Bernard's writing for The Education Foundation

The real value of education

(contribution to Education Britain: the journey to education reform 2012)



Education is central to building and maintaining a civilised, compassionate, functional society and must, like society itself, value and esteem everyone: not just intellectuals,  wealth-creators and leaders, but equally ‘humbler’ workers; shop, factory, cleaning and maintenance staff. It must honour the dexterity of the craftsman; the ingenuity of the engineer; the patience of the gardener.

Opening doors

Education must equip all young people with skills and aptitudes not only for employment but also for enjoyment of their families and their leisure. Many jobs are humdrum but necessary, so future citizens must be able to explore active interests, in order to live fulfilling lives. Even in an entirely routine job, they must be equipped to make the most of human interaction with colleagues or customers.

Education must furnish opportunities for all young people to develop their talents and potential; sample new things; follow paths previously unknown. As they get older and can move, with due guidance, from breadth of opportunity to an appropriate degree of specialism, they must be supported to pursue those chosen paths as far as they want to and realistically can.

The system must not place arbitrary barriers in the way of children, put pressure on them or force them into niches in society or the economy. It must open doors, and support and encourage them to pass through and benefit from what they find on the other side.

Education must allow and help young people to go where they can go, giving them authentic choices and a real voice in the decisions that affect them. They must be encouraged not to chop and change but to develop perseverance and the ability to stick at things. Resilience should be a central theme.


No one can be good at everything: systems should not give young people the impression that they can be or raise false hopes. Teachers should not encourage them to follow courses when they know they will be unable to complete them satisfactorily: nor to work for qualifications that have no currency in the world of work.

Realism must extend to helping young people to understand when they have reached their limit: not a barrier created by the system, but a realistic acceptance that they have gone as far as is appropriate for them down that particular path.

High expectations and challenge

Teachers love that moment when children’s faces light up, when they surprise themselves with what they can achieve, feeling fulfilled, proud and confident. The greater the difficulties overcome, the greater the sense of achievement and satisfaction. Our education system must aim to give all students both those individual moments and a sense of culmination.

Education must not shy away from risk: young people need more, not less, challenge in their education. They must be able to cope with failure, recognising how they learn from it. They must be given opportunities to experience that vital sense of challenge met: to aspire, certainly, but realistically.

‘Realistically’ does not mean keeping everything safe and predictable: certainly not seeing target-setting and meeting benchmarks as any worthwhile aim. Education at its best sets a goal just beyond what pupils think possible: and allows them to find that they can achieve it. That is high expectation: aspiration yet an achievable ambition, given resilience and hard work. Children’s resulting sense of flow and mastery is vital to their growth: the experience must be given to all, carefully judged so as to be appropriate to their levels, aptitudes and potential.

The purpose of education

Society must see a successful education as one that sees young people leaving full-time education having developed – but retaining capacity to go further in– skills, abilities, knowledge, emotional intelligence, maturity, self-knowledge, resilience, sense of self and empathy with others so that they may play a full part in adult life, fulfilled as individuals and in their families and communities.

Education should not seek specifically to create the workforce of the future, nor to create an economic future for the country. But a successful education system which turns out well-equipped, assured young adults, at ease with themselves and with others, will contribute to all aspects of social well-being, including economic strength and prosperity.


THINGS THAT WORK: diversity, flexibility, independence


The vision outlined above demands diverse pathways for children. The most successful schools specialise: they accept they cannot cater for all. Moreover, a monolithic, homogeneous structure discourages innovation and creativity.

The current diversification of school types is beneficial and should be extended. Above all, high-quality, highly desirable schools must be created that provide a variety of routes as alternatives to the academic. There must be real creative thinking and courage among policy-makers to free them from the shackles of a curriculum that, for many children, is excessively academic.

Multiple pathways

It is appropriate for some young people to progress to university: but to set arbitrary participation targets is wrong. Nor should we set university education on a pedestal: for many there are other, more appropriate routes into adult life and work. We must eradicate the snobbery that values academic achievement while looking down on the practical, the vocational.

By pushing them down academic (or pseudo-academic) routes, the system gives too many young people in the UK experience of failure and alienation from an inappropriate form of education. Compulsory education to age 16 (rising to 18) is too full of academic content for many students. The inflexible, unimaginative nature of the National Curriculum imposes a watered-down-former-grammar-school education unsuitable for many, instead of providing real breadth of choice for everyone. The inspectorate as it currently operates exacerbates the problem, exerting pressure on schools to conform to the government’s agenda of the moment.

Issues of choice and selection

If the Coalition’s vision of school diversity is to bear fruit, we can no longer shy away from the issue of selection. The most academically successful schools in the country are among the best in the world: and they are academically selective. What did harm to the tripartite system created by the 1944 Education Act was not the existence of the grammar schools (though many were inflexible and complacent places) but lack of a viable or desirable alternative for those who were not selected for the academic route.

This should be a matter of shame for successive past governments.  In a new world of multiple pathways the alternatives to the academic route must be fantastic institutions sought after by parents and students alike. Vocational schools and colleges must have the best teaching and technical facilities, providing first-rate training leading to apprenticeships and jobs: the recent University Technical Colleges initiative should be monitored and, if successful, built on.

Where children have particular needs, whether exceptional ability or learning difficulties, their parents should not have to fight the system. Blanket insistence on mainstream inclusion of children with special needs is wrong. Children with a range of difficulties or disabilities must not be ostracised or sidelined: but they must be enabled to attend institutions that truly meet their needs: they too must be appropriately challenged, not sidelined or wrapped in cotton-wool.

Debate and open-mindedness

Selection must therefore be the subject of a genuine open-minded national debate. The discussion must cover a vast range of aptitudes beyond the simplistic academic/vocational divide: choice by parents and children must carry weight. Government must be prepared to work with the private sector: where the best provision in an area is currently offered by an independent school, government should children who would benefit, perhaps via a voucher system. That is real diversity of provision.


Selection and assessment are not foolproof. There must be flexibility to allow children to change track when they need to. Schools must be as willing to relinquish as to accept pupils. And in schools and colleges of all types, courses and qualifications offered must have validity and value.

Curriculum must be flexible. The syllabus should follow the child, not vice versa. Children who have not ‘got it’ at the age of eight must no longer be left behind by inflexible literacy or numeracy programmes. Rigid, prescriptive programmes must no longer encourage unimaginative teaching. The previous government launched but failed to follow through a plan for one-to-one coaching for children left behind: instead primary programmes of study and the teaching of them should be more flexible and child-focused.

Independence: freedom and trust

Governments talk independence but rarely grant it to any extent. Freedoms given to Labour’s new academies were swiftly rescinded. Inspection, ‘guidelines’ such as the EBac, targets and benchmarks belie the Coalition’s claims of encouraging schools to act independently and in their own best interests.

The success of school heads dubbed ‘outstanding’ generally lies in their individual confidence and refusal to bow to difficulties or government pressure: but hero heads are in short supply. Government must accept responsibility for the negative effects and the perverse incentives created by constant pressure. Independence must be genuine, power and freedom genuinely given to schools. Trusted to do so, schools can pursue their strengths to the benefit of their students.



The education system envisioned will be vibrant and confident, achieving a balance never seen before: confidence without complacency; aspiration balanced with realism; choice and flexibility so that young people can opt and be chosen (a fraught balance to be struck) for pathways appropriate to them. Schools will specialise in what they are good at.

Children will pursue and gain qualifications because they are right for them and have real validity in the adult world of work: never because governments push them (or their schools and colleges) to achieve particular targets. Nothing will be done formulaically or following some crazy regulation or government initiative. Institutions will have the highest expectation of, and aspiration for, all children according to their needs and aptitudes; no platitudes, but realism and total commitment; freedom for professionals to do the job as they know best; and government empowering and enabling, not controlling or limiting.

In that vision we might indeed manage to heal our ‘broken society’ - and build instead a civilised, compassionate and functional one.