Education for life

30th December 1994 at 00:00
Sir Christopher Ball previews the new Diploma of Achievement. What is education for? There are so many thought-provoking answers - from "skills, socialisation, sorting", to "enabling, not ennobling". It is "asking questions all the time", "the formation of character", "the knowledge not of facts, but of values". On a visit to south-east Asia I was told that the purposes of education are threefold: national unity, first; wealth-creation, second; and personal fulfilment, third. In the UK we tend to argue fruitlessly about the relative priority of the last two of these - and neglect the challenge of the first.

Many years ago on a family holiday in a borrowed cottage on the island of Tiree I found a book called Survival. It proved to be the American Air Force manual of survival, issued to US servicemen during the Second World War.

It had all the directness and simplicity of the best military training - and good education. "So you have crash-landed and are still alive," it said, "can you breathe?" It pointed out helpfully that one could not last long without breathing - and gave some useful hints on how to do it.

That was chapter I. Chapter II was about water. In the absence of streams and springs, fresh water can be found by digging in the sand near the sea at low tide. It's true - more or less. We tried it. The third chapter was about food, the elements of fishing, hunting and gathering. You can guess the rest. The remaining chapters dealt with heat, shelter and clothing. And then the book ended: "Now you can survive. We will find you when the war is over."

It became the book of the holiday. We practised survival, made fires on the beach, ate dandelion leaves, built a crude shelter. But we also discussed whether the book was complete. We decided it ended prematurely. It needed at least three more chapters to translate mere survival into a full and good life - and that, we decided, was the purpose of education.

Our additional chapters were to be entitled role, aspiration and ideals. We decided that everyone needed a role, if they were to be fulfilled - but that did not necessarily imply paid employment. We wanted everyone to aspire to something better than they had achieved so far. Our daughter observed that you could not be truly happy if you had everything you wanted. We call this idea "the Diana paradox" in her honour. We believed that people should have ideals - something, or someone, beyond themselves to honour, worship and adore.

What all these answers have in common is the aim of getting at the essence of education. Our National Foundation Target 4 identifies "self-reliance, flexibility and breadth" as the essentials. What are the core skills, knowledge and understanding that everyone should share if they are to develop these qualities? Today the five "common" core skills are said to be: communication, problem-solving, personal skills, numeracy and IT. Beyond them is a range of "fringe" items such as: values, creativity, citizenship, the environment, a modern language.

Such lists demonstrate how easily the core skills debate slips from the identification of essentials (such as functional literacy and numeracy) to the advocacy of what are merely desirable elements of the school curriculum.

I sometimes wonder whether we really understand what we are talking about in this confused and confusing area of "core skills". At the very least we must distinguish between core skills (such as communication), core content (such as the Bible) and core fields of learning (such as economic awareness). I find it helpful to think of the diversity of human learning along a number of dimensions of which two are obviously occupation (or subject) and level.

But there are also several domains of learning: skills, knowledge, understanding, experience, attitudes and values. And three kinds of learning: technical, personal and conceptual. The debate about core skills has helped us recognise that knowledge is not the only significant domain of learning. Furthermore, technical learning (vocational or academic) is often over-emphasised at the expense of personal and conceptual learning, involving such skills as teamwork or imagination.

Can do, know-how, wilco - the dictionary is full of neologisms for the core (and transferable) skills that constitute the essence of a good general education and used to be indicated in part by the idea of a "trained mind".

These are the qualities that the new Diploma of Achievement is intended to develop and accredit. Its contents include communication, organisation, investigation, numeracy, survival skills, design and computing.

From these seven branches spring more than 40 units, ranging from body language to contraception, from statistics to smoking, from managing money to paying for national health, from setting up a business to exporting, from insurance to ethics, from seeking a job to depression, and so on. To my knowledge it is the first comprehensive attempt to convert the rhetoric of core skills into the reality of learning materials, teaching notes and an assessment scheme. It is a remarkable achievement.

The diploma, validated by the Oxford and Cambridge Schools Examination Board, will be launched at the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce in February 1995. It is intended to complement an A-level or general national vocational Qualification programme, and demands the equivalent of four lessons a week over four terms. It is being tested in a range of trial schools at present. Students find it fun - and at the same time acquire a useful preparation for the world beyond the classroom, whether that is to be in a university or employment.

Some of the units were developed in response to student demand following a consultation with a group who had recently left school. Teachers welcome a course that does not require specialist knowledge, but encourages them to adopt the role of coach or enabler. The diploma is easy to administer and involves a minimum of paperwork.

No new qualification can (or should) succeed unless it wins the confidence of three types of user: schools, universities and employers. The diploma is well on the way to achieving the first objective. The test of university support will be whether the possession of the diploma helps prospective students gain admission: when the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service reviews the points system next year, will the diploma merit two or three points? Employers, led by the Confederation of British Industry, set a high value on core skills, but prefer to see them integrated within other qualifications. I support that position as an ultimate objective, but believe that you cannot integrate something until it has been separately identified, and taught successfully in its own right. That is what the diploma makes possible.

The Diploma of Achievement is the brainchild of John Lewis, one-time senior science master of Malvern College, one of the organisers of the Nuffield Science Teaching Projects and director of the Science-in-Society project. Those who know him will be able to imagine the energy, enthusiasm and commitment he has brought to the task.

The development of the diploma has been supervised and supported by a consultative committee including employers and representatives from all parts of the education service. We believe we have something useful to offer. Indeed, when the Oxford and Cambridge Board revealed that the diploma resource material would be available for use in 1995, within the first fortnight more than 600 schools enquired about being involved.

The project is an ongoing one. The materials are revised or replaced in the light of experience. Further units are in preparation. We recognise that the Diploma of Achievement is a prototype, like Stephenson's Rocket: and like that pioneer locomotive, it will be at first revolutionary, subsequently refined and transformed, and ultimately incorporated into the mainstream education of all young people.

Sir Christopher Ball is director of learning at the RSA and chairman of the consultative committee for the Diploma of Achievement. The prospectus and advance copies of the materials are available from the Oxford and Cambridge Board, Purbeck House, Purbeck Road, Cambridqe CB2 2PU.

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