A crisis of education

Emma Burnell

Our crisis of politics is also a crisis of education. Quite simply, we do not have an education system fit for purpose in the 21st century. We do not learn how to learn well. We do not teach how to challenge. We have a political debate around education that is backwards looking and focused on form not function. Stuck in a rut between the small c conservatism of both left and right we are failing the next generation just as we have failed generations that have come before.

The question we need to address is not whether or not children study the classics or whether they do them in academies, grammar or free schools. Instead we should be looking at how we equip our future citizens to be able to fully participate in the world they live in. How to develop in them as much agency over their lives and choices as possible. Not just in the skills that equip them to succeed in their careers but in all other arenas of life too.

In part this means both more and better vocational education and a relationship between local schools and local employers that goes much deeper than a visit on careers day. Respecting the skills taught through vocational schools and apprenticeships and recognising their value by making them more attractive to the young people who will benefit will be essential in plugging Britain’s productivity gap.

But training and valuing future workforces and ensuring young people are job ready is only part of the value of education. All too frequently we forget the less tangible but equally essential cultural and political benefits of a well informed and curious populace.

We need to have much stronger political education. We are so proud of our democracy in Britain, and rightly so. But democracy should mean so much more than the right to vote. It should mean every citizen is able to challenge and change the systems which govern them. To do this we have to understand them. We need in depth education into how our democracy functions and how the institutions that run it work. How they have developed and what caused change. I want children to learn what the Magna Carta is and what Clause IV (and the debates around it) mean. What the principal tenets of Conservativism are and how the Tories have developed from Disraeli to May. I want them to develop the habit of discussing politics in a passionate but controlled way. Then it would be quite nice if they could teach their elders to do the same.

We live in the so-called “information age”. But so few of us are equipped with the skills to properly parse and understand the value of the competing information we are given. Never was this clearer than in the confusion around advice being given by experts for the EU Referedum. There were endless calls for non-partisan information but any given was immediately written off as biased for one side or the other.

As social media allows us more and more to curate the information we are given, we are frequently presented only with information that reinforces rather than challenges our world view. Pay-per-click models of advertising make it all the more attractive for online media outlets to offer us sensationalist pieces that make us feel we are right rather than give us the whole story.

In an age where all information is at our fingertips, the right’s nostalgia for learning by rote is not just bizarre but downright distracting. I don’t need to know the order of the monarchs of Britain off by heart when I can find this out in seconds if I ever need to. But I do need to know how to seek out accurate unbiased information and properly understand what I am being told. I need to know how to spot a piece that is simply there to confirm a prejudice – my own or anyone else’s. I need to learn not how to pass a test but how to challenge an idea. I need to learn when it is my own ideas that should be challenged.

As we go forward in an age where global competition remains a certainty even as we try to withdraw from it, it will be these skills that allow the future population of the UK to thrive. And it will be utilising the critical faculties we must continue to develop that will allow politics to once again thrive.

Image: Helen


  1. Verity

    The Labour establishment has been a considerably additional cause of our education system difficulties. Completely ignoring their model of a variety of competing schools run by something other than democratically elected bodies, the vision has been ‘snobbish’ in not even having the slightest grasp of vocational education. This has extended even to those whose job it is to know. It is symbolised by the 50% target for University education. In the decades before that they were responsible for the the undermining of apprenticeship training; the ending of the Industrial Training Boards, and the sale of Local Authority Careers Services to private companies.

    The article contributor makes references to the ‘needs to truths’ about the EU an indication of the need for a guiding hand by ‘experts’. My vote would be to keep national political missions out of the education debate. It has done far too much damage as it is. Unfortunately I have to add that we need to especially keep Labour Party driven missions out as they appear to drive the paternalistic drives away from the teachers who are the real experts here.

  2. Keith Dicken

    Having only been a member of Fabians for a few hours, I’m not sure yet if my response is meant to be critical or add to the article in some way, but here goes…

    I honestly was starting to think I was the only person with these views. I’ve written to my MP on exactly this topic and had a very “Party line” response. it is so refreshing and a relief that having found out about the Fabian society only yesterday, I’ve found an article which reflects my views almost to the letter within a day. Thank you.

  • (will not be published)

Please read our community standards

Fabian Society Democratic Reform project

The Fabian Society has launched a policy consultation on democratic reform. Working with an advisory panel of senior Labour activists, we aim to stimulate debate across the Labour movement, on issues from electoral reform to diversity. Pitch your idea for democratic reform and to get involved in the debate.