The idea of a National Education Service (NES) is gaining speed. It’s described as “a scheme to join up the disparate elements of education, providing free lifelong learning from nurseries through schools to universities and adult education”. This blog is about a small but important part of what it might be.
As well as mastering the details of their craft, teachers have always needed some understanding of what it is and what its aims are. Trainee bricklayers need plenty of experience of specifics, too, but the purposes of laying bricks are reasonably obvious to all. Teaching is different.
From 1839 to about 1989 teacher training in England provided this wider picture. The religious vision that dominated the first half of this period gave way to a scientific one based on psychology and spelt out in Percy Nunn’s Education (1920), a best seller for 40 years. Both visions were mainly inspirational in character – unlike Richard Peters’s remodelled philosophy of education of the 1960s. This was intended to give teachers critical tools to assess ideas on education and its values so as to work out their own autonomous positions.
Across the country, the new approach was less effective at pre-service level, where students finding their feet had other priorities than the ‘big questions’. It worked better in what is now called CPD with experienced teachers who were drawn to thinking philosophically about education. It also had a significant impact on national policy-making.
In the late 1980s this juddered to a near halt as serving teachers had for the first time to pay for advanced courses, and as the coming of the National Curriculum meant that schools no longer had carte blanche over their aims and curricula, so there was less incentive for teachers to think through what they were doing from fundamentals.
For the last 30 years philosophy of education has done its best not only to survive but to flourish. As one piece of the jigsaw that makes up a National Education Service, it could take the lead again in a national project of engaging teachers and policy-makers in critical reflection on the larger questions. It’s true you don’t need philosophy to be an outstanding parent, teacher or policy-maker. On the other hand, some in these fields are puzzled by what are basically philosophical questions. What is education for? Is its main task to help students to lead happy lives, or to equip them to make others’ lives better? Who are these others? How far should we encourage learners to think of themselves as world citizens rather than citizens of a particular country? What is it, in any case, to lead a happy life? Is happiness always worth pursuing? Is it ever worth pursuing? Whatever the good life, is it something bounded by the world we know through our senses, or is there a spiritual dimension beyond this?
These are only a few of the questions that may be unsettling them. They may wonder how far their job is to open up as many options for students as possible or how far, instead, they should be developing passions they have already. They may be concerned about whether there is too much emphasis in schools on theoretical knowledge and too little on practical. They may have doubts, without being able to pinpoint them, about talk about multiple intelligences or ‘powerful knowledge’ or ‘helping pupils to reach their potential’. They may wish they knew more about what the imagination is, or the human mind in general….
Teachers of philosophy of education know from experience that for people like this the painstaking sorting out of issues that the discipline engages in can often help them to see the job they are doing in clearer perspective and take on more demanding responsibilities – as well as being personally life-changing.
A new NES should create the conditions in which CPD work of this kind (as well as in other fields) can flourish. Building on a lighter-touch National Curriculum with far more room for schools to decide what they teach, this means no-cost courses throughout a teacher’s working life, plus sabbaticals and generous time-provision for part-time study.
 Berner, A. (2008) ‘Metaphysics in Educational Theory: educational philosophy and teacher training in England (1839-1944)’ University of Oxford D Phil thesis