September 2013


  • The purpose of education
    Everyone has an opinion about what our schools and colleges should be striving to achieve and how they should go about it. For the sake of young people, it’s time to build a consensus. More
  • Inside knowledge
    Understanding leadership styles is not just beneficial for senior leaders, says John Bennett. It can be helpful for teachers early in their careers too, in order to help them realise their full potential. More
  • In the driving seat
    As chair of the Education Select Committee, Graham Stuart has been one of Michael Gove’s fiercest critics, despite being a fellow Tory. He talks to Liz Lightfoot about system reform, the latest curriculum controversy and why he’s backing ASCL’s Great Education Debate. More
  • Time to get grounded
    Schools can do even more with parent power if they harness it to improve teaching and learning in a real and credible way, says Jim Fuller. More
  • A wider vision
    A new Recommended Code of Governance for Schools, devised by the Wellcome Trust and education bodies, aims to fill the gaps in governors’ understanding of their strategic role. Dorothy Lepkowska reports. More
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Everyone has an opinion about what our schools and colleges should be striving to achieve and how they should go about it. For the sake of young people, it’s time to build a consensus.

The purpose of education

Put a cross-section of people in a room and ask them, “What is the purpose of education?” and you are likely to get as many different answers as there are people.

Some may focus on the personal value of a ‘good education’, one that enables all individuals to achieve their ambitions and to become successful members of society. They may stress the role of education in empowering individuals: raising expectations and expanding horizons by helping learners to grasp their own potential.

Someone else may express a similar view but maintain that if every child is to have the opportunity to reach his or her potential then what is needed is a framework of application and practice in order to turn dreams into reality.

An employer may put the emphasis on the skills that young people need in order to be creative, collaborative and productive in the world of work. A government representative may stress the importance to the nation’s economy of having a highly skilled workforce. Or they may highlight the need to develop active citizens.

Others, however, may reject a utilitarian approach and argue that education is an end in its own right. We should build on children’s natural curiosity, stimulate their imagination and enable them to become enquirers and life-long learners who are able to adapt and innovate as the world around us constantly changes.

Another person may pick up that theme and say that learning how to deal with failure is one of the key tasks of education since failure breeds resilience, learning and creativity.

A parent in the room may say that emotional well-being and having a sound moral compass are as important as educational achievement: Becoming a rounded young adult with a wide range of interests and friends should be on a par with levels of attainment.

Others, however, may point to the impact of technology on learning and the way it has opened up access to information, knowledge, theories and opinions. Education should be about equipping tomorrow’s generation with the skills necessary to engage effectively in a fast-moving and fully digital age.

Of course many in the room may argue that they would want the education system to foster and reflect a combination or even all of these dimensions.

Debate by proxy

In an ideal world we would debate these issues and reach a shared view on the purpose of education. We would determine the relative weight to be accorded to the differing drivers. That would then inform the framing and content of the curriculum, our understanding of teaching, the way we trained our teachers and the way we constructed the examination and accountability systems.

This is not as far-fetched as it may sound: Other countries such as Singapore do precisely this.

The reality, however, is that the debate on the purpose of education is effectively going by the board. Instead we are debating the issue by proxy. The real debates that are taking place are about the nature of the curriculum and the form of the assessment and examination system.

The curriculum debate

On one side of the curriculum debate are those, including the government, who believe that the curriculum should be based primarily on knowledge.

They argue that acquiring knowledge helps students to remember new information, solve problems and improve their reasoning skills. Children who grow up in disadvantaged circumstances come to school with less knowledge, so a knowledge-rich curriculum can help to compensate for what their peers from more advantaged backgrounds have.

The curriculum should therefore be based around what is often referred to as ‘core knowledge’ – a concept to as ‘core knowledge’ – a concept developed by the American professor Edward Hirsch. The ‘core knowledge’ approach builds up a list of things that a child should know – be them words, books, concepts or aspects of history – on a year-by-year basis. The approach is reflected in the way that the government has gone about rewriting the National Curriculum.

On the other side of the argument is the skills-based curriculum. Its proponents argue that today’s society requires “inquisitive, experimental, reflective and sociable” learners in order to cope with its demands. As Professor Guy Claxton, a professor at the University of Winchester and expert on creativity and learning says, students who are more confident of their own learning ability learn faster and learn better. “They concentrate more, think harder and find learning more enjoyable. They do better in their tests and external examinations.”

Some countries, such as Finland, are beginning to put less of an emphasis on the content of the curriculum. Kiristiina Volmari, councillor on the Finnish National Board of Education (FNBE), explained that they are “trying to reduce content and give more time to learning. … We want to boost critical thinking, citizenship and we also have cross-curricular themes which should be going through every subject … sustainability, responsibility, humanity, safety, taking responsibility for your community and entrepreneurship.”

A third way comes from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), which argues that, in today’s world, individuals create value by synthesising disparate bits of information. Learners need to be open-minded: They need to be able to make connections between ideas that previously seemed unrelated. This requires knowledge in different fields and learners who can constantly learn and grow. Therefore, there are four dimensions needed in a 21st century curriculum: knowledge, skills, character and a ‘meta-layer’ that is about learning how to learn.

The assessment debate

The assessment debate to a degree reflects the curriculum debate. Those who place great store by knowledge tend to say that exams should test the acquisition and application of knowledge through formal tests and exams.

Those favouring more skills-based learning argue for a broader and more flexible approach to assessment. They tend to support assessment that enables students to demonstrate creative, planning and reasoning skills alongside their knowledge of a particular subject.

There is also the issue about the number and importance of exams. Some people say that too many exams encourages teaching to the test, but others argue that standardised tests are a passport of achievement for children and enable parents and policy makers to hold schools to account.

Finally, there is the issue of the ‘school leaving age’. As young people are required to stay in some kind of education or training until age 18, are tests at 16 still relevant?

These are just some of the questions that need to be addressed urgently if our education system is to be fit for purpose for the 21st century.


  • Should we adopt a national statement on the purpose of education? If so, what may it say?
  • What should be the balance between knowledge, skills and character-building?
  • Are different approaches needed for different phases of education?
  • Are students in England tested too frequently? If so, which tests should go and how can accountability be maintained?
  • Is redesigning GCSEs the right thing to do or should the system be moving to focusing on assessment at 18?

Post your views at:

This article is a shorter version of the discussion paper that sets the scene for the first topic in the Great Education Debate: What is the purpose of education? Read the whole paper and give your views at

Join the great debate

ASCL wants to know your views on all of these issues and questions. Here’s how you can get involved:

Host a debate in your school or college and capture everyone’s views by video or by taking notes and email them to

Join us on Facebook at

Tweet us @GreatEdDebate and also use the hastag #GEDebate

Join the discussion and post your views on the website where you can also download a resource pack.