Education costs a lot of money. Governments spend billions on it every year and I think it's reasonable to want to get some kind of financial benefit for the economy as a result. Even better if it's a measurable benefit because then you can use the results to get yourself elected again! The last thing we want to do is sink our hard-earned taxes into a bottomless pit of a school system, only to have half-witted morons coming out the end of it unable to hold down a simple job. So there is rightness in wanting to uphold standards and ensure a good quality education. There is also a good argument for making education as standard as possible, so that everyone, regardless of their economic background, gets the same opportunities as anyone else. I would not want a society where some people are consigned to the dustbin before they even get a chance to prove themselves.
Let's be brutally honest though, and question how much of what gets learned at school is actually useful in a work environment. I actually worked as a statistician for an insurance company and even then the amount and complexity of maths I used was not that great. That is quite a niche industry and in reality the majority of jobs do not require any maths skills at all, and if they do only very basic arithmetic. The history I studied has been of no direct value in my career, nor the English literature, or most of what I learned in science class. It was all very interesting though and I think I am the better as a person for having studied it. Most of the useful training I received was from my colleagues while I was on the job, and basically just figuring stuff out for myself or from the internet or friends. I'm ready to admit now, having worked as a pricing analyst for 3 years, that I knew basically nothing of the role when I started and 95% of what I learned was on the job and not from any of my formal education. I'm sure I'm not the only person who's had this experience. In fact, unless you are a doctor or a lawyer or have done some other vocational training, then you're probably in the same boat as me. In my mind, education has only 3 purposes:
1) To teach a specific skill or piece of knowledge that will be required to achieve a specific goal in the future. For this I would include, being able to read and write, knowing about different medications, basically technical training. 2) To teach more general skills (sometimes called soft-skills), that are just generally useful to have as your way of working. This could be things like, organisational skills, communication skills, etc. 3) To enrich and broaden your horizons and stimulate your mind to new ideas and ways of being. To me this would be art, poetry, history or anything else that can give you a new perspective on things.
I think though we have a basic problem in our education system, in that it is thoroughly confused about these three and has mashed them together into a disjointed mess. THE SOFT-SKILLS are not specifically taught, but you're just sort of left to figure it out. If you're late for class, don't get your homework done, i.e. are unorganised, then you fall behind. There is no assistance given by the school, you're left to either figure it out or have parents wise enough to teach it. So we're not giving a standard educational level there, children with better parents will likely develop better soft-skills, those unlucky in the lottery are left to fend for themselves. But it's not as if we even need a school to provide this sort of experience, any organised activity with goals and deadlines would build this sort of skill-set. THE TECHNICAL SKILLS that need to actually be taught by a school are relatively few. Beyond an ability to read and write, speak the language (or a foreign language), basic maths, and the ability to reason, what else are schools actually offering their students? Why are we dilligently training scores of school graduates each year to be able to do trigonometry? What's the point? They will never need it. They don't need to know why WWI started or anything else to be a good worker. So I think on the skills side of things, we are unnecessarily labouring to provide students highly trained in a load of nonsense, while the skills that actually might give them a headstart in their career they are left to stumble across themselves.
THE AESTHETIC BEAUTY of many of the subjects, and the enriching experience of studying them and the knowledge that lies within, are things that I think are hard to place a monetary value on. Would we want a generation of people to grow up in ignorance of the slave trade and the holocaust? I doubt it. Similarly, is there any direct, measurable or financial benefit to teaching Shakespeare? No, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't do it. I think we need to sit down and work out exactly, (and forget what we've got currently), what skills we want people to have when they leave school, then design a curriculum and train teachers that reliably produces students that have those skills. All other technical training (like algebra) should just then be scrapped.
What time there is left should be devoted to inspiring students and expanding their horizons to the world of knowledge that has been developed so far. Plant a seed that will grow into a mighty oak of curiosity and wonder at the natural world and the creations of the minds of the people in it. They'll come out the school system buzzing with excitement and desperate to get out into the world and make their mark, and they will have been equipped with the tools they need to do that and nothing else. They will have enjoyed learning so much, I think they would continue to do it, and easily grasp new techniques and job-specific training as they need it. Can you test that? No you can't. I don't think really matters though. What will employers use to assess the capabilities of students? Well, just design a set of competency based exams that are specifically designed by employers to test the skills they particularly want. Then before you apply to a company you take the test and they can sort the wheat from the chaff themselves. Why burden the education system with all this unnecessary training just to make it easier for employers to filter CVs?
(Published on 1 May 2017)