What should be the aims of modern schools? Adi Bloom reports
what is the point of school, anyway? Not to learn to read, write and count.
Or to study creative arts. Or, indeed, to acquire academic knowledge, according to one academic.
John White, of London university's Institute of Education, says schools should be inculcating knowledge relevant to modern society, such as the ability to live healthily, to manage money and to find fulfilment.
In a pamphlet to be published next week, Professor White says: "Schools are widely seen as arenas of competition for success in public examinations and access to well-paid jobs. This picture has a poor understanding of fulfilment."
He believes the existing curriculum, with its emphasis on discrete subjects, is a relic of 19th-century attitudes to schooling. In the 21st century, he argues, such values no longer apply. Instead, policy-makers need to justify why English, maths and science should form part of the curriculum. "We all know some people like listening to music or solving mathematical puzzles," he says. "But when music and mathematics become part of a compulsory school curriculum, the ethical landscape changes."
Today's schools aim to create "successful learners", a term defined by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority as being able to study independently, communicate well and enjoy learning. But Professor White argues that such criteria would justify the compulsory teaching of Latin or ancient Persian. The QCA's aims, he says, do not answer the fundamental question: "Why do we want to learn the subject?"
He believes that teachers need to weigh up the qualities society considers important, such as basic literacy, numeracy and information technology, kindness and independence, and help inculcate these qualities upon pupils.
His curriculum aims come under four headings: personal fulfilment, social and civic involvement, contribution to the economy and practical wisdom.
The first covers the pursuit of knowledge. Pupils should acquire the skills to enable them to participate in their preferred activities.
The second helps pupils to understand that personal fulfilment is closely tied to other people's. "We want pupils, as citizens in the making, to be committed to such basic democratic values as political equality, self-determination, freedom of thought and action," says Professor White.
For people to contribute to the economy, they need to learn to work collaboratively and be aware of advances in science and technology. They should also understand how environmental concerns and workers' rights affect the economy.
Practical wisdom would be acquired through thinking rationally, imaginatively and flexibly, with respect for evidence.
"People differ over what they see as worthwhile," he says. "It is all too easy to impose one's own value judgments on others.
"Some believe, for instance, that intellectual and artistic activities pursued for their own sake are goods of higher value than any others. But are they right? Or are they really talking about their own personal preferences?"
What Schools Are For and Why by John White, pound;6.99. Email firstname.lastname@example.org
The White way to teaching wisdom
Experience many absorbing activities
Engage in close relationships
Live a healthy life and understand what makes for this
Make competent decisions in relation to managing money
Social and civic involvement
Communicate with other people appropriately
Play is a helpful part in the life of the school and community
Critically assess the role of the media
Reflect on human nature, its commonality and diversity Contribution to the economy
Work collaboratively in the production of goods or services for the school or community
Be aware of the rights of workers and employers
Critically examine how wealth is created and distributed
Be aware of the impact of science, technology and global markets on work prospects
Sensibly manage desires
Learn to cope with setback, change of circumstance and uncertainty
Resist pressure from peer groups, authority figures and the media
Strike a sensible balance between risk-taking and caution