The Purpose of Education – some thoughts from an ex-headteacher

The Purpose of Education


It always seems to me that this is where everyone gets confused. Everyone talks about education as if they are talking about the same thing. They are not.

Politicians rant about league tables and world standing without any understanding of what they are talking about.

Parents send their children apprehensively into the machine with a modicum of hope but no real understanding of what they are hoping for.

Students are consumed by the process without grasping what is actually happening to them.

The measurable outcomes are easy to assess and so are given greater importance. The aspects that are not measurable are sometimes acknowledged but usually taken for granted and brushed aside. You cannot measure happiness, empathy, responsibility and tolerance.

Industry cries out for more and better grist for the mill. We in education are always falling short. The economy requires more fodder. Students become numbers to be crunched, pegs to be slotted, and material to feed the machine of commerce.


Most importantly students are people; they should be happy, well adjusted, creative and inspiring citizens who care!


There needs to be a national debate.


There needs to be an international debate.


Everything stems from philosophy.


We have to stand back from it so that we can view the edifice of education objectively.


What is the purpose of education?


This is something that needs looking at from all sides. Out of this debate there must be some consensus and the application of intelligence. We can no longer allow education to be the football of political dogma and vested interest. It has to be based on sound philosophy and placed in the hands of educationalists who know what they are doing.


So what needs to be considered? Let us look at education in the widest possible light. By exposing the various philosophies we might explore them better. I do not necessarily agree all these objectives nor do I place them in any order. Indeed I abhor some of them. I merely moot them as considerations in order for us to debate the enormity of this subject. We cannot arrive at consensus without taking into account the full panoply of views. By looking at the monolithic construction that education has become from different angles we might begin to make sense of it.

Here are my views on what various interested parties view as being the fundamental purpose of education:


  1. For enjoyment
  2. To prepare students for jobs and careers in the modern world
  3. To prepare students for life in the 21st century
  4. To provide the basic needs for participating in a technological society – reading, writing, arithmetic and computer competency
  5. To assume a place in society as a positive citizen – moral, sexual and political.
  6. To stimulate imagination and creativity
  7. To grade students so that future universities and employers can easily judge their competence
  8. To create a hierarchy of status in society
  9. To provide the skills, verbal and practical, that are required by employers, society and individuals
  10. To broaden the mind and open it up to further understanding
  11. To create wonder and awe.
  12. To understand science and technological advances
  13. To understand history and learn from it so that we do not make the same mistakes
  14. To absorb knowledge so that it can be processed internally and synergistically used to arrive at new understanding
  15. To explore feelings so that emotions can be understood and mastered
  16. To explore love, sex and relationships so that adults and children can have better experiences
  17. To promote the sheer love of a subject
  18. To stimulate intelligence and an inquisitive mind
  19. To satisfy the love of learning
  20. To stimulate the love of reading where-in all human experience, the highest thoughts and aspirations, and our dreams are contained
  21. To foster an appreciation of the arts as the highest, most civilised expression of humanity
  22. To investigate morality so that we might build a better, fairer society
  23. To foster tolerance so that we never experience racism, sexism, religious intolerance, homophobia, war, persecution or slavery again in human history
  24. To socialise people so that they are able to enjoy the company of others from all strata and types of society
  25. To teach teamwork and cooperation, so essential to human achievement
  26. To enable the enjoyment of sport and play in all its varieties
  27. To teach about health and fitness so that we can lead vital pleasurable lives
  28. To foster an appreciation of the pleasures of life – literature, food, wine, theatre, opera, music, drama and good company
  29. To care for the environment so that future generations can enjoy the planet
  30. To consider all the issues that threaten life on this planet: overpopulation, pollution, war, species annihilation, overcrowding, poverty, terrorism, and so on – so that we might find solutions
  31. To consider political systems and analyse their effectiveness so that we might produce better systems.
  32. To objectively look at party politics and understand what different political factions stand for so that we might all be better equipped to function in a true democracy.
  33. To investigate capitalism and the world of big business to better understand how the world is organised and run
  34. To promote empathy, responsibility, tolerance, respect and care
  35. To build self-esteem
  36. To foster alert, lively minds who are optimistic and ready to step forward to push back the frontiers with imagination, creativity and exuberance


I am sure there are others to add to this list. Perhaps you could tick the ones you agree with?


There are some that I believe have no place in education. I do not believe that religion should be allowed anywhere near young vulnerable minds. There is no room for outmoded, primitive superstition in schools. It should be outlawed.

As for religious schools and the brainwashing of young children I view these as child abuse.


Too many minds are stultified by poor education techniques, their imaginations sacrificed on the altar of rote learning for league tables, and their enjoyment strangled.


The cleverest boy in my childhood secondary school was a genius. He passed every exam with a clear grade A. He was also a joyless, timid, and boring individual without spark or passion and was unemployable except to stoke the icy furnaces of academia or the depths of library archives. Heaven help us if we churn out such vacuous products of stifling education systems. He was an utter failure.

So that list and more make up the purpose of education. People have differing views. I know what I believe is important and I have heard what varying politicians believe.

It’s time we discussed it openly and fully.

Let the debate begin ……………….. please!!

In the UK:

In the USA:


32 thoughts on “The Purpose of Education – some thoughts from an ex-headteacher

  1. I think many of us are well of aware of the trials and tribulations of the Irish system. My wife’s experiences were nothing short of appalling.
    Let’s all hope that they eventually unburden themselves of these heavy shackles and break free into a more outward looking society.

    I have a PhD in Political Science and now run a lecture course for students nearing the summation of their university studies. I deal with this concept of educational theory all the time, but I’m not going to be giving anything of the nature of a lecture, just a few off-the cuff comments.
    This 36-point list is an impossibility and impractical. Not for what it is but what it entails if these facets were going to be dealt with in the appropriate level of gravitas that they deserve and applied with the depth of sincerity required to make them a tenable educational tool. Sometimes it is better to not attempt the teaching of conceptual ideas at all if there is an insufficient allowance of time for study.
    I also read into this an extremity of repetition and this list could instantly be summarised down into a dozen-point plan. With implementing the same disciplines applied to that of a business plan it would be possible to negotiate towards a far more precise attempt at a management tool. The writer lacks experience in writing to concise order detail, but I think if he wrote it out again using a model similar to business plan planning he may fine tune into a more manageable state. Many of the points contained are approached and exhibited on a subliminal basis already and in fact were more than adequately covered in primary education on a day-to-day basis particularly these points relating to behavioral activity and do not merit further extensive educational theory. They are already under the active umbrella of socialisation at large. Others are subjective, such as “to foster an appreciation for the pleasures of life – literature, food, wine, theatre, opera, music, drama and good company”.
    How does one measure that? Who determines what is a pleasure in life? Who determines what is tasteful?
    This is exactly the sort of nonsense-type airy-fairy, hippy-dippy shortfalls in educational psychology that we must avoid at all costs. Students are more than well equipped to be working out for themselves their likes and dislikes and it is not for educational personnel to be wasting valuable time with this. I would hate to think that were I a school student that my time was being wasted on chatting about opera. Furthermore, without doubt, that “good company” would not be that same individual espousing the pleasures of Swan Lake.
    I would rather schools simply concentrated on the fundamental basics and then perhaps we can look towards the introduction of some of these extras. There is simply not enough time within the curriculum to engage with any level of integrity on many of the aspects within these 36-points.
    We also must respect the level of invaluable input that employers engage in upon recruiting young persons and school leavers. In many respects this is where for many that their real education in life begins. This is where many properly learn to stand up for themselves and this is where many experience for the very first time in their lives the concepts of Action Centred Leadership.
    Employers have already configured the attributes of their selected personnel through their selection processes, therefore, it is not fundamentally vital for any grading of students as per point 7. Employers operate an entirely different mind set to that of any school and seldom persuaded by external opinion. Unless of course we’re talking of terms on a particularly local level where the garage owner phones the head teacher for a reference for Johnny. These situations will always exist, too.

    I would actually prefer more school studies involving the concepts of Action Centred Leadership. Today’s school leavers are generally most ill-equipped with a skill set appertaining to leadership and this seems to be the domain of mastery within the public school sector. The reason for this is generally to do with the calibre of teachers employed at state education level where they themselves lack leadership skills.
    We simply cannot teach what we do not know or understand.

    I want schools to teach students how to cook, not hug each other at every probable emotion. I want schools to desist turning boys into thinking like girls with all this sexualisation and feminist counter-culture.

    Points 31, 32 and 33 are already being taught. However, it might be difficult to give an honest appraisal of point 33 as to how the world is organised and run. We don’t generally wish to promote abject negativity.

    Modern educations biggest challenges are not the details of education but the maelstrom of opinion running riot with society where too many minority entities are given an over-exposed precedent of attention. We are not drawing the line in the sand nearly quick enough and remain considerably too prone to objections and complaints of willful exclusion perceived by too many parties.
    We now have nutjobs who wish to see the introduction of gender sexualisation awareness studies to eight year olds. We must learn to say no and quickly with it.

    I haven’t even mentioned the challenges we have ahead of ourselves where the education facilities on the other side of the world are beginning to outstrip ours at an excessive rate. It will not be long before the Chinese, Korean and other Asian territory students will not be coming to the UK for their further education at our universities.

  2. The big picture you portray and what needs to happen in education is absolutely right. From the viewpoint of a teacher, regardless of the situation, there is always something you can do to make a difference. Always. Keep a book or a tuning fork or a magnifying glass handy. Listen to children. I could go on. While the system needs to change, teachers are still teaching every day. And it’s the everyday things that matter most to children.

      1. It’s one o’clock and time for lunch,
        When the sun beats down and I lie on the bench,
        I can always hear them talk.

        But I’m beginning to think they didn’t understand.

  3. Having given this a read through – twice no less, just be on the safe side – I’m left with questions. Something about it filled me with unease. With all these as suggested extra life-learning models, is it any wonder why kids are leaving schools with very little actual knowledge on any given subject? I don’t refer to the very bright and high achieving, but those of average academic ability. Where is the time for all this? To what age do you propose keeping students on at school until? What are the test facilities to measure input success? What are the attainment values?
    Thinking about this a bit more – I think a lot of it is already covered in subjects such as Modern Studies.
    Many schools excelling in Sixth Form further studies offer an Extended Project Qualification (EPQ) to include:
    Critical Thinking and Research Skills
    Theory of Knowledge
    Global Politics
    Experimental Sciences – Visual Arts
    Arts – Music and Theatre
    The International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme includes the core component Creativity, Action, Service (CAS) which involves a range of activities alongside academic studies.

    I do not find fault with your core values as listed but would also – as has already been suggested – prefer to see an improved and tidied up summary of content.

    I did have one opportunity for some light-hearted thoughts.
    For someone that appears to be extremely left-wing, I was most surprised to see the inclusion of #8 – To create a hierarchy of status in society.
    This is the sort of statement I would expect to see from someone who is right-wing.
    Hierarchy is a right-wing facet of the social structure pyramid tier.
    I’m beginning to think this list could be a cobble job. A state school vs public school. Could be, chances are!?

    1. Paul – Me, extremely left-wing? No, just logical and caring surely.
      As I thought I’d made clear the list I put together was not my views – they were an attempt to put a broad picture of what people view as the purpose of education. It was intended as a vehicle for debate.
      This extensive list of things is largely delivered by the way the curriculum is delivered and the social structure of the school and its mechanisms. There is no need to have bolt-ons. It is how children are empowered and interacted with more than anything else. Exploration, creativity, experimentation, discussion, group-work, restorative practice, effort recognition – all better than rote learning, rigid curricula, knowledge-driven schooling.

  4. I’m going to have to award Goodwin with a moderate C+ for this. I would have expected an improved attempt than that presented considering it’s the summation of his life’s work. There’s really no room for slackers in the classroom these days.

    1. Alison – good to hear from you. And what improvements or criticisms would you suggest? Your comment did not indicate where you thought the weaknesses were.

  5. A really interesting read. As a teacher and mother of children who attend our local C of E school – our only choice – I particularly agree with your comments about religious indoctrination in schools.

  6. I have similar views but link it more to a lack of direction overall, as in what kind of student do we want to produce? It used to be clear, it isn’t so much now. I like some of the recommendations but agree much more with the spirit of it all as a whole.

    My thoughts are more about spirituality and lack of it and they’re here if interested:

    1. Aresh – for me I want to produce a confident student with an inquiring mind who is open to ideas, full of self-esteem and has the skills and knowledge to know how to find their way and make a mark in the world.
      I’m not too interested in spirituality any more. I left that behind. I am very sceptical these days. But I will have a look at your blog. Thanks.

      1. That sounds like a spiritually strong student in my opinion. Strong in spirit, open to ideas, self-esteem, these are not mutually exclusive terms. But regardless of what words we use, once again I agree with your ideas and hope more implement them.

      2. Aresh – I think I might describe them in that way too – spiritually strong – caring and empathetic, enquiring and full of spirit!
        Thank you for your comments.

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