This is the whole of Chapter 7 of Forever Learning. We don't seem to give a lot of serious thought these days to what education should be about and I hope that sharing these ideas will stimulate some thinking. 


Chapter 7





    I am not sure whether trying to summarise the purpose of education in a sentence helps to clarify one’s thoughts but it is an exercise I have sometimes attempted. One of my latest attempts is this: To equip children, young people and adults with the knowledge, skills and values which will enable them to look after themselves and their families as well as lead happy and fulfilled lives, and to create a caring, harmonious society in which the fruits of learning are used for the benefit of everyone. It’s a long sentence admittedly, and more prosaic than those that can be found on the internet, but I think it goes to the heart of what education is about and it forms the basis of my beliefs about the purposes of education.

    In order to plan for the future in either an individual or communal aspect of life it is necessary to look at what is good about what we have and what is not so good and try to learn from our experience. However, even more importantly we need to be clear about the direction in which we are going. In what has been written so far I have looked at the good and the not so good in education and it is now time to look at its direction.

    Nearly everybody seems to agree with what is perceived to be its general direction which, on the whole, appears to meet the needs of individuals and society. People want our education system to prepare children for the future, especially their future employment, to teach them about the world in which they live and to enable them to find personal fulfilment in activities such as art, music and sport. I think, though, we need to be more precise about the direction in which we want to travel. We need to move from knowing the vague general direction in which we are travelling to having a more precise direction and a more precise destination. We need to be clear about our purposes and clear about the underlying reasons behind these purposes.

    Education has always been about preparing for the future in some way – preparing individuals for their own future and preparing for the future of society. In the past most children’s futures were heavily influenced by what their parents decided for them and by social and economic circumstances. Not everyone was going to have the same sort of future and not everyone saw the future of society in the same way. The same is true today. People still see the future for their own children in different ways and have different views about what is important in life and the way society should be organised – views that continue to be shaped by social and economic circumstances.

    These different views influence the kind of education parents want for their children and incline them to choose schools which emphasise features they are looking for. These could include such things as academic excellence, competitiveness, creativity or a religious ethos. But although some parents may want an emphasis on some things and others may want a different emphasis nearly all of them agree with the essentials of education that are presently being provided – preparing for the future, learning about the world and finding various forms of personal fulfilment. They have also accepted the notion that education provides a route not merely to any employment but to well-paid employment. For this reason they encourage their children to achieve the best possible academic qualifications in the hope that these will ultimately take them into remunerative white-collar occupations. By embracing the idea that education is a vehicle for aspiration they are at one with the direction set by politicians and governments over many decades.

    The direction of using education as the route to fulfil employment aspirations has become such a fixation because of the widespread belief that aspiration is good for us. Schools are required to assist young people to pursue and achieve their aspirations and this is one of the reasons why teachers are expected to raise standards, particularly the standards of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds. Raising standards has additionally been seen as necessary for the growth of the economy – at a basic level raising standards of literacy and numeracy and at an advanced level raising standards in other areas through having more students in higher education.

    It has been pressure from central government, acting, it believes, on behalf of society that has added to the drive to get young people acquiring more and better qualifications. But there is nothing new about government intervention in education. The state, after all, has paid for the great majority of our schools, colleges and universities to be built and staffed for over a century. It has been responsible for the introduction of grammar schools, secondary moderns and, not long afterwards, comprehensives. It has prescribed a national curriculum, SATs for eleven year olds and measures aimed at improving the teaching of literacy and numeracy.  

    Parents have always been free to opt out of the state system by sending their children to a private school but they have not been free to opt out of education altogether. Since 1876 the state has made it a legal obligation for all parents to ensure their children are educated. It is not parents, therefore, but the state, acting in the interests of individuals and society, that is ultimately responsible for seeing that everybody has a suitable level of education and is consequently ultimately responsible for deciding what this involves. All of us, I am sure, accept that in modern society it is right that the state safeguards the educational welfare of its citizens just as it safeguards other aspects of their welfare.

    In practice the responsibility for providing education is shared between parents and the state. Parents accept that it is largely their responsibility to teach behaviour, values and attitudes, and most are keen to help their children learn basic skills like reading and arithmetic. Some do more than this and pay for music or swimming lessons, discuss their schoolwork with them and take them to interesting places. All parents, however, expect schools, colleges and universities to teach different subject disciplines in depth and to encourage pupils and students to work hard to obtain good grades in exams. Furthermore they expect schools to support their endeavours in teaching behaviour, values and attitudes.

    Parents who pay for their children to be privately educated, or who educate them at home, are entitled to think they are taking almost complete responsibility for their children’s education and that this should give them the freedom to decide the sort of education they want them to have. It certainly does give them more freedom but it is really only the freedom to obtain an education with a different emphasis not an education that is radically different. They want education to serve the same basic purposes for their children as it does for everyone else’s children.

    The purposes I am putting forward are broadly in line with the purposes that are now generally accepted and to which I have just referred: preparing for the future, learning about the world and finding various forms of personal fulfilment. But they are more ambitious and more precise, and in their implementation they would challenge existing assumptions and orthodoxies. At the very least I would like people to think about them. Even better I would like people to support them. And better still I would like to see them being endorsed by the state on behalf of society. 




Purposes for the individual and purposes for society


    Having spent my working life trying to decide what is the most important purpose of education I now believe that, as in the past, it is to prepare people to support themselves and their families. In other words prepare them for employment. It is not to teach them about the wonders of the world, nor is it to pass on to them knowledge about human achievements in science, literature, music or art, and nor is it to develop their talents to the full. It is the simple utilitarian function of helping them obtain paid work because without work they will not be able to make their way in the world.

    Preparing for the world of work may be the most important purpose of education for the individual but this does not diminish the importance of other purposes. Learning the basic skills required for employment should be a priority at primary and secondary school but there will be ample time left over for other essential purposes to be achieved and a wide range of knowledge and skills to be taught.

    People mostly see education as being for the benefit of the individual rather than society and view it as a vehicle for personal aspiration. They see it, too, as providing crucial preparation for individual journeys through life with all that this entails including being able to support oneself, raise a family and find fulfilment. But if they paused to think about it they would recognise that each person’s individual education brings benefits for others and thus for society as a whole. Fortunately our political leaders are aware of this. They extol the virtue of individual aspiration but they understand that education serves everybody and that as a society we need doctors, nurses, engineers, researchers, entrepreneurs and a skilled workforce in key industries. Government intervention in education therefore has a dual function: it seeks to ensure there is high quality educational provision available for the benefit of individuals and it seeks to ensure the system will produce future citizens with the knowledge and skills to provide us all with the vast range of goods and services we have become accustomed to having.

    It is not only by preparing people for employment that education serves the needs of society. Teaching desirable behaviour and values is necessary for human beings to live together, teaching about emotional well-being helps relationships and teaching citizenship prepares young people for their responsibilities to others. Of inestimable value to society, also, is the transmission of knowledge, especially in the field of science, which leads to new ideas and developments that improve the quality of life for everyone.

    Clearly, then, education serves the needs of individuals and society, and the state has the responsibility to ensure that both sets of needs are met. It acts in the interests of individuals to enable them to support themselves and their families and to lead fulfilling lives, and it acts in the interests of society to enable everyone to benefit from the work and lives of each other. The purposes of education I identify have been put into two categories to reflect these two sets of needs.



Six purposes for individuals and families


    I have indicated what I consider to be the number one purpose of education for the individual but the five other purposes are not placed in any order of priority. They are all essential and should be achieved to the greatest possible extent. I have included the family with the individual because most people’s individual lives are closely connected with their families and the purposes I set out will often therefore serve the wider needs of the family. 

    The six purposes relate our learning needs to the needs we have in life. If these learning needs are met it would be my hope that as individuals we would have acquired the diverse learning necessary to live our lives well and be equipped for most of what this involves – whether it is looking after our families, earning a living, occupying our leisure time or interacting with other people.


To prepare for employment


    Each new generation needs to be prepared for employment in order as adults to be able to earn a living and support themselves and their families. There seems to be general agreement that this is the most important function of our education system with most people wanting the system to do more and provide a route not just to any employment but to that which is well-paid.

    Preparing for employment requires three elements in an educational programme. The first is teaching pupils skills they will need in any workplace – the skills of literacy, maths and ICT, as well as the skills of thinking rationally, evaluating information, making decisions and organising one’s work.

    The second is providing people with the specific knowledge and skills they require for the occupational sector they choose to enter. This specialist training should take place after the age of fifteen in colleges, universities and the workplace. An incalculable number of specific occupational skills are needed in modern society and if we are to maintain our comfortable standard of living it is vital that people acquire them.

    The third element is to instil the attitudes and behaviour that are needed when undertaking paid employment. Young people must be taught to be reliable, industrious and responsible. They should learn how to take instructions and listen to advice, and equally they should learn how to use their own initiative. If they have been taught how to be respectful and courteous to each other they will know how to be respectful and courteous to their fellow employees.

    Preparing young people for their working lives has been an integral part of education in the past. From the earliest schools established by the Church, to apprenticeships, and to the night schools, technical colleges and polytechnics of the twentieth century, education and employment have always been inextricably connected. In the future the best way to connect education and employment will be for schools to prepare their pupils thoroughly in basic skills and for colleges and universities to concentrate on specific vocational training.


To equip with life skills


    As well as needing a high degree of competence in literacy, numeracy and ICT for their future employment children need to be competent in these skills for their everyday lives as children and their everyday lives as adults. As children, and as adults, they will require literacy skills in order to undertake formal learning, to read for information, interest and pleasure, and to communicate with one another. As adults they will need to be literate to write emails and letters and to understand the enormous amount of information they will have to process in their everyday lives about fuel bills, insurances, benefits and much more. They will also need to be competent in basic maths as adults so they can go shopping, manage their personal finances, understand their mortgage repayments and calculate how many tiles they need for the new bathroom. Both as adults and children they will require IT skills for a variety of everyday purposes.

    To manage their personal finances in the future young people not only need basic maths skills they need to be fully aware of the living expenses that have to be met by families including the weekly shopping, petrol for the car, various insurances and the supply of electricity, gas and water. Moreover, they need to be familiar with matters such as mortgages, loans, savings, pensions and personal taxation.

    In addition to being able to manage their finances other skills are needed to enable children and young people to look after themselves when they grow up and these should be taught at home and at school. Children should be taught about healthy eating and how to cook properly. They should learn from their parents and teachers how to clean their homes, how to iron a pair of trousers, how to use a paintbrush and how to use a needle and thread.

    They should have a good knowledge of first aid and know how to administer CPR and deal with choking or severe bleeding. A vitally important life skill is being aware of the dangers in various situations and for this reason they should learn about dangers in the home, on the roads and when they are in, on or close to water of any sort. They should be taught how to stay safe in these environments and how to prevent accidents happening.

    Teaching young people parenting skills should be a high priority. The most important role they will have as adults is being a parent and looking after a family and they should be thoroughly prepared for this. Teenagers should acquire a range of knowledge and skills and, ideally, be allowed to give some practical assistance to parents with babies and young children. They should be encouraged to understand and discuss in a mature way the many responsibilities and pressures that being a parent brings.


To foster well-being and fulfilment


    The notion of happiness is included within the term “well-being” and like everybody else I am strongly in favour of people being happy. Where all of us find true happiness and fulfilment is in the love, care and companionship we receive from, and give to, those closest to us: our spouses, partners, children, parents and other members of the family. This is why it is essential that children learn to be loving and caring to prepare them for the day when they will have a partner and when they become parents with families to bring up. They will learn from the love they are shown by their parents and the love their parents show each other.

    Children should also learn to socialise and make friends which will enable them to have a happy childhood and help them form friendships as adults. Friendship, like love, has the dual benefit of being good for the well-being of the receiver and the giver.

    Relationships within families and among friends do not necessarily bring happiness and well-being all the time. They can be the cause of deep distress and anxiety as can other experiences like bereavement, illness and financial hardship. All these difficulties cause serious damage to our well-being and if we can find ways of reducing or repairing this damage our lives will clearly be better. Young people, therefore, should be taught how to deal with difficulties in their relationships with their families and peers and should discuss other painful experiences they are likely to encounter in life.

    They should be shown the many ways in which well-being, happiness and fulfilment can be acquired. These include knowing our own character and being at ease with who we are; enjoying and appreciating daily life with our family and friends; finding satisfaction in our work; not always wanting more or better; and making time to read a book, listen to music, watch a film or look at the birds in the garden. They include, too, the sense of belonging and sharing we feel when we join in with what other people are doing – like being in the crowd at a football match. Many people find fulfilment through their religious faith and many find fulfilment in learning about the world we live in. All of us, I think, feel a sense of well-being when we help other people and when we contribute to society in some way.

    We find fulfilment in the sense of achievement we feel when we are engaged in or have completed a task, whether this is mundane or complex. What is more, we instinctively seem to want to achieve a good end result rather than a poor one and we can help children and young people build on this instinct if we encourage them to take a pride in all their tasks including helping round the home. Motivating them to achieve successful outcomes in the subjects they study at school, and in their extracurricular activities, will give them a feeling of fulfilment and an understanding of what this means which they can take into the future.

    Achievement is very much a part of the fulfilment we find when we engage in hobbies, interests and creative pursuits. Creative and sporting activities are particularly fulfilling and one of the purposes of education should be to enable young people to develop talents and interests which will continue to bring them fulfilment as adults in their leisure time or even at work. They should be taught a variety of skills in the fields of art, craft and music and be encouraged to reach a high level of proficiency. At any age being totally absorbed whilst engaged in a hobby, interest or creative pursuit is a fulfilling experience as, in fact, is being absorbed in anything – work, reading, studying or listening to music. It seems to me there is a lot of wisdom in T E Lawrence’s comment that happiness is a by-product of absorption.

    Achieving things is important for our self-esteem. We feel better within ourselves when we have achieved something and usually even better when our achievements, whatever they may be, are recognised by others. Equally important for our self-esteem is how we are seen as a person – or, to be precise, how we think we are seen. We need to be liked, respected, admired and generally well thought of for any number of reasons – because we are friendly and helpful, because we wear stylish clothes or because we score a lot of runs for our cricket team.

    Children and young people need to know how positive feelings of contentment and fulfilment can be engendered but they also need to know about negative emotions such as anger, jealousy, anxiety or hostility towards another person. Giving them an understanding of their emotions and providing strategies for managing them should be an important aspect of the school curriculum which would be beneficial for well-being in childhood and adulthood.

    Our physical well-being has a big effect on our mental well-being and teaching children about their bodies and how to stay healthy should be a key component of their education. They need to learn about nutrition, exercise, hygiene and the damage caused by alcohol and drugs. In their sex education they should be taught about reproduction and the physical and emotional effects of growing up.

    We all want to find happiness and since we spend much of our lives searching for it young people should be given an understanding of what it means and how it might be found. Although plenty of learning about the subject can take place in school most of it should happen at home through the love and care that parents show, the example they set and the guidance they give. The concepts of well-being, fulfilment and happiness are not as difficult to grapple with as we are sometimes led to believe. We have a duty to try to understand them and pass on our understanding to our children.


To shape behaviour, values and character


    The behaviour, values and character of human beings have been evolving for thousands of years. They are rooted in a combination of basic instincts, social norms and ethical precepts and they manifest themselves in our actions and our ideas about life. These in turn have an effect on those around us – within our families, among the people we know and in society as a whole – because it is the nature of communal living that we are all affected by each other’s behaviour whether this brings us benefits or causes us harm. Teaching desirable behaviour, values and character in order to serve the needs of society will be looked at when the purposes for society are discussed. Here I will concentrate on the qualities that need to be taught to benefit people as individuals and to benefit their families – remembering that these qualities also have a positive effect on society in general.1 

    A lot of human behaviour is instinctive and a lot of it is learned. Education is concerned with the former as well as the latter because teaching people to behave well sometimes requires them to control their natural instincts. Teaching and learning behaviour and values takes place formally and informally at home, at school, in religious establishments and in youth organisations.2 One of the ways in which it is learned is from the example of others.

    There are many qualities and virtues that benefit us as individuals which should be taught to children and young people. They include being conscientious, industrious, self-disciplined, determined, resilient, confident and self-reliant – qualities which can be described as performance virtues rather than moral virtues. Children can often be taught these virtues or qualities in the course of undertaking their normal tasks at home and at school, the latter being particularly useful for instilling the habit of being industrious. In addition different virtues can be developed by providing pupils with a range of activities especially in sport and outdoor pursuits, both of which help in the teaching of determination and resilience.

    The qualities I have mentioned help in every aspect of a person’s life including family life. It goes without saying, however, that being loving, kind and gentle are the most important qualities we need in our families, and society should ensure that everyone is imbued with these virtues.

    One aspect of character that young people should be helped to acquire is a belief in themselves and their own ideas about life. This will make it easier for them not to follow the crowd when they are concerned about the direction it is taking and will help them resist peer pressure at any stage in their lives but especially as a teenager. It is important, too, that whatever their physical or mental characteristics they learn to be comfortable with the person they are and understand that the fact of being human makes them as equal in worth as everyone else. 


To instil the ability to think effectively


    The sort of thinking I am referring to is the thinking we do when we consciously consider something, not the thinking we do when spontaneous thoughts are somehow triggered off in our minds. It is thinking which involves using mental strategies deliberately to direct our decisions and actions, to form our opinions and to analyse information. A lot of what we do in our daily lives, including what we say, does not require any deliberate thinking but the occasions when we do need to think are often those that are important to us, or our families or others in society.

    In the normal course of our lives we have everyday decisions to think about, such as the shopping we have to do, and big decisions to think about, such as when to start a family, whether to move house or whether to change our job. At a younger age there is thinking to be done about which courses to take and which career paths to follow.

    There is other important thinking to do across a wide range of contexts. We need to think when we are at work, when we are studying, when we engage in leisure pursuits, when we carry out home improvements and when we have letters to write. We need to think seriously about social and political issues so we can reach our own conclusions and we need to think about ethical and philosophical questions when they arise.

    To equip young people to think effectively in a variety of situations they should be taught some basic thinking strategies. They should be trained to acquire the habit of asking what, how and why about the situations they meet and the information they receive. They should be taught to solve problems by assembling the relevant facts, identifying the cause of a problem, devising methodical procedures to deal with it and testing whether the solution has been successful. When analysing information and ideas they should learn to check the logic of what they read and hear, and the evidence for it, and they should learn to present information themselves that is logical and coherent. In any situation in which they find themselves they should know the importance of looking at the advantages and disadvantages of a course of action and, unless the situation demands an immediate, instinctive response, they should know it is better to think before they act. When they form their opinions they should look at all sides of an argument, be aware of any bias they may have which influences their thinking and have sound reasons for the conclusions they come to.

    The benefits to individuals and society of being able to think effectively are enormous which is why teaching this skill must be a key purpose of education. It should be taught as a separate subject but additionally should feature prominently in the delivery of every area of the curriculum. Being able to think effectively allows us to make better decisions at home and at work which improves life for ourselves and those around us. It steers us towards the best thing to do when difficult situations arise and it gives us confidence when discussing complicated issues in our jobs, or in matters relating to our health, our children’s schooling or our financial affairs. Moreover, in helping us understand every aspect of the natural and man-made world in which we live it adds to our fulfilment and well-being.

    Being able to think effectively also helps us learn by ourselves by providing us with the wherewithal to process and apply knowledge and skills. It helps us with our understanding of everything and helps us develop an enquiring mind. We need to acquire the habit of thinking from a young age so that we gain the maximum benefit from this unique human capacity as we go through life.


To transmit knowledge and culture


    It must always be the purpose of education to instruct young people in the knowledge and skills they need for employment and everyday life – the first two purposes that have been proposed. But added to this it is the purpose of education to instruct them in other knowledge and skills – knowledge that satisfies their curiosity about the world around them and skills which bring fulfilment in creative pursuits like art, craft and music.

    At school pupils should be taught various creative skills and allowed sufficient time to develop them to a high standard. This will provide them with opportunities for fulfilment throughout their adult lives. Besides this they should acquire a breadth of knowledge that gives them an understanding of their physical environment and of the different forms of life they share the planet with; an understanding of the universe and how it began; and an understanding of human history, of human achievements across every activity and of everything that science has to offer. They should acquire this broad knowledge for their individual satisfaction but when they prepare for specific employment they will need to acquire specialist knowledge and skills. This will serve the purpose of enabling individuals to support themselves and their families and at the same time enable society to benefit from the goods and services produced by an educated workforce.

    Transmitting a wide spectrum of knowledge to children and young people is seen as one of the main functions of school. History, geography, science and English Literature are studied so they can learn about the world and human achievements, and they learn about great artists and musicians for the same reason. It is unfortunate, though, that the process of transmitting knowledge is used as a means of measuring pupils’ abilities in order to determine their future careers instead of allowing it to be the means of creating wonder, excitement and fulfilment.  

    Our store of knowledge has been built up over thousands of years but it has grown exponentially in the past century or so and it continues to grow each day. It is very much a part of our culture. This meaning of the term culture embraces human achievements and creative endeavours in all their forms and it should be the purpose of education to make people aware of what these are. They encompass every kind of music, literature, drama and art as well as entertainment and sport. Being able to enjoy a wide range of culture, especially the popular variety, brings pleasure and fulfilment for everybody on a daily basis. 

    The other meaning of culture relates to our way of life. It consists of our values and behaviour, our religious beliefs, our political and economic systems, our traditions and our social conventions. As such it comprises most features of our lifestyles and covers how we dress, what we eat, how we spend our money and what we do in our leisure time. And it comprises most aspects of our communal lives such as our belief in democratic decision-making, our justice system, the way we observe traditions like Christmas and Remembrance Day, the customs we follow for weddings and funerals, and conventions like shaking hands with people or standing for the national anthem. The transmission of culture in this sense of the word makes it possible for individuals to take their place in society and feel a part of it. Without this transmission there would, of course, be no society to feel a part of.



Purposes for society


    Education serves our individual needs and whilst doing so it serves the needs of society as a whole. This is because non-subsistent societies are based on the economic and social interdependence of the individuals who belong to them. In a previous interdependent age farmers, blacksmiths, wheelwrights and others in paid work learned skills that earned them an income by providing necessary goods and services for each other. Modern societies are far more complex and function with people working in many different occupations producing a vast number of goods and services but our economic and social interdependence is still broadly similar to that which existed in the past.

    Our economic interdependence today is evident in our market economy and in our paid employment which enables us to buy what we need for ourselves and at the same time provide what other people need. (See note 3 for a simple explanation) It is also evident in the taxation we pay to fund public services. Our social interdependence is evident in the relationships we establish with other people including those which result in finding our future spouses and partners. It is evident, too, in the way we live together harmoniously, in the way we help one another and in the way we enjoy each other’s company.

    The best societies will be those which fully benefit everyone within them and enable people to flourish as individuals. They will only become the best societies, however, when economic and social interdependence is based on values and principles which secure the well-being of each person in an equitable way – much more so than at present. In the best societies all individuals and families will have a comfortable standard of living, will be cared for when they are unwell, will be helped when they need help, will not be subjected to antisocial or violent behaviour, will be contented and fulfilled and will derive pleasure from living with other people. No one, I am sure, would argue with these aspirations nor with the idea that education should help bring them about.

    If education can produce good individuals, and provided the good individuals are in control, it will produce good societies. Good individuals will need to be educated in accordance with the six purposes just described but, of the utmost importance, will equally need to be educated to live their individual lives together with other people and to live their lives communally as members of society. In order to live together with other people, children must learn the behaviour which will equip them to do this in their daily interactions. To live communally as members of a good society they must learn how society functions, how they must act to ensure that it functions well and what they must contribute to it.

    So that we can live together in the best possible way it is essential we all understand that our individual well-being depends on the actions and endeavours of other people as much as it depends on our own actions and endeavours. Children must therefore learn the meaning of economic and social interdependence and be taught the behaviour and values that will make this work for the benefit of every member of society. Set out below are my suggestions for what needs to be learned for interdependence to work properly and create the sort of society everybody would like to see.


Educating for a healthy, equitably organised economy and a comfortable standard of living 


    To maintain a healthy economy and comfortable standard of living it is vital that young people are prepared for employment and equipped with the skills and knowledge to provide the goods and services we presently have. It is vital, too, that our workforce acquires the skills to produce goods and services that can be sold in other countries. For the benefit of society as a whole, schools, colleges and universities must give their students basic employment skills and the specialist knowledge and training they will require for the occupations they decide to enter. They should teach them to work to the best of their ability and take a pride in what they do because it is important that we give of our best to one another.

    From primary school onwards children should be taught that all jobs are worthwhile and contribute to society. They need to know that routine jobs which do not require a great deal of skill can contribute as much as skilled jobs. They should understand that an equitable, interdependent society will value all kinds of employment and will not see occupations or careers in terms of high or low status.

    Young people should learn about the key features of an economy including how businesses are structured, how wages are set, how financial institutions operate and how countries depend on each other for acquiring the products they need and selling the products they make. They should consider the way in which an economy should be planned so that it will work in the best interests of everyone and they should look at the ethical arguments involved in issues such as global poverty, population growth, levels of wages and public spending.4 

    When this last issue is discussed in school pupils should be asked to make a list of everything they and their families use that is paid for by the state and a list of the various payments and benefits the state provides to people. By doing this they will understand the extent to which society acts collectively to ensure that its citizens are properly educated, cared for when they are unwell or elderly, and given financial support when they need it. They should be made aware that what is provided by society is paid for through taxation. Precisely how many obligations society as a whole should be expected to meet and precisely how much tax people should pay can be debated but our future citizens need to be taught that, for the most part, paying taxes is a good thing to do and not an imposition they should begrudge.


Educating for a harmonious and caring society


    Most people will agree with me that educating ourselves to care for each other and live harmoniously together should be the highest priority of the two purposes of education I am proposing for society. Many would say that it should be the highest priority of all the purposes I put forward.

    We need a caring and harmonious society to be able to live together with other people and receive the benefits and pleasures this brings – benefits in the form of goods and services which allow us to live comfortably, and in the form of care and assistance when we need it; pleasures in the form of friendships, relationships and basic human company. But there is another reason why we are drawn to the idea of a caring and harmonious society. It is because we have an innate capacity for empathy and altruism.5 It is human nature to support and care for each other when life becomes difficult, and we want to live in a society where this happens.

    We can help establish and maintain this sort of society by ensuring that people are educated to strengthen their altruistic instincts and not to act entirely out of self-interest. For the benefit of their individual and family lives people must learn the behaviour, values and character that have already been described but for the purpose of being able to live with others they must learn more virtues – all of which are also essential for family life.

    They must learn the two fundamental principles of how we should behave towards each other in our daily interactions: not to do harm to anyone in any way and to aim always to do good. To train children not to do harm they should be taught not to be aggressive, unkind, selfish, rude or uncooperative, and not to take other people’s property, tell lies or be dishonest. To train them to do good they should be taught to be helpful, kind, generous, sympathetic, thoughtful, appreciative and gentle. In addition they should be taught to respect differences in people, to understand the needs of others and to think about the effect of their actions and words. To make daily life better for those they come into contact with they should learn to be reliable, polite and have a friendly manner. To deal with any extreme challenges in life that will affect other people and themselves they should be helped to acquire the supreme virtues of courage and self-sacrifice.

    Teaching the basic principles of behaviour should be the responsibility of parents. It should take place in everyday routines with children being given jobs to do around the house, being encouraged to let someone else have the last piece of cake and being asked to put a little of their money into a charity box. They should not be permitted to say unpleasant things about other people, to argue about switching off the computer game they are playing or to be bad-tempered with anyone. Whenever their behaviour is doing good for others they should be praised and whenever it has the opposite effect disapproval should be expressed along with an explanation as to why the behaviour is wrong.

    Teaching children to be good to others is not difficult as we all have an instinctive empathy with our fellow human beings. But it does require parents to be constantly guiding and monitoring their children so they stay on the right track and it requires teachers to be doing the same. Their role should be to reinforce and extend what parents are teaching and they should take every opportunity to do this as children and young people engage in school life. They should explain the purpose of school rules and codes of behaviour and ensure they are properly followed. They should insist that pupils speak politely to one another and to adults, that they always say “please” and “thank you” and that they hold doors open to allow people through. They should make it clear that their pupils should never say anything hurtful and should not fall out with their friends. And they should teach them that all of us have equal worth as human beings whatever differences we may have in appearance, personality or ability.

    A strong ethos of thinking about others must be created in every school. Pupils should support national fundraising events for charities and organise fundraising events of their own. As well as this they should undertake voluntary work in the community on a regular basis. The importance of helping other people, even when it is inconvenient, should be conveyed to them continually and every so often they should be invited to say what they have done to help somebody.

    Putting the precept of caring for others into practice is the most effective way for children and young people to learn behaviour and values but their learning should also be supported by direct teaching. In assemblies and lessons pupils of all ages should listen to stories and texts containing ethical ideas many of which can be found in various religions and cultures.6 Added to this they should learn about people who in their different ways have worked selflessly in the service of others – those who are well-known like Mother Theresa and Father Damien and those whose names are not widely known, for example the many health workers who treated Ebola victims in West Africa during the outbreak of 2014/15.

    Parents and teachers must ensure that children and young people understand that values and ethical principles are not only crucial for how they behave towards one another in daily life they are crucial in the functioning of society at a national and global level. Pupils should explore and discuss what can be done to overcome the failings of society including those of conflict, poverty and the inequities of the market economy. They should be taught that as adults they will need to keep thinking about and discussing social and political issues and that they will need to make their views known to those in positions of authority. They should learn that doing these things is an obligation they have as members of society and one they should take seriously.

    In addition to teaching children the desirable behaviour and values that will create a harmonious and caring society they must be taught about the way our present society functions and the structures which help it function. They need to know about our laws and why we have them, our systems of national and local government, our system of representative democracy and our constitutional monarchy. When learning about these structures they should discuss their advantages and disadvantages. They must learn, too, about the great communal services, public and private, which benefit all of us by providing health care, education, transport, electricity, gas, water, waste disposal and communications. They should understand the massive contribution these services make to society and respect the endeavours of those who work in them. Importantly they should be taught about the role they should play in society as adults including helping in their communities and being actively involved in the process of democracy.

    As I have said we can be pleased with the society we have so far managed to create but there is a lot more we can do to make life better for those who have not benefited as much as others. We must be clear that it is the purpose of education to bring about a good society for everyone and with greater ambition and higher expectations we can make sure this essential purpose is completely fulfilled.





1   A  simple  illustration  of  qualities  benefiting  individuals  and society is to consider someone who is conscientious at work. This may well improve that person’s chances of bonus payments and  career  advancement  but  society  will  benefit  if,  as  a  result  of  his  or  her  efforts, the organisation for which he or she works is more effective or more profitable.


2   Whilst most of the behaviour and values that children learn is  the  same for all of them there will  be  some  notable  differences. Parents with strong beliefs, religious or non-religious, will instil  certain  behaviour  and  values  that  are  not  shared  by  everyone  else  –  for  example, behaviour related to gender.


3   There is a lot of symbiosis  in  the economic interdependence of society. We take employment to provide  income  for  our  own  needs  and this employment provides the goods and services which meet the needs of others. It is their needs that  create employment  for  us  and  it  is the money  we  earn  from  this  to  spend  on  our  own needs  that  creates  employment for them. Education makes this system  possible by providing us with the various skills we need in our different jobs.


4   My own view is that we need to  move  to  a  more  regulated  economy in which the minimum wage is raised to an even higher level and everyone is guaranteed employment.


5   For  an  excellent  article  on  the  subject  of  altruism I commend one by Dr Robert Brooks on his website: When Do Altruism and Kindness Begin in Our Lives?


6   These two Buddhist sayings could be taught: i) Set  your  heart  on  doing good. Do it over and over again, and  you  will  be  filled  with  joy. ii) Kindness should become the natural way of life not the exception.