also thought that strong family relationships were a good reason to educate their children at home.

Now of course the first question that a potential employer is likely to ask a young person, whether home educated or otherwise, is not "Did you have a good relationship with your mother?" Similarly, emotional maturity is not likely to come up during a job interview. That's not to say that it is unimportant, just that it is not the sort of thing one can discover in an hour or so. A far more likely question is "How many GCSEs do you have and at what grades?" This is what most people mean by education. This applies not just to employers, but also colleges, universities, the Department of Children, Schools and Families and also the ordinary man or woman in the street. Why should this be so?

The fact is, much of the "studying" for GCSEs entails learning a lot of stuff by heart, none of which will be the slightest use in your future life. Let's face it, nobody you meet after the age of 16 is going to be the least bit interested in knowing what the Alkaline Earth metals are, or how far it is to the Sun, or the date of the Treaty of Utrecht, or anything else that you had to learn in order to pass your GCSEs. Nor will you be expected to solve a quadratic equation or know how to spell "pterodactyl". From that point of view, most of one's "education" has been a complete waste of time! So why do people use examinations as a measure in this way? There are several reasons.

For her History IGCSE, my daughter chose as one of her themes, "The Changing Nature of Twentieth Century Warfare". Unless she gets a job as an historian or applies for a post as a curator at the Imperial War Museum, you might think that all that study was pretty pointless; yet it impresses colleges, universities and employers a great deal. For one thing, it demonstrates that she was able to stick at something for a year or two and work systematically at acquiring the rudiments of the topic. This is what you might call a transferable skill. If you can master a load of stuff about nuclear strategy, the tactical use of aircraft carriers, combined operations in World War I, the concept of limited warfare as developed in the Korean War and so on, then the chances are that you should be able to learn and remember other stuff too. If you are working in an insurance office, then the prospects of your picking up the information necessary to be a loss adjuster are good. If you become a solicitor, then you have shown that you can study and remember information which is of little interest and no use. Looks like there should be no problem learning about law! Passing GCSEs at high grades often means that you did not spend your education flitting like a butterfly from one topic to another, never staying long enough at one subject to get to grips with it.

This sort of study suggests that you are capable of deciding to do something and then sticking at it without giving up after a month or two. This is worth knowing for a potential employer or prospective college or university. You don't want to engage a smart fellow for your office and then find that he loses interest after a few weeks and drifts off to get another job. You want someone who has staying power. Applying yourself to studies for a couple of years is evidence that you might be able to stick at a job. Nor do you want to give a student a place, only to discover that she gives up in the first month or term. There is also some indication of intellectual ability in passing a lot of GCSEs at high grades. An A at maths might indicate that you are not a complete fool and that you could be able to understand abstract concepts. It is certainly not an infallible indicator, but it is better than nothing.

Having a good relationship with one's family, on the other hand, is probably a pretty poor guide to how somebody will perform both intellectually and practically in future life. It definitely does not give you any clue as to whether or not they will make good employees. Again, happy people of course are generally to be preferred to miserable ones in the workplace or university, but some happy people are utterly useless and a bit stupid. Being happy is not one of the most prized traits which employers are looking for.

In short, it is a good thing for children to be happy, emotionally stable and to enjoy strong family relationships. I certainly valued those things myself, but they do not really constitute an education. That is also why, when a local authority is wondering whether a child is receiving an efficient, full-time education suitable to her age and ability, they tend to be asking about dull stuff like how many GCSEs will she be taking, rather than how happy and emotionally mature she is.


  1. You have one definition of education, Simon, other people have others. That, surely is why there have been such strong objections to government trying to define of what a suitable education should consist, and why previous governments have, wisely, not attempted such an undertaking.

    I'm slightly puzzled by your view of education. You appear to see it solely as a means to getting a job. (I'm not sure even this perception is accurate; my experience of recruitment suggests that employers can be confronted with many applications from candidates with very similar GCSE, A level or degree qualifications and so rely on other indicators such as work experience, indicators of initiative and commitment to select the candidates they want to interview.)

    Also, the original purpose of public examinations was to surely to ensure that we had a well-informed populace, who had access to the knowledge and skills they had acquired during their education whenever these were needed. The point of learning so much about the world we live in is not that it will be useful in future, but that it might be useful in future. And not just its utility for the individual, but collectively for the community.

    Interestingly, the 'vociferous minority' of home-educators objecting to the proposed legislation has been drawing on distributed knowledge and skills that, in some cases, individuals haven't used for years. It's been a steep, but beneficial learning curve for many involved.

  2. It is true that I was rather assuming that most home educated young people would want either to get a job or go into higher education. Obviously, you don't need five GCSEs at A*-C in order to claim social security benefits.

  3. By the way, you say quite accurately that many employers when presented with candidates with similar GCSEs, A levels or degrees, tend to rely upon other indicators. How do you think that most employers react when faced with a choice between a candidate with GCSEs and A levels and one with no GCSEs or A levels.......

  4. I don't see it it as one taking precedence over the other, both academics AND positive personal development will go a long way to helping a candidate stand out and be able to achieve the niche they seek in life.

    Self confidence, to pick just one aspect, on its own probably won't get you a job you desperately want, that you don't have the required qualifications for, cos most likely you'll never even be offered an interview.

    However if you do have those required bits of paper AND your personal development is exceptional then you're going to stand out from the crowd, particularly when young since awkwardness and a lack of self confidence can cause many to come across as a bit two dimensional, interchangeable and unmemorable.

  5. Again you ignore the other benefits mentioned in the past - research skills, self motivation, organisational abilities, love of learning, ability to recognise their own interests and follow them up, etc., none of which are measurable by the number of GCSEs you attain.

    "Obviously, you don't need five GCSEs at A*-C in order to claim social security benefits."

    But you also need self confidence and emotional stability or you are likely to join the many claiming sickness benefits because of mental health issues. Employers recognise this and research has also shown that work ability is closely related to self-confidence and emotional stability.

    Just one example:

    "Relationship of core self-evaluations traits—self-esteem, generalized self-efficacy, locus of control, and emotional stability—with job satisfaction and job performance: A meta-analysis.
    By Judge, Timothy A.; Bono, Joyce E.
    Journal of Applied Psychology. Vol 86(1), Feb 2001, 80-92.

    In total, the results based on 274 correlations suggest that these traits are among the best dispositional predictors of job satisfaction and job performance."

    As to GCSEs as an indication of sticking power, surely there are other ways to show this? The obvious example is a portfolio of work for art courses, but there must be other alternatives for other types of course, voluntary work, OU courses, etc, even GCSEs. 5 good GCSEs taken from home probably indicate more sticking power and study skills than 10 even better GCSEs that were spoon fed to you in school.

    "This sort of study suggests that you are capable of deciding to do something and then sticking at it without giving up after a month or two."

    Or gives an idea of how big a carrot or stick was held over the child and/or how much help with coursework they were given by parents and/or teachers.

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