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Educational Philosophy: does it exist in the 1990s?
Derek Gillard
September 1992

copyright Derek Gillard 2001
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In her article Where is the guiding star? in the Summer 1992 issue of Forum, Liz Thomson pleaded for an informed debate among professionals about the issues raised by the report of the so-called 'Three Wise Men' on primary education (DES 1992). This article was my contribution to that debate.

Does this government have a policy for education? Does it have a philosophy of education? Many would argue that it has neither. The fragmentation of educational provision - opting out, City Technology Colleges, selective schools etc - is taken as evidence of a lack of policy or direction. I would argue the reverse - that there is a clear policy here based firmly in elitism. It is never (or at least rarely) stated as a policy, presumably because even this government recognises that such a statement would meet with a high level of disapproval.

In my view, the same argument applies to philosophy. The apparent vacuum in this area also disguises a view of education which many (and all Forum readers?) would regard as unacceptable. It is a philosophy closely linked to the policy of elitism. It is utilitarian, seeing education as a means of providing the elite with the means for success and an outlook on life which will ensure the maintenance of Tory values, while providing the rest with an education which fosters the skills and attitudes of a compliant workforce and an obedient citizenry. (Witness the remarks of Secretary of State John Patten about teaching children about hell).

The promotion of this policy and philosophy has been going on since the late seventies largely by stealth, but it has gained momentum with the implementation of the 1988 Education Act. The policy can be seen in its provisions for open enrolment and publication of 'league tables' (setting school against school); and its philosophy in the establishment of the National Curriculum, a reincarnation of the 1904 Secondary Regulations.

There is no doubt that the introduction of the National Curriculum itself has pushed teachers towards a more subject-orientated curriculum. The bizarre edifice of attainment targets and statements at ten levels - constantly changing - has presented teachers with an enormous task in terms of curriculum mapping and planning. Little wonder, then, that many have decided it is easier to cope with if kept in discrete subject areas. Many schools are still attempting to devise appropriate learning experiences for children but the burden of constantly demonstrating which attainment targets are being fulfilled in which subjects is heavy - and, I would argue, totally pointless.

Teachers are now internalising this oppression, worrying more about meeting legal requirements than about providing an appropriate style of education for their pupils, even where the requirements are more perceived than real.

How do we challenge this situation? I think it is important for teachers to have the opportunity to get off the merry-go-round of government initiatives occasionally to take stock and to think - for themselves - about what education is and what it is for.

I make no apology for believing that most of what the Plowden Report had to say about children and their primary schools was - and still is - absolutely right. I go along with Margaret Donaldson that what we should be doing is extending good primary practice into the lower secondary years, rather than extending dubious secondary practice into the primary years. 'There is pressure now for change at the lower end of the system. And there is a real danger that this pressure might lead to change that would be gravely retrogressive' (Donaldson 1978:14). If those words were true in 1978, how much truer they are today!

For me, then, education must be, first and foremost, child-centred. This means starting from where the child is, acknowledging the child's integrity and regarding his/her needs and interests as paramount:

Don't forget that the child is a living thing, with thoughts and beliefs, hopes and choices, feelings and wishes; helping him with these must be what education is about, for there is nothing else to educate. (Pring 1976:51)
The philosophy of this government (if philosophy is a word which can be used to describe its rag-bag jumble of on-the-hoof decisions) seems to me to be based on the utilitarian view that the child is a unit to be prepared for a life of work, that the child has no individuality of his/her own.
They come to the teacher unformed, ignorant and distracted; their existence as citizens, and the rights and immunities which confer equality... lie at the end of the educational process and not at the beginning. (Scruton 1987:44)
Compare this with Plowden's view that 'A school ... is a community in which children learn to live first and foremost as children and not as future adults' (Plowden 1967:187).

I am committed to the process model of the curriculum, even though I acknowledge that content, aims and objectives do have a place. How appalling it is now to hear from children that, whichever school they attend, they are all studying the Vikings or the Egyptians or the Tudors and Stuarts: whatever happened to the spontaneous, the unexpected, the creative? Education has become boringly predictable.

I want to allow - indeed, encourage - the child to take a large measure of responsibility for his/her own learning. This means much less teacher direction (though, as Plowden pointed out, there must be advice and support from the teacher) and much more choice for pupils. I despair of education perceived as a series of teacher-prepared worksheets (usually photocopied from textbooks) through which pupils must work as though they were filling in income tax forms. This isn't education, it's time filling. Worse, it's time wasting. It is also de-skilling, since it prevents pupils from using their own initiative and a wide range of valuable skills.

I want to see guided discovery reinstated as the only ultimately valid way of learning: I want to see less of the teacher standing in front of the class lecturing (though there is a place for this occasionally). I want to enter a classroom and, after searching, find the teacher engaging with a small group or individual child.

I want to see far more resource-based learning, where pupils choose their areas of study and then have to find the information they need. It is in the finding, collation and use of information, and in sharing and discussing it with others, that much of the educational process lies.

I am not suggesting that subjects don't matter: we do our children no service at all if we don't teach them to read, write and add up. But, ultimately, this is not what education is about. They are a means to an end, not an end in themselves.

I want teachers to have greater control of the curriculum so that they can implement the above. The curriculum cannot effectively be imposed from outside:

Control of curriculum development and of the quality of educational provision will always effectively rest in the hands of the teacher in the classroom ... we would do better to direct our efforts towards attempting to support him in meeting that responsibility than towards endeavouring to take it from him and place the control in the hands of others who are in no position to exercise it effectively. (Kelly 1982:4)
Or, as Skilbeck (1984:2) put it:
'The curriculum ... is internal and organic to the institution, not an extrinsic imposition.'
I want no competition between pupils: I don't like house points, gold stars or merits and I certainly don't want to see pupils' progress compared with each other and - heaven forbid - displayed for all to see. If the work has integrity and validity and relevance, no external motivation should be necessary, though the appreciation and praise of teacher and peers is, of course, vital. I have no time for elitism: every member of the school has something to offer which should be valued by all. I don't like tests and I certainly don't want results published to anyone but the pupil him/herself and, where appropriate, to his/her parents or the school to which s/he is transferring. Assessment should be part of the dialogue between teacher and pupil as equal partners in the learning process. Education is much more than me telling you something and then testing you to see if you've remembered it: it's about learning and developing together:
A good school, in short, is not a place of compulsory instruction, but a community of old and young, engaged in learning by cooperative experiment. (Hadow 1931:xv)
How much longer is it going to take us to learn this lesson?

We already have a National Curriculum which is distorting what education is about. With the re-election of the Tories for a fourth term I am desperately anxious that all we have worked for in the past twenty-five years will be destroyed. A whole generation of teachers will emerge from the colleges with no philosophical understanding of what it means to be educated. Does anyone read Dewey anymore?

With a Secretary of State for Education who believes that to create obedient children all you have to do is teach them about hell, a government that spends huge sums of taxpayers' money on a tiny number of pupils in City Technology Colleges, that divides the schools with opting out, open enrolment and formula funding, that shows little or no interest in pupils with special needs, what are we to make of its philosophy of education? What a mess!

In his book Personal and social education in the curriculum, Richard Pring quotes the letter which the principal of an American high school sends to his teachers on the first day of the school year:

'Dear Teacher

I am a survivor of a concentration camp. My eyes saw what no man should witness:
    Gas chambers built by learned engineers
    Children poisoned by educated physicians
    Infants killed by trained nurses
    Women and babies shot and burned by high school and college graduates.
So I am suspicious of education.
My request is: Help your students become human. Your efforts must never produce learned monsters, skilled psychopaths, educated Eichmans.
Reading, writing and arithmetic are important only if they serve to make our children more human.'
(quoted in Pring 1984, Introduction)

In her Forum article, Liz Thomson suggested that 'the best teachers are those who can be described as thinking, researching and innovative practitioners' and asked (of the report of the Three Wise Men) 'where's the vision?' (Thomson 1992:65). It is difficult to have a vision when confronted with a government which is setting such an all-encompassing agenda that is at best irrelevant and at worst destructive. That 'vision' has never been more vital than it is now.

References

DES (1992) Curriculum Organisation and Classroom Practice in Primary Schools: A discussion paper London: HMSO

Dewey J (1938) Experience and education London: Collier Macmillan

Donaldson M (1978) Children's minds London: Flamingo/Fontana Paperbacks

Hadow (1931) The Primary School Report of the Consultative Committee London: HMSO

Kelly AV (1982) The curriculum: theory and practice London: Harper and Row

Plowden (1967) Children and their Primary Schools Report of the Central Advisory Council for Education (England) London: HMSO

Pring R (1976) Knowledge and schooling Wells: Open Books

Pring R (1984) Personal and social education in the curriculum Sevenoaks: Hodder and Stoughton

Scruton R (1987) 'Expressionist education' Oxford Review of Education 13(1) 39-44

Skilbeck M (1984) School-based curriculum development London: Harper and Row

Thomson L (1992) 'Where is the guiding star?' Forum 34(3) 64-66

  • This article was first published in Forum 34(4) Autumn 1992 92-93.