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The Multiple Functions of Education: A Digest

As education serves multiple functions, it is undesirable that its content should fall into the hands of any single predominant interest for the same reason it is undesirable that the practice of education should be unduly influenced by the values of sectional interests. The practice of education should be open to influence from as wide a variety of sources as possible.


Education, in a profound sense, is for all, and formulations of its purpose in terms of sectional interests are inevitably faulty and usually partisan. Education, it is said, should be ‘consumer’ not ‘producer’ led. Certainly there are important senses in which education consists in states of mind, inner satisfactions, and accomplishments valued and exercised only for their own sakes. These are perhaps aspects of education of paramount importance and arguably ‘what school is for’.

Eloquent statements of this function of education are to be found in H. Entwistle, Child Centred Education (Methuen, Worcester and London, 1979) and G. Chanan and L. Gilchrist, What School is For (london: Methuen, 1974). The best philosophical account is in P S Wilson, Interest and Discipline in Education (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1971).

The evidence of Schools Council Enquiry 1 was that teachers, by contrast with other parties to their work, emphasized intrinsic values like personal development more than extrinsic values like employability (Schools Council (1968) Young School Leavers, Enquiry 1, London: HMSO). Here are two broadly different functions for education. There is obviously much to be understood about the relationships between and within such broadly conceived ideas as ‘intrinsic’ and ‘extrinsic’ educational values.

The history of the post war period can itself be seen as an articulation between the idea of education as an undefined good in itself, safe in the hands of the teachers and education as a public service delivering societal benefits (Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (1978) Unpopular Education, London: Hutchinson. Today’s emphasis is very heavily upon the accountability of the education service in a value-for-money climate.

The case of education is not the private lesson nor the child ‘educated otherwise’ at home, but the boy or girl going to school or the student to college. Education is overwhelmingly something offered to the young and it remains the case that the established institutions are in place and have given meaning to standardized educational practice. The system designed to facilitate education is a bureaucracy, or set of bureaucracies, and despite its internal conflicts it can be regarded as an educational establishment unfavourable to fundamental reform.

shock thought

The establishment is both hard to reform and impossible to disinvent. This is not to say that educational practice is set in concrete nor that the currently fashionable methods of centralized initiatives backed by financial coercion cannot make significant changes. Practice is practice is practice.

The existing system and all the activities going on inside it define the starting points for subsequent change. The system exists as it is through the force of successive accommodations to a great variety of interests and pressures. It will certainly go on changing, but those who seek change, particularly radical change (and this includes most people at least some of the time), will do well to recognize that the fundamental assumptions of practice, the ‘common sense’ of its practitioners, is profoundly contra-suggestible and resistant to sudden and radical change.

Though frustrating for activists, there is something deeply humbling about this fundamental feature of social change, of which educational change is a part, that it cannot be wished into being by even the most powerful forces in the social order without the practical consent of those subject to it.

The tendency of old wine to fill new bottles, which can be observed in studies of innovative comprehensive schools such as Countesthorpe and Madeley Court, and of innovation to occur without change, is the result of the absolute supremacy of practice over theory (J. Watts (Ed.) 1977 The Coutesthorpe Experience: The First Five Years, London: Allen & Unwin, and P. Toogood 1984 The Head’s Tale, Dialogue Publications, are both vivid accounts of secondary school experiments that went awry.).

In social affairs things have a tendency to remain much as they are, changing in any important way only in so far as a practical consensus allows. Theoretical discourse and research play their parts in the creation of such consensus but should not be overrated, for their credibility is a function of factors outside themselves. Research gets a hearing to the degree that it addresses the concerns of the day. In doing so it may not necessarily confirm conventional beliefs; the point here is only that it counts at all only by responding to the Zeitgeist.

cultural context

An example of this would be the work of Bennett which in the early seventies addressed preoccupations about ‘progressive methods’ in primary schools (Bennett S N (1976) Teaching Styles and Pupil Progress, London: Open Books). At the time the work was supposed to confirm the idea that ‘informal methods’ reduced standards. Later reanalysis of the data yielded no such conclusion. Theorists and researchers need to pay much closer attention to the ideological contexts into which their work flows; the direction from which it springs is going to be increasingly stringently controlled financially with a closer audit of university activities and the already severely constrained Research Councils.

These observations are not put forward as a reason for complacency or glorifying reactionary tendencies, nor for militancy from the research community. Rather they point to the complexity of the processes of educational change and the need for sophistication in the analysis of the existing educational situation.

In particular, what is called for is an examination of the traditions within which practice is conceived.  The traditions need to be examined for their adequacy to modern life, for there is no other starting point for any reform that is to last (Schwab, J J (1969) ‘The practical: a language for curriculum’, School Review, 78, pp 1-24)  A collection of Schwab’s papers is in I Westbury and N J Wilkof, Science, Curriculum  and Liberal Education (1978 Chicago: University of Chicago Press).  The British popularizer of Schwab is W A Reid in his ‘Thinking about the Curriculum ‘ (London, Routledge & Kegan Paul). M Holt’s ‘Judgement, Planning and Educational Change’ (London Harper and Row).

This view of things contrasts starkly with received views about curriculum planning in the most influential official quarters. Bodies such as the Further Education Unit (FEU) of the DES, the Business and Technician Education Council (BTEC), and MSC adopt various versions of rational curriculum planning (L A Stenhouse (1975) Introduction to Curriculm Research and Development, London: Heinemann, Chapters 5 -6).

All of these stress the use of objectives as starting points for planning and as the basis for a contractual relationship between teachers, employers, and learners. Objectives, it is assumed, derive from an analysis of the behaviours and skills needed for the future. Thus the model of planning is future-oriented; curriculum planning is a matter of predicting the future and preparing people, especially in the form of manpower, for the future.  This is planning in a vacuum conducted in conscious ignorance of the nature of actual practice, which is regarded as unquestionably redundant.

It is an assertion of technology over art in teaching.  The defects in such an approach are manifold and cannot be detailed here. Like history, futurology is about stories a generation tells itself. Unlike history, (and by definition) nothing in futurology is verifiable in time for it to be of use. Of course education must make its assumptions about the future.  But these need to be modest, provisional, and not the vehicle for special interests, such as those of the technocrats.

Education has an important conservative function in helping to preserve and develop the culture, and this function is paradoxically the more important at those very times when neophilia and change are most celebrated. It is assumed therefore that schools, colleges, polytechnics, universities, and the rest will continue to be the major providers of education within a service administered by governmental institutions.

There will be no at-a-stroke revolution in either teaching or its administration and government. This is because of the impermeability of practice to change. Those who seek change will need to educate practice rather than attempt to direct it. Changes there will be, and they will only be intelligible as responses to discontents with the pre-existing arrangements. Changes are mediated through channels of control, influence, and persuasion on practitioners.

Given the proposition that there are multiple functions for education and a wide variety of legitimate interests in its conduct, it is likely that change will be less swift and effective than any individual interest would like. This is not only inevitable but, provided the widest, most equitable and effective representation of interests is fostered it is also desirable.

This is a digest of Dr Michael Golby, The Multiple Functions of Education, Handbook of educational ideas and practices, 1989, ISBN: 0415020611; pp 128 – 139. Dr. Michael Golby is Reader in Education in the School of Education, University of Exeter. He directs research into school governors and teachers advanced courses in education to practising teachers.  This is recapitulative work is part of an ongoing search into educational philosophy and how it pertains to the development of the Ragged project.

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