Education, Engineering and Enlightenment; The Three E’s. State and Home Education Contrasted

Graham N. Luke
Reading University
Whiteknights, Reading, Berkshire, RG6 6AJ
United Kingdom

Keywords: Homeschooling, home schooling, home education, three E’s

How We Home Educate

Our modus operandi is to split the children into two groups. My wife caters primarily to the younger children teaching basic skills (the four R’s and life skills[1]) using a combination of purchased curricular and do-it-yourself materials and ideas. Teaching sessions are usually short (one hour per day), we do not run a weekly timetable, nor do we follow the academic year—we take breaks as and when we consider them necessary either for the children or for us. We do not follow the National Curriculum[2] (there is no legal requirement for home educators to do so) though some parts of the published guidelines can make interesting reading—their contents reveal what is considered important by the state. Most educational texts and educationalists use jargon based on these guidelines therefore a familiarity with them is useful. We make extensive use of videos, especially educational programs, and computer packages and games. Our four elder children each tutor one or more of the younger ones once a week on a subject or skill. An important part of our approach is to foster a work ethic, but there is a great deal of fun had.

The older children are mainly self-taught. I direct them in their studies by giving a set of individually tailored weekly/monthly objectives and/or guidelines for a variety of subjects, and typically a deadline[3] for achieving their goal or producing an item of work, which I mark and review if necessary. Very little formal teaching is given, and when it is, it is usually tutorial style—one to one format. Autonomous studies and individual skills are encouraged but not to the exclusion of other studies and projects, as one of our aims is to get a variety and balance of subjects, and another is to use the discipline of doing (and doing well) things one does not relish as a preparation for many of those tedious tasks and responsibilities which accompany adulthood! Much emphasis is placed on skills such as information retrieval, analysis and presentation. Each child has his or her own desk in a bedroom where they work mainly on their own, but pair or team up when it is useful to do so. For resources we use a mixture of purchased curricular materials, reference texts and literature (we make great use of libraries and secondhand bookstores), computer CD-ROM and software packages, video tapes, and do-it-yourself materials and ideas.

As our family is a large one, and as we do not live in a mansion, a disciplined lifestyle is essential. Responsibilities and duties are delegated, for example in cleaning and cooking, and the older children tutoring the younger ones. All the children go swimming and (excepting the one year old) ice-skating regularly, receiving professional tuition in the latter. The four older ones (9-14) receive tuition in flute/clarinet and/or piano, and the two younger girls attend a ballet class. My wife is involved with the deaf community and is teaching British Sign Language to the children. Each year we put on a musical or dramatic performance for our wider family at Christmas. We are members of a home educating organization, Education Otherwise.[4]

Our Philosophy

A casual reading of social history and educational literature (Morris, 1979; Hobsbawm, 1969) shows that the following three activities (my definitions) have been foremost, in a variety of guises and mixes, in the development of educational provision:

  1. Education—establishing a skills and knowledge base; an enabling for personal betterment, achievement, and the means to make a living;
  2. Engineering—socially engineering the masses or a proportion thereof, to fit the perceived needs of society by a controlling elite, or on a more individualistic level the carrying on of a family trade or tradition;
  3. Enlightenment—an awakening, challenging and training of the intellect so as to appreciate and make sense of one’s world and, potentially, the ability to change it and enjoy it—to be a thinking person.

These three Es[5] take on a different complexion in a home education environment, compared to the institutionalized regime of a school where they are the slave of statistics.
The emphasis between the Es vary for each of our children, depending on his/her personality and development. The emphasis also varies with learning opportunities which present themselves, and also on our perception of what would be beneficial in the light of progress towards goals we are aiming for, that is, we are extremely flexible. The next three sections outline our educational philosophy which springs from our understanding and approach to the three Es.


Choose your skill or knowledge set! Gone are the days when one was limited to a few subjects. Western technological multicultural society is incredibly complex, and this is reflected in the multitudes of subjects one can study in Britain at academic[6] and vocational levels.[7] My categorizing of skills and knowledge, and the basis thereof, follows:
Foundational. Some skills and knowledge are foundational to a majority of all others (e.g., maths, literacy, communication).

Personality enriching. A stable personality is enhanced by the expression and enjoyment of creative skills, the mastery of interpersonal skills, and an understanding of oneself.
Specialized. Highly specialized and intellectually demanding skills and knowledge, for example, languages and information technology.

Social understanding. History, geography, psychology, sociology, technology, religion media studies and sciences are important in allowing one to understand culture and social structures in context.

Interest. Some subjects are just interesting or enjoyable to the curious mind or gifted individual, for example natural history and music.
Useful. Keyboard, domestic skills such as cooking and child care, crafts etc.

Being unhindered by the (shrinking) National Curriculum, we (and the children) choose a variety of subjects to study within these broad categories.


Raising a family is social engineering. What you teach a person (or more properly what a person learns—and that may not be what you teach) is part of the engineering process. Whether one is autocratic or practices autonomy, one’s children are products of the home factory (cf. Goldby, 1990) until and unless you send them to school when they then turn into chimeras, products of:

  1. State edicts on education policy (which frequently change).
  2. A succession of teachers of varying ability and motivation, frequently demoralized by a) and overburdened with bureaucracy.
  3. Institutionalism.
  4. Peer pressure.
  5. The home.
  6. Personality and ability of the child.

(I do not mean to imply here that schools produce monsters, but rather to point out that a school has a great number of variables to cope with which influence the course of a child’s educational and personal development, many of which are not, or only loosely, under their control. This includes government directives on policy or curriculum which, apart from requiring changes in practice, usually involve significant bureaucratic loadings. Schools are of course instruments of large scale social engineering but I wish to emphasize that each individual school engineers each individual child in its care. Each child is unique, but the system through which that child passes is necessarily geared to the average. Schools are institutions, and you fit into them, or you are a misfit and a problem to the institution. Where the variables are insurmountable, the child fails.[8]) Any educator who is not pro-actively engineering in their educating (i.e., looking beyond the simple acquisition of facts to the future life of the individual) is not taking his/her responsibilities. As home educators, our aim (at the very least) is to equip (engineer) our children to cope with the world, preferably to be successful in it. This goes beyond establishing skills and knowledge that are useful to society, and therefore valuable commodities, into areas of attitude (e.g., diligence, discernment, compassion, integrity) and moral and ethical values.[9] These attitudes and values are commonly considered to be at risk within a school environment, and thus this area is one of home education’s particular strengths. One of the joys of home educating is the clear communication channel which exists between us and our children, which we use, quite naturally, to discuss issues which concern and interest us and them. We have two teenage girls, and no teen problems.


“A fundamental decision we have to make about education is whether it should transform the mind so as to equip us for independent judgment and rational action, or whether it should be directed towards practical skills for particular ends. This is the distinction between liberal education—education for freedom, for tackling problems as yet unknown—and schooling as training, for instrumental tasks as they are currently perceived” (Maurice Holt, quoted in Chitty, 1990, p. 37).

The pragmatic capitalist or imperialist view is that successful education/engineering produces a useful (read tax-payer) member of society (in dictatorial regimes substitute soldier or peasant). The cream of a civilization, however, are innovators and adventurers, thinkers and individualists. In a technological capitalist world, a nation without such people will suffer great disadvantages. Clearly there are good social engineering reasons to encourage intellectualism,[10] but to reduce the intellectual potential of people (and children are people with the greatest potentials) to components of an equation is a crime against the individual. The awakening or opening of the mind is wonderful to experience, and wonderful to see in a child—not just the grasping of isolated facts, but the weaving of threads of diverse origins into a coherent map, or at least a meaningful pattern, which helps one navigate and understand oneself, the world and the people who have lived on it, and who are alive now, to make sense of life. There is a great joy and satisfaction in having a fine tool and using it to produce a thing of great beauty or functionality, and having discovered that their mind is such a tool, children will keep on using it.[11]

One of our most pleasurable results of home educating has come from the deliberate policy to open the minds of our children by directed reading. It used to be said that one went to a university to read a degree. Certainly in the sciences this is not so much the case as it used to be. Studying literature and learning writing techniques is obviously useful (though I doubt many authors wrote that their efforts be analyzed and criticized) but reading in itself can be an intellectually challenging and stimulating activity. A well-chosen book can be thoroughly cross-curricular and intrinsically enjoyable—by which I mean an enriching experience, not just a nice story. As an example, Shelley’s Frankenstein or Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde are not “nice” stories, but they are good books because they challenge and stimulate thought on weighty matters. In that sense they are enriching. Reading (especially fiction) can cause one to question, to review one’s beliefs and understanding of a matter, to consider other points of view, in essence to broaden one’s horizon.[12] Our aim is to get our children to be literate in the sense that not only can they read, but that they do. Each child is periodically given a reading list of books (fiction and non-fiction) which I judge to be either (a) an enjoyable fun read, (b) an example of good literary style, (c) a classic piece of writing (d) on a subject which is of interest or of relevance to something being studied, (e) a story on which the screenplay of a film has been based, which we then watch and discuss, or (f) on a subject I want to introduce. For a few of the books, they are asked to write a review.

In guiding our children to books they might never consider (either because they are too old for them, obscurist, or just not in vogue) we have seen a tangible change and maturation in their intellectual understanding, and curiosity about the world. They also read, by choice, many other books outside of my list and they are not at all daunted by large or difficult books.[13] (I recently came across John Holt’s “Concept of the Four Worlds” [Holt, 1971] and realize the relevance of our use of literature to that concept.) We use videos and audio tapes in a similar way with (unforced) discussion and questioning playing a central part in the process.

Part II: An Analysis and Review of the Three E’s in Social Science and Educational Literature

State-Controlled Education

Debates on education are often voiced in terms of method (How do you teach?) or in content (What do you teach?). In this section I focus on the latter question, and bring out its double-edged nature.

The first edge concerns curricula and subject matter and debate is currently preoccupied with the academic and/or vocational question, and how these relate to the perceived future economic and employment needs of society. This is dealt with in some depth in Part III, but a relevant point to make here is that there exists a clear conception of the link of curriculum to social engineering.

The second edge is considerably dulled. An equally valid answer to the question “What do you teach?” is: The individual and the latent potentials therein. This is a much neglected side of education, and the tendency to relate these latent potentials only to traditional academic subjects is a grave failing of the system. It is obvious that all normal humans have a varying range, or profile, of abilities or talents. We talk about the gifted person in the sense of music, maths, mime, and even entrepreneurship.[14]

The most well-known presentation of human abilities in a theoretical cognitive framework is that of Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences (MI) (see Gardner, 1993). Two quotations illustrate the main framework of this theory: “we believe that human cognitive competence is better described in terms of a set of abilities, talents or mental skills which we call ‘Intelligences’” (Gardner, 1990, p. 931). The uniqueness of individuals is, he claims, an expression of the variable strengths of these intelligences, which he terms profiles, thus “the diversity of human ability is created through the differences in these profiles” (Gardner, 1990 p. 936). A profile is not a static entity, but a dynamic range of abilities.

Gardner lists seven basic intelligences (musical, bodily-kinesthetic, logical-mathematical, linguistic, spatial, interpersonal, and intrapersonal) on the basis of psychological and neurological research, which he contrasts with the concept of Spearman’s general intelligence factor (Gardner, 1993).[15] He does not claim this list of seven intelligences to be exhaustive.

Gardner’s MI theory, as he himself admits, has been unenthusiastically received by psychologists (for a criticism of his theory see Howe, 1997). It has been, however, welcomed by many educationalists who see it as a workable alternative to traditional methods. It is clearly harmonious with experience obtained in progressive child-centered approaches, and it has the bonus of being endowed with a common sense and humane approach, recognizing the necessity of viewing each individual as an individual with many facets to their character and abilities, all of which are valuable as they define who and what we are.

MI has had little prominence in the UK, which is hardly surprising with the subject-centric education favored by British governments over the last 15 years, but with the relaxation of the demands of the National Curriculum, change may be in the air. Hopper and Chamberlain’s recent publication (1996) by the Centre for the Promotion of Holistic Education at the Edge Hill University College (one of the larger teacher training centers in the UK) encourages the incorporation of MI theory into teaching practice. The distinction is drawn that one can learn “for MI” (i.e., each intelligence in its own right), “with MI” (i.e., to support academic subjects – this is the main thrust of  the booklets), and “about MI” (i.e., understanding oneself and learning the concepts and language of metacognition,  which they define as a reflection about the nature of learning and an awareness of the psychological processes involved in learning). Metacognition is a common theme in MI theory, which relates well to my understanding of enlightenment.

State-Controlled Social Engineering[16]

“They had faith that education controlled by an elite, would bring about a betterment of society” (O’Day, 1982, p. 11). The “they” referred to in this case was the upper and middle classes of 18th Century Britain, but one could equally apply this statement to Nazi educationalists, or any other elitist power grouping. People in power educate children for either benign, or malevolent and selfish reasons, but they do have their reasons.

“Social, economic, political, religious and cultural developments shape a society’s thinking about educational provision and curriculum. They act upon education; they are acted upon by education” O’Day (1982, p. 12). O’Day’s statement illustrates that education’s relationship to social change is powerful, but not simplistic. This fact was not lost on the ruling classes, and the increasing control of the state over education in the late 1800’s is described by Johnson (1970) as “an enormously ambitious attempt to determine, through the capture of educational means, the patterns of thought, sentiment and behaviour of the working class” (cited in Lowe, 1988, p. 15). In other words, the hierarchical class system was bolstered by an educational system, which was itself a reflection of the same class system. Thankfully, state control of education in the UK today is far more benign.

Educational social engineering works by dividing, or streaming, the school population into groupings. Historically this was done by a social class structure, in essence “educate the middle class… and train the working class” (Chitty, 1990, p. 38). In a democracy, personal preference groupings are obviously the preferred choice,[17] but the dilemma facing the UK is that personal preferences do not fit the projected needs of the nation. The challenge is to get ability groupings and personal preference to coincide.[18]

A document of surprising comprehensiveness which investigates this situation is the European Commission White paper “Teaching and Learning – Towards the Learning Society” (1996).[19] Its analysis concludes that three things will totally and rapidly change the face of European society in the realm of employment and wealth generation: An Information Technology (IT) revolution as profound as the industrial revolution; Internationalization, a process in which a mobile, global labor force takes shape;

An acceleration of the scientific and technological revolution happening today, which it is suggested will be perceived as threatening due to the rapidity and incessant nature of change which it brings.

Its recommendations make interesting reading. Apart from some fairly predictable items such as improving IT and foreign languages, it emphasizes the need to educate such that people can cope and adapt rapidly to the changes in society, and to find “a sense of personal direction.” It also identifies social and personal aptitudes as being key issues, and its definition of  “the essential function of school”  is that of “Building up a broad base of knowledge, i.e., the wherewithal to grasp the meaning of things, to understand, and to create” (European Commission, 1996, p. 7).

As regards qualifications, it is quite radical: “In most European countries, paper qualifications are designed with a view to filtering out at the top the elite …..It could be considered that society ‘locks out’ in this way much talent which is frequently unconventional but innovatory and that it therefore produces an elite which is not truly representative of the available human resource potential” (p. 32).

It proposes that instead of paper qualifications being the main route to employability and career progression, a skills card, akin to an accredited resume, be instituted.

Enlightenment Within the State Educational System

The state system is primarily concerned with education and training. Enlightenment (in the sense of an awakening or opening of the mind), however, although a somewhat esoteric concept and a unique experience for each individual, is clearly recognized as an important aspect of education (see Chitty, 1990). It is interesting to note the value of literature in this process within the state system has long been recognized, for example Gatherer (1990) considers it “a prime source of vicarious experience” (p. 748) and “the most effective means of training pupil’s minds in clear thinking, forming independent judgements [sic], and responding sensitively to the ideas and feelings of other people” (p. 742). Similar praises are bestowed on the use of literature and philosophy by the European Commission White Paper (1996) “Teaching and Learning – Towards the Learning Society.”

Conclusion on the Three E’s

The Mix. In a utopian environment, learning centering on enlightenment by methods such as the directed reading outlined above would be the major thrust of education. Utopia unfortunately does not exist. The reality is that at present the common measure for the attainment of skills and a knowledge base is the acquisition of qualifications by examination. Examinations are of little direct educational value for those who take them and may only measure ability in examination technique and the ability to learn or remember a collation of facts. They may not even be a measure of effort as what is easy to one may require great diligence and struggle in another. Qualifications are, however, very important for the individual in that they can determine which strata of society one belongs to. They are a boon for almost all choices of employment, and society values them highly. In this view they are, for the most part, a necessary evil.[20]

And what of the unconventional talents and the concept of enlightenment? The schooling system, if not ignoring them, severely marginalizes them primarily because they are not easily quantifiable, or in some cases, definable, though obviously they bring great advantages to the individual and society. The home educator however can set them as central to his/her educational philosophy, and further, due to the explicit intimate knowledge the parent has of his/her child, the parent can be highly focused, and thus effective, in implementing an individualized holistic education.[21]

The home educator’s dilemma is that enlightenment is easy to focus on, but empowerment in the sense of the door opening ability of a specialized qualification is a challenge, perhaps philosophically, certainly in resources. Examinations are geared to institutions logistically; to sit them privately as external candidates can be problematical. The greatest challenge to us personally is that we need to get the (different) mix of Education, Engineering and Enlightenment right for each of our children, and as home educators we have that opportunity, privilege, and responsibility to do so.

Part III: A Brief History of State Education in the UK Since 1948

This history seeks to illustrate the dynamic evolving nature of state educational provision, the mastery of political agendas over educational issues and debates, and the impossibility of understanding such without a knowledge of the social and political conditions which influence them.

The 1948 Education Act

In 1948 the basic legislative structure determining state education in Britain for the following 40 years was established by the Education Act of that year. This was the culmination of years of debate, and was precipitated by political developments springing from the Second World War and its aftermath. The settled formulation was that of common universal primary schooling leading to a common tripartite secondary provision, based on the traditional hierarchical view of social class and employers requirements, lent respectability by psychometric theory current at the time.

Thanks to the influence of the psychometricians, who had concerned themselves increasingly with cognition and “types of mind” during the pre-war years, the Board of Education was ready to take on Labor’s policy of universal secondary education, so long as it was closely linked to differentiation of schools (Lowe, 1988; see also, Carr, 1990).

The tripartite classification of schools was (a) Grammar schools for high achievers to follow intellectual and academic subjects, (b) Technical schools for high achievers to follow applied science and technological vocational skills subjects, and (c) Secondary Modern schools for the rest, who were to supply the demand for “blue collar”, clerical and unskilled workers.

High achievers were defined as children at 11 years of age who passed a universal state examination – the 11 Plus. These three categories were described by Toby Weaver in a memorandum of 1950 to David Eccles, the Minister of Education, as “fliers”, “hurdlers” and “pedestrians” – (cited in Rowe, 1988, p. 114). This tripartism foundered from the start, ultimately failing, because the Technical option was perceived as vastly inferior to the Grammar schools by both parents and the teaching profession. This was, at least in part, because of the social weighting of the qualifications (the General Certificate of Education, or the GCE) that were obtainable in the Grammar schools at age 16. Popular demand led to the Technical schools transforming themselves into Grammar schools, leading to essentially a bipartite system.

The vast majority of state secondary schools in Britain are now Comprehensives—the system of streaming the school population by the 11 Plus being abandoned during the sixties and seventies – thus practically ending bipartism, although streaming was usually practiced, often by ability grouping into forms. (Mixed ability classes are now more common with streaming, or differentiation, built into the curricular material used). The higher achievers would sit GCE examinations, whereas the lower streams would sit the less rigorous Certificate of Secondary Education (the CSE), which at its top grades was rated as equivalent to a fair pass (grade C) in a GCE. Comprehensivization was very much a political hot potato, and even today is a vigorous topic of debate when the conversion of a Grammar school is mooted.

During the same period, the Primary system underwent radical changes, pretty much in line with general trends in the permissive society of the time. The old way of doing things was openly questioned and debated: “School was seen as having been instrumental in fostering a mindless acceptance of traditional morality” Darling, 1990, p. 45). New approaches were tried, generally going under the name of  “progressive” or “child-centered” education, in which social and interactive skills in learning were more prominent than formal, subject-centered teaching.

The Education Reform Act 1988 and the Education Act 1993

Extensive debate on the quality and scope of primary and secondary education through the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s have led to two major pieces of legislation which have transformed Britain’s schools. The legislation has chiefly dealt with how schools are run, and the establishment of a national curriculum (discussed below). The instigation of Local Management of Schools (LMS) has devolved much of the bureaucracy and responsibilities of day to day management, including significant budgets, to the headteachers and to lay Governing Bodies. General opinion is that LMS has brought about many good changes and opened some advantages in budgetary management, but at a cost of changing a major part of the traditional role of headteachers,  and increasing their workload. For a synopsis of these reforms and the legislation the reader is referred to the Central Office of Information publications “Education” (1996), and “Education reforms in schools” (1994). For a review of the impact of  the 1988 and 1993 Acts on schools up to the time of the Dearing Report, see Abraham (1995).

There has been considerable and far-reaching changes brought in by the 1988 and 1993 legislation, but there remain four main issues on the political agenda concerning education:

  1. nursery provision
  2. curriculum content
  3. qualifications and vocational training
  4. the raising of standards in educational achievement.

Nursery Provision

The former of these was part of the 1948 Education Act (Clause 8(2)b, and is yet to be implemented. The last Conservative Government in its final year of office began the implementation of a Nursery Voucher scheme. This was promptly abandoned by the succeeding Labor Government – much to the relief of many in the teaching profession, the LEA’s (Local government Education Authorities) and the large numbers of private nursery providers – as it was considered a highly bureaucratic, ill-thought out policy. The very large financial implications of establishing universal nursery provision have always proved insurmountable in the face of budgetary constraints and other priorities.

Curriculum Content

Curriculum content has largely been settled (or so we are led to believe), at least concerning secondary provision. The Education Reform Act (1988) introduced for the first time a National Curriculum. Prior to this legislation there were no national guidelines on curricula content for primary and secondary education in state schools. In brief, the National Curriculum established 10 subjects which were to be taught in all schools, as subjects in their own right, with defined cross-curricularity, and standardized attainment targets and assessment procedures, the results of which were to be public and used to maintain and improve standards. The ten subjects were divided into two groups—the core subjects of English, mathematics, and science; and the foundation subjects technology and design, history, geography, music, art, and physical education. History and geography were designated alternative subjects at age 14, unless a shortened version of each was followed, and art and music were designated optional subjects at the same age. (The 1948 requirement for religious education was also retained but with a parental option of withdrawal.). This was presented to the public as being a return to old standards, but using best educational practice, that is, a return to rote and chalk teaching was not advocated, but progressive approaches were to be subservient to a subject-centered curriculum. There was much controversy over the National Curriculum, especially in three areas: (1) logistical problems, (2) standardized national pupil assessment and school league tables, and (3) loss of teacher autonomy and changing role of teachers.

The logistics of implementation

The National Curriculum was phased in over the period autumn 1989 to summer 1993. The teaching profession, especially headteachers, was put under great strain in this time, having to adopt and plan many new tasks, assessment skills, procedures and lesson plans. At the same time, the way schools were managed was dramatically changed—headteachers found many new responsibilities were put on their shoulders, not least of which was coming to terms with, and finding out how to work with, the newly empowered Governing Bodies.

Standardized national pupil assessment and school league tables

The next topic is the nature and relevance of pupil assessment procedures, and the use of these pupil assessments to draw up a league table of schools.
For the first time, pupils were to be assessed by examination at the ages of 7 and 14. An assessment was also to be carried out at age 11, but this was not a return to the “Eleven Plus.” The assessments are not designed to measure intelligence or aptitude, but educational attainments, and especially progress. The relevance of tests, especially at younger ages is moot, but the use of the statistically unweighted results in drawing up performance league tables by which schools can be compared was (and is) highly contentious.

Loss of teacher autonomy and changing role of teachers

The next issue deals with the absence of flexibility and stifling bureaucracy. A third complaint was that ten assessment subjects were too many and the curricular coverage assigned to them too high. The teaching profession felt that vital flexibility was missing and also that the bureaucracy involved was stifling important aspects of teaching, and causing unmanageable stress. Feelings were so high on this point that teaching staff took industrial action, many, some at very senior levels, took early retirement.

Qualifications and Vocational Training

The dichotomy of GCE’s for “bright” pupils and CSE’s for the “less-bright” has been removed – at least in name – by the introduction of the General Certificate of School Education. This qualification is obtained by examination or a combination of course assessment and examination, with grades available to cover all abilities – in effect incorporating the CSE grades. The inclusion of coursework is considered to have made the examination process fairer, but there is repeated concern (usually after the publication of results) that standards are slipping.

The debate on vocational education is ongoing (see Chitty, 1990), and will become a central issue in the coming years due, in part, to the European Commission’s White Paper (1996) “Teaching and Learning – Towards the learning society”  which, in focusing on the vocational, personal, and technological skills it forecasts, will be vital for the European Union to prosper, has provided the basis for a wider debate. At present, vocational qualifications are still viewed as less influential than GCE’s, and are not as widely available in schools, but both these factors will probably change in the coming years (though to what degree it is hard to anticipate). The perceived worth of vocational qualifications will change due to the impact of information technology on employability, and to the promotion of such worth by the Government.

One example of governmental initiatives in this area is that schools specializing in technology or language studies are being encouraged. There are three types of such secondary schools, described as City Technology, Technology or Language Colleges. They follow the national curriculum but with special emphases in target areas. College status for a school is subject to substantial investment of private sector businesses. As of 1996 there were 101 of the former and 6 of the latter. Most vocational qualifications at present are obtained by post students at Further Education colleges, but the wider availability of vocational qualifications within schools is, and will be more so, the subject of Government incentives and directions.

The raising of standards in educational achievement

In 1997 there was a change of Government. A significant part of the manifesto of the New Labor party was of educational reform, especially in regard to raising educational standards in schools. Accordingly, a White Paper was published entitled “Excellence in Schools.” In 1998 the National Literacy Strategy was published, which is to be followed by a National Numeracy Strategy next year. The National Literacy Strategy is concerned with the low national levels of average literacy found in 11-year-olds, and seeks to address this by instigating a daily hour of literacy teaching in primary schools for every pupil throughout their primary schooling. The distinguishing feature of the National Literary Strategy is that it is definitive and prescriptive in its guidelines as to how to implement and achieve the objectives set out, and that most good schools have been aiming for its objectives for years. It is possible for schools to withdraw from the scheme but only if approved alternative arrangements are made. Its main objectives (increased literacy and interest in reading) are of course admirable, though the standards expected in English grammar are surprisingly high. To accommodate this extra hour, the National Curriculum has been further streamlined (see below).

The Dearing Report

The report of Sir Ron Dearing, published in 1994, addressed some of the complaints and problems resulting from the 1988 and 1993 Acts. Although the ten subjects within the National Curriculum were to be retained, there was to be a streamlining, primarily in the foundation subjects, so as to allow considerable flexibility in the system, especially for 14- to 16-year-olds, and a cut in teachers workload. One important recommendation of the report was that the National Curriculum should undergo no further major revisions for five years after 1995—this was very much welcomed by the teaching profession who were heartily fed up with the adage constant change is here to stay. However, shortly thereafter the first rounds of a new school inspection regime were initiated by OFSTED (Office of Standards in Education). The OFSTED inspections are rigorous and very time consuming, and some would argue of dubious worth. They are not welcome events, being viewed by many, if not most, in the teaching profession as intrusive, unsupportive, and detracting from the real business of teaching and running schools. With the change in government, as noted above, came further major reforms of educational practice with the introduction of the National Literacy Strategy in primary schools, with the promise of more to come.

Teacher fatigue and demoralization at all these incessant and major changes, and many others I have not discussed, is a concern. A moratorium was introduced a few years ago closing early retirement schemes for headteachers, so great were the numbers leaving the profession. The comparatively low pay and esteem which the teaching profession receives has also led to recruitment problems, especially in the high-demand areas of science, maths, and modern foreign languages. A further worry concerning recruitment is that the recent introduction of student loans (in replacement of grants) and the charging of tuition fees for degree courses may discourage entrants to teacher training courses. The government has introduced bonus payments for students entering some high demand subject courses to try to offset this. (I know of one teacher who after a successful year of teaching took employment in an Arabian peninsula state solely to pay off her crippling debts).

Future Prospects

State schooling always has and always will be a political football, but the differences between the political parties on education are now very few, and generally over minor issues, so it is unlikely that any changes of substance will be instigated by them on ideological grounds. The teaching profession is, I think becoming resigned to more and more reforms of  practice, which is just as well for the opinion of  European Commission White Paper (1996) “Teaching and learning. Towards the learning society” is that: “The crucial problem of employment in a permanently changing economy compels the education and training systems to change” (p. 27).

Thankfully much of the dross of psychometric and class determinism which plagued generations of children by its influence on educational policy has been discarded, and there is still a legacy of the progressive child-centered approach to temper the subject-centered curriculum approach now in the ascendancy. The Conservative Governments which preceded the present Labor Government instigated (as one would expect) a return to “traditional” values, and were criticized for being bullish in pushing reforms on schools. To the surprise of many, Labor is following in their footsteps, though the sound bite used to describe their prescriptive reforms is now “the nanny state” (i.e., “do this, do that, no you can’t,” etc.). At present, political focus is on issues relating to standards in the Three R’s, but attention will, I believe, increasingly rest on vocational and technological skills as part of a social engineering strategy to generate wealth. As for the educational establishment, the streamlining of the National Curriculum has allowed some reflection on, and relaxation from, the straight jacket of politically correct (in the most literal sense) teaching practice, at least in the secondary sector. It remains to be seen how long and if the jacket will remain loose.


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[1] Art being the fourth.
[2] See Part 3.

[3] A very flexible deadline mostly.


[5] A fourth “E” could now be added to the list above: Entertainment. I recently read a prospectus for a 6th form college attached to a school which offers three levels of studies for its members: a level for Advanced academic qualifications which are the track to University entry; a level for vocational qualifications which are designed with business, commerce, and skilled industry in mind; and finally, a level for leisure and social activities which is less academically rigorous, containing more sports, social and personal skills etc. There is a deliberate policy of encouraging post 16 education.

[6] One examination board (Northern Examinations and Assessment Board) lists 69 GCSE syllabuses in its literature (February 1998, GCSE PL2).

[7] Vocational qualifications such as the British Technical Education Council (BTEC) General National Vocational Qualifications (GNVQs) are professional or business related studies and are available in a plethora of forms for example business and finance, leisure services, hairdressing, construction industry, child care and catering. Many of these supplement or have supplanted traditional apprenticeships.

[8] Properly, the institution fails.

[9] Obviously these characteristics are advantageous to an employer or a would be entrepreneur.

[10] Enlightenment is also important socially for it is the thinking articulate mind that is able to discern propagandist manipulation, political excess and contradiction for what it is, for example comparing McArthyism  with facist repression and describing it as “an American mirror image of Stalin’s purges” was a brave and radical analysis (Gelhorn, 1990, p. 171). Those who cry out that the emperor is naked save us all. See also “Towards the Learning Society” (1996).

[11] See my later discussion on Multiple Intelligences and metacognition.

[12] This is discussed further in Part Two of this paper in the section “Enlightenment in the state education system.”

[13] For example my nine year old son has read Lord of the Rings, and rates Robert Louis Stevenson as one of his favorite authors.

[14] It is perhaps significant that one of the common reasons for home educating is to enable a child to develop his or her peculiar giftings which would otherwise be subsumed within a state school.
[15] Gardner (1993, page xi) states: “Had I simply noted that human beings possess different talents, this claim would have been uncontroversial— and my book would have gone unnoticed.”

[16] State engineering is significantly different from “home engineering” in that personal individual development has to be subservient to the social and macroeconomic agenda of the state.

[17] British society is also a meritocracy, in which case ability groupings are the sensible route.
[18] In Part Two of this paper, I discuss the streaming strategies attempted in the U.K. over the last forty years.
[19] The text of this document is available at
[20] A little meditation will show that the academic skills required by an individual for success in our society are actually very few and simple. A skilled labourer can easily earn far more than, for example, a university lecturer, and be content and happy with his life. However, to work for a strata-less society would be futile as it would collapse, but an educated, thinking people, irrespective of social class is essential for a democracy. The dichotomy of training or education is not an option in a democracy (European Commision White Paper (1996) Teaching and Learning. Towards a learning society.) The only stable alternative is feudalism.

[21] Howe, (1997) discusses the advantages a parent may have over a skilled professional teacher in the light of this intimacy.

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