Thursday, 15 May 2014

A healthy education

I wasn’t planning on blogging again so soon, as I’m extremely busy at the moment with one thing and another, but I couldn’t resist the way that my previous and current professional interests (education and public health policy) combined on Wednesday.

The BMJ published what I thought was a reasonable, clear editorial about the role of public health in education.  I have to confess I hadn’t been hoping for much – as regular readers will know, I’m quietly sceptical of public health’s tendency towards empire building.  In fact, I was pleasantly surprised.

A very strong response was then posted on the Red Head Full of Steam (RHFOS) blog, which I came across via Chris Snowdon’s Twitter feed.  Having read the original article, this post struck me as pretty odd, and links to Gerard Hastings’ (admittedly strange) presentation at Southampton University were a bit out place.

The main suggestion of the editorial was that education shouldn’t be too narrowly defined to focus exclusively on academic attainment – and it crucially pointed out that broader work can be helpful not just to health and happiness, but also to academic attainment itself.  So this needn’t be seen as a zero sum game whereby time spent on ‘health’-related work detracts from ‘academic’-related work.  In fact, there are initiatives that build things like ‘resilience’ and team-working (though I dislike both those terms) that are simply based not on the content being taught, but the ways in which it is taught.

The response on RHFOS focused on how strange it was to suggest that schools should do anything more than seek to maximise academic attainment, with Chris summing the editorial up as Public Health complaining that schools focus on education.  There was also the point made by RHFOS that if we’re concerned about people drifting off into what are often labelled ‘risky’ behaviours (drinking, smoking, drug-taking, truancy etc) then a focus on academic attainment might actually be a good idea because we know this is correlated with income later in life, and low-income is associated with all these issues – not just for the individual concerned, but also those around them including their children.

To a certain extent this misses the point: interventions like the Good Behaviour Game improve both ‘resilience’ or health and academic attainment.

However, there’s something more fundamental going on here.  The reason RHFOS and Chris are sceptical about the place of interventions to improve public health in education is that they hold of particular view of what education is, or should be.

When I suggested to Chris that he was thinking of education a bit narrowly, he countered that a narrower view would be a good idea: focusing on reading and writing.

In such a statement there’s already an understanding of what education should be, but it’s still an open question about what it’s for.  Why reading and writing specifically?  Are these skills to be used in a particular way, and to what end, or is there something inherent in having the skills that is good?

I have absolutely no time for the facile phrase ‘education for education’s sake’.  It’s meaningless, and the kind of woolly thinking that underlies it even gets to people as high up the academic tree as Stefan Collini (don’t whatever you do waste any time reading his book What are Universities For?).  Education means a leading out – and thus implies leaving something behind and moving towards something.  If you’re leading someone, you’re taking them somewhere, whether deliberately or not, so having some idea of where you’re aiming for seems to be a good idea.

Of course, the objection to interventions related to public health isn’t necessarily based on ‘education for education’s sake’.  There’s simply an assumption that academic achievement should take primacy – maybe that’s what children are being led to.  But actually academic achievement – however measured – isn’t an end in itself.  The achievement or knowledge isn’t useful or helpful in itself.  Either it’s a means to self-sufficiency or prosperity in some economic sense, or it’s about something approaching the ‘good’, or fulfilment.  (In fact, choosing the former says something about your views on the latter.)

The argument on RHFOS seems to suggest that academic achievement is a good basis for economic stability later in life.  But there’s considerable evidence that academic attainment isn’t itself what leads to that prosperity; it’s just as likely a signal of an individual’s broader attributes – perhaps that they are hardworking and disciplined, since they’ve managed to achieve so much at school or university.

To place emphasis on the signal, rather than the underlying skills, seems an odd way to go about things, and it can’t really resolve any of the issues relating to inequality or poverty that are hinted at by RHFOS if the underlying structures that produce the differences in outcome aren’t addressed.  If you improve everyone’s academic attainment without that affecting the underlying economic structure then all you get is inflation of qualifications, which is precisely the situation Britain finds itself in today, when more and more professions require postgraduate qualifications simply to distinguish the hordes of applicants from each other.

This idea of a signalling function and qualification inflation, though, mostly relates to the later stages of education, and most of the interventions the BMJ editorial is (implicitly) referring to could equally apply in primary schools.  It seems that most of the economic returns to a society from education come from the earlier years – and in fact these years make a disproportionate contribution to an individual’s success in later life.  (Just one reason why it’s strange we ratchet up spend per pupil as they get older.)  So perhaps that makes the need to focus on academic attainment in those years even more important.

This idea of an emphasis on early years and basic skills might support Chris’ point about focusing on reading and writing – so what am I complaining about?  Well, education, I would suggest, should be about something more.  Or rather, it is about something more, whether we like it or not.  Literacy and numeracy are not the only knowledge and skills one might want in life, and so if we simply select these as being the appropriate elements of schooling we are making a choice that says something about our particular priorities as a society.  Without wishing to sound like Matthew Arnold, with his idea of ‘sweetness and light’, I think this sort of selection suggests a narrow, somewhat instrumental view of a child’s future.  In any case, such a choice would reflect a specific understanding of ‘the good’, and it might be one most people can agree on – but it is in no way neutral, and to pretend it is would be to obscure some fundamental moral and cultural beliefs.

Education, if it is anything, is to prepare people for life; nothing more, and nothing less.  Whether we like it or not, any education system will betray some underlying values, so we’d better be clear and open about what those are, and debate them.

Moreover, I have a feeling that the ‘narrow measures of attainment’ Adam Fletcher talks about in the Independent article RHFOS quotes are league table metrics by which schools are judged, not pupils.  Those are misleading and, like most targets, spawn perverse incentives: to focus on those on the C/D boundary at GCSE, rather than those at either end of the spectrum.

I’d suggest you read the editorial.  It’s really rather good.

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