There is so much debate that this seemingly simply question is far from easy to answer. But, to me it is straightforward.
There was a time when a liberal education was the hall-mark of a civilised person and was deemed to have value in itself. Education was about enabling an individual to become the best person they could be in all aspects of their life, and so it should still be.
Since the industrial revolution, emphasis in the UK has been on the education of a workforce. A utilitarian system designed to meet the economic needs of the nation. Just last week, the results of a CBI study of the education system showed that in the 21st Century we remain focussed on fulfilling the workforce need, but that we’re just not doing it very well.
Based on the research findings, the Shadow Education Secretary proposes that the nation’s school day is extended to more effectively prepare children for the workplace, giving them a “better perspective of the expectations upon them following the transition from school”.
On one level I agree – the more time spent in a positive and productive learning environment the better. However, a longer school day in itself will not better prepare young people for work. Nor should a longer day be used to cram in more subject based learning, in an effort to improve exam results and ‘drive up standards’.
The important thing to consider is how this extra time can be used to develop and enhance students learning and thinking skills outside of the restrictions of the curriculum timetable. Unlike Stephen Twigg, I’m not referring here to teaching ‘soft skills’, I’m talking about giving young people the ability and resilience to face challenges and obstacles with confidence. Extra school time should be used to inspire children to have aspirations that may enable them to change the world for the better. Because of our obsession with qualifications and measurability, it is very easy to overlook the ‘why’ behind education.
I believe that the challenge for us now is to forge a new educational imperative which combines the best of both approaches, to equip young people with all the attributes of a liberal education, while ensuring they have skills to adjust to the demands of an age and a future of unknowns.
So, in three words, I believe that the purpose of education is to ‘inspire to aspire’.