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Education matters, but not all learning takes place in school


Kevin Williams

Kevin Williams

Kevin Williams

Research continues to confirm that participation in third level education is related to social class background. To be sure, no one should be denied the opportunity to enjoy a third level education because she or he cannot afford it and no one would begrudge the use of public funds to support access to higher education.

But, here, I want to consider a more general question and ask whether there are limits to the value of state intervention in education.

A first limit to the need for state intervention relates to the extent to which schools are currently doing their job well, despite financial constraints. Critics can fail to recognise the excellent work that already occurs in schools. The quality of the experience of school is not confined to learners in upper middle class schools. Imaginative and committed teachers often succeed in reaching young people even in the most unpromising of circumstances. This is not just aspirational rhetoric - the memoirs of educators such as Frank McCourt, Bryan MacMahon and John McGahern and the philosophical writing of Pádraig Hogan are replete with memorable examples of teachers who manage to connect with the lives of young people in difficult circumstances.

This leads to a second limit to the value of state intervention in education. Despite the fine work of so many teachers, it is very difficult to achieve significant improvement in the life-chances of the less well-off. The absence of cultural capital can frustrate significant social advancement by the children of the poor. These young people are at a serious disadvantage compared with young people from affluent backgrounds where learning is valued or those who grow up in communities with vibrant and living crafts and trade traditions.

The children of the well-off are provided with what Elena Ferrante calls a 'map of prestige' to guide their social advancement and they are also equipped with 'magical weapons before the battle' to succeed in life. The adroit skill of the better-off at gaming the system to the advantage of their offspring introduces serious limits to the value of intervention by the state in education.

In any case, we live in servitude to scarce resources of the world and these include the number of prestige bearing, ego-involving occupations available to people. There is only a finite number of high status employment opportunities in society. No amount of social engineering can allow everyone to become a CEO of a company, a hospital consultant or a university professor. Indeed, many of the critics of the establishment have managed to secure their own positions of power and influence through their success at negotiating the 'system' that they denounce.

Thirdly, it is important not to overestimate the role of the school in education. All learning does not take place within the school or within institutions of formal education. There are many forms of learning outside of schools, within what might be called 'multiple educational agencies'. Education takes place in various contexts (in sports clubs, scouts, religious organisations) and we may enjoy many experiences that are educative in a more general sense. These experiences may well be educative in that we learn from them - such as a visit to an art gallery, a place of worship or a hospital.

For example, environmental engineer, Mike Cooley, as a boy growing up in the middle of the last century in Tuam enjoyed many rich out-of-school encounters with learning. He acquired his notion of the 'cascade use' of technologies by observing how women could adapt a wedding dress to serve as Confirmation and as First Communion wear. He also learned much by observing the blacksmith and the stonecutter at work. The community provided him and others with a context in which they could learn to think with and through their hands. From his experience of this educative community, Cooley came to appreciate that skilled interactions between humans and their physical environment have a central role to play in education.

A final limit to the appropriateness of state intervention in education concerns the wishes of parents and student. Young people have a legal right to finish compulsory schooling when they reach the age of 16. Though these young people ought to be encouraged to continue their education, their own wishes in the matter should not be ignored.

Dr Kevin Williams is Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Evaluation, Quality and Inspection, Dublin City University

Irish Independent