Moral bankruptcy in a growing economy: just what is the purpose of education?

Moral bankruptcy in a growing economy: just what is the purpose of education? March 2, 2015

‘Schools should do more’ proclaimed Prime Minister David Cameron, yet again making schools the stalking horse for every social woe. We’ve had doing more to prevent radicalisation, doing more to prevent extremism, doing more to raise standards, doing more, more, more. What this time?

Schools should do more because: ‘Children need to know how money is made, about turning over a profit’. OK, so he was speaking to the Institute of Directors about how to bring children’s ambition alive by inviting business leaders into schools, but this isn’t an isolated thought expressed in a singular context. It goes to the very heart of education policy and it’s shared by politicians across the divide. Speaking at the London Festival of Education, Tristram Hunt (Shadow Education Secretary) suggested that in order to encourage them to become more ambitious, girls should be given careers lessons from the age of seven; they can, apparently, be taught about being doctors or engineers as early as primary school. Odd – evidence says that women dominate Britain’s universities and professions to such an extent that white males are rapidly becoming an endangered species in the career stakes.

Ever since Tony Blair (UK Prime Minister 1997-2007) infamously declared that his three main priorities were ‘Education, Education, Education’ our education service has been a political football. The reason? The rarely repeated fourth E – Economy: his view that education ‘is the best economic policy we’ve got’.  So education and economic narratives became synonymous and as we approach a General Election, a measure of desperation is setting in as though, somehow, the economy is she who must be obeyed, rather than something that we can shape and make our servant.

And so a recent Department for Education press release trumpets the fact that ‘succeeding in school puts an average of £140,000 in a young person’s back pocket’ and that increased standards will add £1.3bn to the economy. The conclusion of the Secretary of State for Education? We’re going to ‘push our young people to do even better’.  There’s even a plan to use tax data to find out what the most lucrative careers are, in order to advise children what to study.

At the level of the policy wonk, creating good schools is no longer about giving young people the opportunity to become good people, equipped to contribute to the common good and to make autonomous choices about how to live fulfilling lives. It’s no longer about human flourishing. The government is so morally bankrupt, that its education policy is now only about how much (as individuals) we can make for ourselves and add to the economy, rather than about what we (as people living in community) can contribute to society.

For a while I was optimistic. Politicians started to talk about the standards agenda creating exam factories which were contributing to stress and mental ill health. The need was seen for nurturing more rounded people; for educating character as well as academic prowess. At last, a Damascene experience somewhere deep in the Department for Education.

Sadly it wasn’t to be. The recent round of Character Awards aimed not to nurture moral fibre for the common good, but to produce people ‘better equipped to meet the challenges of employment’.  Nothing, then, about how to deal well with the challenges of unemployment, redundancy, failure, ill health, or the down side of the competitive economy which will affect many of us during our lives. Just preparation for a life of acquiring shiny new things. This was confirmed by the choice of schools to award, including, in one winning school, the development of resilience, resourcefulness, reflectiveness, reciprocity and respect – as they relate to learning behaviour.  The comment from the Secretary of State: ‘Investing in the character of young people will … improve their job prospects’.

In the wake of the 2011 riots, the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues was set up, to consider character education. One of its recent research studies examined young people’s responses to moral dilemmas. They found that: ‘Many students taking the moral dilemmas test appeared to approach the dilemmas from the perspective of self-interest’ and therein lies the heart of the problem. The report also concluded that contrary to widely held belief, sport does not build character. Those who responded most positively were those involved in choirs, orchestras or drama.

As a musician I can explain exactly why this is – you learn early to listen constantly for others and to evaluate impact; you have to take risks and work beyond your comfort zone; there’s not much room for self-interest or personal glory, and you are very tolerant of mistakes, because everybody makes them and you know that the next one might just be yours.  So, coming soon to a school near you: choirs, orchestras and drama clubs. Funding not included.

Contrast what the Christian gospel says. Humanity is the centre of God’s narrative; precious, valued and created in His image. Not for intrinsic economic worth. Just because. Contrast how Christians are called to live: ‘in humility, value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. (Philippians 2:3-4). To spend a lifetime growing in ‘love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control’ (Galatians 5:22).  These are the virtues that Christian parents model for their children and Christian teachers model for their pupils.

To quote a US strategy, No Child Left Behind. But that’s about seeing the human potential of every child as made in God’s image, not as an economic unit. It’s about valuing each child as a person to be loved and nurtured by family and community. That is the true value of a good education service.

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