The purpose and quality of education in England

Posted in: Comment, New Publications

I've been reading the arguments made following the recent House of Commons Education select committee call for submissions on the purpose and quality of education in England.  Written evidence was invited to address the following:

  • What the purpose of education for children of all ages in England should be
  • What measures should be used to evaluate the quality of education against this purpose
  • How well the current education system performs against these measures

The deadline for written submissions was January 25th.

What struck me was the number that focused on 'outdoor learning', and I hope the committee can work out the difference between the Council for Learning Outside the Classroom, the English Outdoor Council, the Field Studies Council, and the Institute for Outdoor Learning, because I'm not sure I can.  Time for mergers and acquisitions, some might think.

This is how some of the various submissions began.  I've cut them off after 10 lines – in mid sentence sometimes – as there's only a short time to make an impression.  Some of the arguments are commendably brief, others more rambling.  Some seem overly self-serving, but that's the nature of the times.  What seems significant is the list of organisations that have not made a submission.


If the purpose of education is to enable children and young people to effectively and sustainably address issues relating to global, local, interpersonal and intra-personal needs, then outdoor learning is a powerful and engaging medium.  Forms of outdoor learning can make a real difference in meeting key areas of need and enabling young people to better realise their potential and contribute to UK society.  Employers want young people who are enthusiastic, confident, creative and resilient.  Although qualifications are the most important dimension of educational disadvantage the challenge goes beyond exams.  The chances of doing well in a job are not determined solely by academic success – the possession of character skills like persistence and ‘grit’ also matter. (Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, 2014).  Similar points are made by UKCES and acknowledged by the APPG on Social Mobility.  It is worth noting the success of the National Citizen Service (NCS) programme in responding to these issues and the role of residential outdoor learning in that success.  Phase 2 of the NCS programme involves 15-16 year olds staying at least 1 hours travel from home and mostly participating in outdoor activities with associated facilitated reflection and personal development.  The NCS 2014 evaluation by Ipsos Mori (December 2015), points to a clear growth of confidence in meeting & working. ...


Education should be a preparation for society’s grand challenges.  It should be a balance between preparation for work; personal and social wellbeing; and a sustainable future.  It should enable citizens to make informed decisions and work to reduce social inequalities.  Skills, knowledge, breadth of experience, health and well-being are all vital elements of education in preparing children for life.   A broad experience base will better enable children to thrive and cope with the pace of change in the modern world.  A narrow experience base can prove a significant barrier to learning and development.  Therefore all children must have the opportunity to experience the world beyond the classroom as an essential part of education, regardless of their age, ability and personal circumstances.  Educational policy and practice should recognise that learning should be supported by using a variety of methods and that learning outside the classroom (LOtC) offers a valuable stimulus and context to learning that motivates learners and facilitates application of knowledge and skills.  In order to support LOtC, teachers need training and experience of it in order to gain confidence and become inspirational to future generations.  To ensure that the benefits of LOtC are available to all, provision should therefore be made for LOtC in both initial teacher training and CPD. ...


Education should allow the development of learners who can achieve their full potential, regardless of their economic or social background.  It should produce successful, motivated and confident learners who then go on to achieve economic wellbeing, making a positive contribution to society.  Beyond specific subject knowledge, the purpose of a high quality education should ensure social and personal development by providing opportunities to build life skills, social skills, character and resilience and to ensure both physical and mental wellbeing.  Education should develop a generation of learners who become environmentally literate and responsible citizens who understand the world around them and the role that they can play in contributing to a sustainable future.  The FSC believes that the evidence shows that that experiential outdoor learning and field studies outside the classroom, particularly experienced on residential visits, are essential in delivering these purposes in the following ways:  High quality day or residential fieldwork and learning outside the classroom are vital elements of an imaginative and contemporary education.  There is often no substitute for exploring real world examples to bring classroom learning to life and make links between different elements of the curriculum.  Fieldwork is essential for students to develop their understanding of subjects such as science and   ...


The EOC supports the underlying concept that the education system should equip young people with the necessary skills for life allowing them to grow and flourish as individuals and make a positive contribution to society.  These ‘skills for life’ are essential in supporting social mobility and preparing young people for a world characterised by increasingly rapid change and one in which people’s everyday lives become more and more segregated from the natural world and our stewardship of it.  The requirement of a school to develop students socially, morally, spiritually and culturally should be renamed as ‘character development’ and placed on an equal par with attainment measures.  It should also replace the current requirement to encourage ‘British values’.  The current system of evaluating the quality of education solely through exams and testing stifles the ability of schools to provide the broad and balanced curriculum required by OfSTED, employers and society at large.  We need to redress the balance and provide a greater emphasis on the development of life skills and encourage the importance of measuring and recording these alongside formal examinations.  Outdoor learning and adventurous activities can provides an evidenced medium for developing such ‘life skills’ and applying both these and formal learning in real world settings. There is strong evidence that outdoor learning and adventurous ...

Forest Schools

Education should be a combination of supporting individual's learning and development, helping each individual identify their own needs, motivations, skills and aspirations and working with these, developing their full potential and well-being.  Education should be encouraging a love and understanding of learning, exciting the imagination and helping learners grow in a real world context.  Learning should be extending individual’s capacities intellectually, physically, practically, socially and emotionally - resourcing healthy, positive well balanced lives. There should also be opportunities to encourage learners to imagine and contribute to new 'possible' sustainable worlds.  A key purpose of education should be equipping children with the capacity to deal with uncertainty and change in a personal, social, environmental and global context.  To this end children need to be educated to think for themselves and equipped with the skills and knowledge required for living in the 21st century. Education should be enabling children to take ownership of their own learning in dialogue and partnership with their educators and other significant people in their lives.  In order to contribute positively as global citizens it is vital that children are equipped with the skills to communicate positively with others form positive relationships.  Education should be fostering a sense of self and purpose in life and giving ...


The RSPB believes that the purpose of education must include both individual development and preparing children to meet society’s broader challenges. It should therefore be a balance between preparation for work; developing personal and social wellbeing; and contributing to a sustainable future.  The RSPB believes that connecting with nature should be a part of every child’s life – to develop deeply-held feelings and attitudes towards wildlife and the world we all live in. In addition to these benefits to saving nature, the latest research has shown that the more a child is connected to nature, the healthier they feel and the higher their education attainment.  In 2013, the RSPB launched national baseline measures of UK children’s connection to nature – revealing that only one-in-five have a level of connection to nature that we consider to be a realistic and achievable target for all children.  We believe Government should adopt this measure to monitor future progress.  While all sectors of society must play a role in connecting children with nature, school education is a crucial factor.  We believe that Section 78 of the Education Act (2002) should be amended to include learning to care for the natural environment as a requirement of ‘a balanced and broadly based curriculum’ for all schools in England.

Geographical Association

There was a time when the purpose of education was self-evident - education was the purpose: it was a worthwhile end in itself. This was fine, so long as there was a strong consensus over what ‘education’ means. This is no longer true.  Thus, society rightly keeps the question about the purpose of education alive. It is never finally settled. Economic and social priorities seem to compete. Notions of cultural heritage are from time to time influential. Psychological and other scientific perspectives sometimes come in to play. In the meantime, organised religions frequently appear to see education as a bulwark against looser belief systems and values perspectives such as consumerism.  Thus the purpose of education is difficult to reduce to a simple statement, as the complexity indicated in the above paragraph is considerable (although as we shall see, it can still yield a straightforward and coherent answer).  It is perhaps not surprising therefore that discussion of this question often reveals deep confusion. This was nicely illustrated by Simon Kelner in the The Independent (15 January 2016). Under a headline “I miss the days when learning facts was necessary” (introducing a little nostalgia to the debate), we have half a column railing against the futility of learning facts. He then concludes that schools need to move on and not waste their time drilling children with useless information: “… it strikes me that at some ...

Royal Geographic Society

Education should equip children and young people with the knowledge, skills and ‘environment’ to achieve their full potential, so that they can:  progress into further study, should they wish / develop successful careers / become informed and engaged members of British society / expand their social and cultural horizons.  To do so, education should: enable children to gain a substantive set of knowledge through the physical and social sciences, the humanities and arts, including knowledge about the people, places and environments of the world; / develop transferable skills including thinking, writing, mathematical, analytical and problem solving, communication, team and practical skills; / gain a life-long curiosity and thirst for learning; / encourage a sense of community within a supportive learning environment.  Within this, the study of geography provides a distinctive, relevant and essential contribution to a young person’s education.  It equips pupils with knowledge about the world’s diverse people, placesand environments while also guiding them to understand their local communities and places, and the UK as a whole. In addition, it enables them to understand how physical and human processes shape and change our world at all scales, and how they present opportunities and challenges for our economy, society and environment.  Embedded in geography is the learning of a wide range of ...


Posted in: Comment, New Publications


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  • Nice to hear the RSPB chip in here as I'm a big fan of their organisation. Interesting the links between educational attainment and a child's connection to nature. I hope these links prove to be true as my wife and I try really hard to give our boys an appreciation for nature and spend a lot of time out in the countryside with them. 🙂