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Alex Morton is Director of Policy at the Centre for Policy Studies, and was a member of David Cameron’s Downing Street Policy Unit.

Conservatives are increasingly worried about education – with good reason. We have lost sight of what education is for. Three beliefs usually cited as justifying education are:

  • Education should take place “for its own sake”.
  • Its purpose is to share a value system.
  • It is essentially functional – to train people to cope with life, find employment and raise incomes.

There are also two areas related to education which have become increasingly mixed in:

  • Pure research.
  • Indoctrination.

The structure of education should flow from the purpose of education. Michael Gove’s free schools and the roll-out of academies were welcome – but ran into a great deal of opposition. The infamous ‘educational blob’ seems, if anything, to have grown with the National Education Union unanimously attacking OFSTED for raising the issue of the veiling of primary school children, an attack on the principle of excluding unruly pupils (and possible Government policy shift), and severe shortages in Maths and Physics that seem to show freedoms in pay for teachers are more illusory than real.

The biggest justification for education is giving people skills for life

In terms of education for its own sake, the evidence is fairly clear. Most people do not enjoy education. Unsurprisingly, policy-makers, who tend to be academically gifted and enjoy study, underestimate this. Most people rate education in time-studies as fairly low. The Princeton Affect and Time Survey, for example, finds education scores even lower than work in terms of enjoyment. So in this sense education for all but a minority is a waste.

Second, there is the issue of a value system. This shades later on into indoctrination of course – but it is fairly uncontroversial in the teaching of basic elements about decency and tolerance of others, and that rules must be obeyed if you are to get on is a positive.

Third, there are the entwined issues of training people to cope with life and find employment, and raising incomes – what might be termed a functional approach. Being able to read, write, count, engage with ideas and also follow rules (at least most of the time) are all valuable things in themselves and also necessary economically.

However, the value of this education is not intrinsic, but in the fact that it opens up life to those involved. It is not ‘education for its own sake’, but the giving of tools to people with which they can make their own way and support themselves. Interestingly, there is a clear link between IQ and growth (see this for a technical metastudy), but much less on education spending and growth, (and see this for another rather technical metastudy), indicating it is the quality of education that matters – so education that builds intelligence which helps individuals and our wider economy must be our goal.

Unnecessary research and indoctrination have grown and need rooting out

Two developments, however, have intruded more and more into the education system. Firstly, our universities are a confused mix of pure research and mass teaching. We have kept the system from the 1950s when three to fourper cent of people went to university – even as university attendance has exploded. Unsurprisingly, this means that a vast number are working on areas that are of no relevance. The idea that a PhD thesis from the majority of universities in such subjects like sociology, philosophy or English literature will be read by almost anyone is a cruel fiction. Much of this is unhelpful and a cost to both individuals and society.

This relates to the second area – indoctrination. Education is, in theory, the opposite of indoctrination. While you should learn facts, the purpose is to teach you to think for yourself. In practice, it is impossible to teach in a completely value free-way. And indeed, nor would we want to. Ninety-nine point nine per cent of us would think it a failure if people left school with the values of the Saudi Arabian schooling system. But there is a growing conservative and classical liberal concern about indoctrination on issues from the environment to identity politics by which people are being taught to be hostile to – and even that it is illegitimate to have – conservative or classical liberal views.

Education needs to be focused on equipping individuals

If the purpose of education is to give people discipline and equip them to be able to cope with life, then our education system should be based on this. This would look quite different to the system that we currently have. Our current education system is a typical producer-focused system which assumes that production is automatically a good thing – despite the fact that education which fails to develop students is a waste of their time and society’s resources.

A few weeks ago, we at the Centre for Policy Studies published our report Technically Gifted, which argued that we need to move to a system of selective technical and vocational education rather than just tinkering with the exam systems – with T-Levels representing yet another round of reforms that seems likely to be yet another change in a system that has seen, since the 1980s, BTECs, diplomas, NVQs, GNVQs and Foundation Degrees. (You can read Graham Brady’s excellent piece on this here).

We need to focus on giving people a range of schools that suit aptitudes – whether academic or technical. To ensure that they can see why education – particularly from 11 onwards – will help them lead a better life. We need to focus on a university and post-16 education system that is about giving people the tools to think for themselves, and training them to apply them – not indoctrination in particular viewpoints. It may be as well that this also means rethinking for many people how far we need to be prescriptive about what they do in secondary schools – particularly for those who are less academically gifted.

We need to make this as a positive case – because we as conservatives believe that education helps individuals to lead better lives – not just because we dislike our opponents.

Giving pupils pride in being British citizens and requiring them to tolerate different views

In addition, at a time when school budgets cannot grow too quickly we need to consider cutting the cost of the educational bureaucracy. As noted, it is the quality not quantity of education that matters. The educational blob and indoctrination could be reduced if, instead of trying to micromanage what people learn, we simply require that children coming out of our education system are proud of being British, tolerant of different opinions, and focused on people as individuals, rather than seeing themselves as part of different blocks.

We have never really managed to capture the educational bureaucracy, and I suspect we never will. Further it would be wrong to try to create a system of conservative indoctrination just because progressives have indoctrinated children and students in the other way. As long as we have a level playing-field, the facts of life are, after all, conservative, and forcing schools to teach that different viewpoints exist and that debate is essential should be our goal.

This is what an education system should aim for – individuals who are proud of Britain, tolerant but supportive of robust debate, and who can get on in life because they have the right skills and can make the most of whatever talents and aptitudes they have. And if we promote this view, I am sure the majority of Britons will stand with us.

18 comments for: Alex Morton: The purpose of education is to give people skills for life. And we have lost sight of it.

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