The unheard voices

18th April 2003 at 01:00
One of the purposes of education must be to give everyone a chance to shine, say Anne Pirrie and Kevin Lowden

RECENT parliamentary inquiry into the "purposes of education" was laudable but educationists may find some of the findings hard to swallow. In the spring of last year, we were commissioned to conduct focus group research on behalf of the Scottish Parliament's education committee. We ran 10 groups in locations throughout Scotland. The participants were drawn from groups unlikely to submit evidence through more formal channels: young mothers living in deprived urban areas; young unemployed men; ex-offenders; low-skilled workers; older people; people with a range of disabilities; and people from the major ethnic minority groups in Scotland.

It is perhaps a truism that the people most likely to engage in discussion and debate on the purposes of education are those who have a professional stake in it - academics, policy-makers, professional organisations, teachers, and so on. What might someone who left school at 15 or 16 with no qualifications think that education was for? And what about those whose family circumstances were so overwhelming that school never really featured on their personal Richter scale? Did they think that one of the key purposes of education was to help people cope with change and uncertainty? How high up on their personal and social agendas were the perceived challenges posed by the rapid development of the information society?

One of the problems encountered in mounting this particular exhibition is that we could not choose the frames. They were provided for us by the academic advisers to the inquiry. The result was rather akin to surrounding some of the most vivid examples of Expressionism with ornate gilded frames.

The vivid bold strokes that characterise the former are profoundly at odds with the intricacies of the latter.

For example, one of the underlying assumptions was that education occupies a central position in people's lives. For many of the people we talked to school had just been something that was there, something that you went through. It was an essential and unquestioned rite of passage that offered the same potential for pain and humiliation as many other rites of passage.

Hardly a glowing endorsement.

Many of the people we talked to had never given notions of global competitiveness a second thought. Neither had they previously reflected to any great extent on how education might best equip people to respond to the challenges posed by the rapid pace of change in the ICT sector. It is not surprising that they had little, if anything, to say on such matters.

For the most part, they were living rather unheroic but humane lives that in the main appeared to be singularly unaffected by education. For those without any strong academic leanings, life had very definitely been elsewhere. Many looked back with fond regret at the "carrying on" and the going out between the ages of 12 and 16. Some of the most socially marginalised told us how they had spent much of their time sniffing glue, drinking, or "terrorising" people (usually other children, but sometimes their teachers). Others had to cope with exceptionally difficult family circumstances, like coming in from school to find that "your ma's out and your dad's lying drunk on the couch".

There was often a palpable sense of regret at lost opportunities, tempered by a strong note of realism - a sense that, well, life goes on, and that maybe, just maybe, education is not the be-all and end-all. It is not surprising that those who had direct experience of their education being disrupted by a small but significant number of "nutters" whom they considered "brought everybody down" did not share the radical agenda for change set out in the discussion paper that framed the enquiry.

Few, if any, respondents subscribed to the view that one of the key purposes of education is to encourage and enable young people to "engage with existing knowledge and develop innovative ideas as the basis for questioning authority and social convention." Questioning authority was almost invariably construed by participants in the study as engaging in antisocial behaviour. This is not surprising, given that the lives of many of the people we talked to were blighted by the social and physical degradation of their communities.

ne of the fundamental purposes of education was considered to be the promotion of positive, active citizenship based on mutual esteem and respect between "decent" citizens. One of the perceived barriers was an over-emphasis on academic prowess and achievement and the comparative neglect of social skills. As one young woman explained: "The teachers just weren't interested in you, they were only interested in the high-flyers." A young woman with cerebral palsy thought that one of the main purposes of education was to "help people to know how to get on with other people . . .

to boost their confidence."

The research evidence challenges one of the fundamental assumptions of the framework of the inquiry: namely that rapid social and technological change should necessarily be paralleled by radical change within the education system. Our findings lead us to question the assumption that an education system which is largely self-referential and focused on academic achievement can provide young people with the innate self-belief and confidence that they will require in order to meet the demands of a rapidly changing world.

And unless we challenge the value systems of a society that puts educational prestige in the centre of the frame, there will continue to be those who are marginalised from the mainstream concerns of schools.

Anne Pirrie and Kevin Lowden are researchers at the Scottish Council for Research in Education centre at Glasgow University.

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