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What is the purpose of school?

It’s September, and the long summer holiday has drawn to a close. It’s about this time of year that disenchanted school children of each generation find themselves asking the same question; What is the point of school?

To answer that, we’re going to need a brief history lesson. And the first question we should ask is “what triggered the rise of mass education systems in the first place?”

How did Schools Start?

Broadly speaking, there are two ways that state education systems began, and they are polar opposites of one another.

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The first state sponsored mass education system was introduced by Frederick II of Prussia (aka Frederick the Great) in 1763. At the time, Prussia had just emerged victorious from the Seven Years War, but this was at huge cost to economy, treasury and life. It was a fractured country with no sense of patriotism, shared history or unity. The state education system Frederick commissioned was modelled on a form of military governance, and overtly aimed to instil a sense of nationalism in the children, teaching them to identify with the State’s goals and purpose rather than having multiple, hyper-localised pockets of patriotism resulting in internal rivalries and the occasional skirmish.

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In stark contrast to the implementation of Prussia’s nationalistic school system, England saw an increase in the provision of formal education as a direct response to the needs of the Industrial Revolution.

By 1850, the majority of the British population was urbanised, with parents working in factories and unable to either provide childcare or tend to their children’s education in the way they had when the population was primarily rural or trade based. Small local schools and education providers neatly solved the problem, allowing parents to go to work safe in the knowledge that their children were productively occupied gaining an education.

It was not until 1880 that state education became compulsory in the UK – about a hundred years after the Industrial Revolution really got going. England’s education systems had already grown from the bottom up, and nationalising the provision of education was a way for the government of the day to bring order, oversight and standards to an otherwise organic system.

Although the Prussian and English state education systems were created from completely different starting points, they both ended up with a state-sponsored framework that helped with the replication of their respective societies. Children born and raised in each country were taught about the social norms and ideologies that operated in their nations, and as they progressed through government-controlled education programs, they would – theoretically at least – grow into a skilled and socialised workforce. The great production line of education had begun.

How does this relate to schools right now?

Schools have changed their approach to teaching so little in the last 200 years, that a child from the 1800s who somehow found themselves in a modern classroom would still have a sense of familiarity. Black boards may now be smart boards, and desks may be arranged in groups as opposed to lines, but the schedules and subjects remain similar and the teacher still stands at the front of the class. Society, however, has changed enormously – and yet schools are still required to play a role in the socialisation of children and the preparation of students for the workforce.

Back in 2006, Sir Ken Robinson gave a TED Talk titled ‘How Schools Kill Creativity.’ In the early days of organized education, there was little room for creativity because the students were destined for roles working in factories and mills. But the workplace now is a very different beast, and education delivery has not evolved at the same pace as the workplace. Where are the secondary school classes in entrepreneurialism and tax planning? What about core lessons in environmentalism and ethics? And yet we have all studied photosynthesis and trigonometry even if we had no intention of pursuing a career as a biologist or engineer.

Our society has changed enormously in the last 100 years. People are living longer, travelling further and more frequently, and technology has opened up a world of digital and social possibilities. The pandemic accelerated changes in working habits, and environmental issues are increasingly impacting our lives. This opens up a number of questions for further discussion:

- How can schools, colleges and universities reflect societal changes and help prepare their students prepare for a future when there is so much uncertainty about what that future looks like?

- Should the government change the focus of the curriculum to better equip students with the skills they need to thrive in a modern world?

- With more parents working from home, should the family unit reclaim the responsibility of socializing their children?

In England, the government waited about a hundred years from the start of the Industrial Revolution to respond to massive social and demographic changes with sweeping reforms to education. The question is whether our government will wait another hundred years in the face of our modern societal changes before reforming the school systems to better match the needs and expectations of future workforces?


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