To some philosophers, education has its own intrinsic value and has no other end than itself. It therefore requires no further justification in terms of human happiness or economic utility or social benefit. Interesting though this view may be, it has gone out of fashion in recent years and I do not have the space in this article to reopen that particular debate.
The other main aim of education is to promote certain goods in society or alternatively to prepare someone for adult life. This is often taken to mean something that is narrowly vocational, but also encompasses ideas about the need to educate people so that they are capable of exercising personal autonomy or making personal choices on a rational basis.
This concept of education also includes those who see education in terms of the pursuit of pleasure or happiness, while surveys of parents suggest that many see it in terms of individuals being able to pursue a life which could lead to health and enough wealth to provide security for themselves and their families.
In turn, politicians often see education as a means to social or economic goals such as stronger democracy, greater social cohesion, equality of opportunity, the reduction of crime or faster economic growth. As far as I am concerned there are perfectly good arguments for each of these viewpoints and that is the crux of my argument. It cannot be for politicians or any other group in society to determine what education is for and then set about an education system that will deliver those aims.
It is not that their approach will inevitably be wrong, it is just not compatible with a free society. In the type of civil association which we aspire to create, everyone has their own view of the good life and as long as they obey the rule of law are entitled to pursue their own goals. They are thus united in a shared acceptance that everyone has the same opportunity to do so, as long as they too obey the rules.
Education is crucial to this concept because we will each choose an education for our children which mirrors our own values and the way we bring our children up within the family. Some parents may choose to educate their children themselves as the best way to meet this aim. But most will want to find a school that teaches children in a way that reinforces the lessons and values they learn at home and so gives them the grounding they believe will enable them to fulfil their potential in later life.
Providing parents with the choice necessary to find a school that meets their requirements will require far greater diversity than our education system currently provides. The supply of education needs to be liberated to enable new types of school to appear. We have already made a start in this direction with specialist schools covering a number of different areas, but we need to go much further.
There is currently an unsatisfied demand for more Gaelic-medium education and I have no doubt there is a similar desire for schools teaching French or Spanish at an early age - or even Latin. State schools offering separate classes in certain subjects for boys and girls or going the whole hog and being single-sex schools? Why not? Who is to say it is right or wrong? I certainly don't think it is for politicians to say.
Some teachers such as those at Steiner Waldorf schools offer a different approach to education with a later start and greater emphasis on the arts. Why should such as system only be available to those who can pay? By breaking down our municipally managed monolith we can encourage new types of schools to be founded. They might offer a return to tried and tested methods of teaching or a fresh approach using, say, developments in new technology.
This diversity is likely to be greatest at secondary school level. At primary level, parents are less likely to know about the particular talents and temperament of their own children. It is more likely they will want them to obtain a thorough grounding in the basics of numeracy and literacy at that stage. Throughout all stages of education, parents should be given as much information as possible about how children are getting on and they will need information about the different types of school.
The beauty of this extension of choice and diversity within our education system, which is at the heart of Tory education policy, is that it is not just good for the individual but is more likely to benefit society as a whole. Wider variety will allow parents to exercise a free choice and so create an education system that more closely fits the needs of the child.
roviding such a range of choices will mean even greater devolution of power away from local authorities. Eight years ago the education establishment was defending nine regions as the ideal system, now the same people say 32 councils are the ideal. The truth is there is no ideal. We should allow education to be managed by teachers and parents in partnership based around local communities.
Greater devolution will require a stronger General Teaching Council and more regular visits from Her Majesty's Inspectorate to reassure parents, taxpayers and employers that standards are maintained and public money is being used properly.
Although the system is not set up to achieve aims such as social inclusion or equality of opportunity, it is more likely to achieve these aims than any system devised by politicians with these goals in mind. The top-down approach tends towards uniformity and fitting children into specific pigeonholes rather than recognising their individual needs and talents.
Brian Monteith is Tory spokesman on education in the Scottish Parliament..