Education is about Worthwhile Nurture, Culture and Survival


       Education is not filling a bucket, but lighting a fire. W B Yeats

    Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire. Plutarch

[Often attributed but never located!  Never mind.  Shows the idea is at least two thousand years old.}  


When Tony Blair became prime minister in 1997 and announced his policy of ‘Education, education, education’, it was seen as a good sound-bite, but what did he mean by those three words? 

·      Was it that young people should acquire useful knowledge and technical skills in order that they could become affluent adults and so contribute to the future gross domestic product?

·      Was it that they should develop human values which would help them grow personally and socially as good people?

·      Was it to support their nascent creativity, develop their aesthetic values and immerse them in the culture of their time? 

·      Was it that they might gain a love of learning and the intellectual skills to acquire knowledge and become life-long learners.

On those rare occasions when politicians give voice to their views on the purposes of education they usually focus on the first of these – the economic argument with perhaps a glance at the second – the moral argument.  The cultural argument and the idea of life-long learning are mostly ignored.  The evidence shows politicians are more interested in the mechanics of education than the reasons for it!  Perhaps we are all like this – but, from time to time, it is profitable to go back to first principles.



This is how, after over fifty years of teaching, teacher training, research and cogitation, I conceive education.

·      First, education includes the experience and nurture of personal and social development towards worthwhile living.

·      Second, education provides abundant opportunities for the acquisition and discovery of worthwhile culture. 

·      Third, education develops worthwhile survival skills for a warming, resource depleted, chaotic, angry world.



These are the three key words of what I call a ‘framework’ definition of education.  They embrace the work of primary schools, secondary schools, colleges and universities, the home life of families, the experience of the workplace, and include the learning that arises from everyday events such as meeting people, reading newspapers and books, listening to radio and watching television and films.

We experience the three elements of nurture, culture and survival through a variety of modes of learning, including: being nurtured, acquiring, developing, creating, receiving through transmission, conserving, discovering, renewing – and no doubt others. 

The framework provides a structure on which to locate ideas on what is ‘worthwhile’.

Worthwhile living

As an example, my view of worthwhile living is based on the concept of conviviality.  This is a way of living in which people gain quality of life and enjoy happiness by striving to be in harmony with themselves and with their social, cultural and natural environments.  

Others take a different view of worthwhile living, seeking quality of life and happiness by acquiring and spending wealth and recognizing personal ambition and competitiveness as the driving forces needed to achieve this. 

And others again see worthwhile living in spiritual terms linked to a worshipped deity.

Worthwhile culture

What do we mean by ‘culture’?  I find helpful the views of Jon Hawkes, an Australian planner, set out in ‘The Fourth Pillar of Sustainability: Culture’s Essential Role in Public Planning’ written in 2001. 

Culture is the bedrock of society: the tangible and intangible manifestations of our values and aspirations; our customs, faiths and conventions; our codes of manners, dress, cuisine, language; our literature; our arts, sciences, technologies; our history and geography; our sports, pastimes and hobbies; our religions and rituals; our norms and regulations of behaviour; our traditions; and our institutions of groups of humans. 

Somehow, from this enormous canvas, tradition has carved out those elements that have been deemed worthwhile and should be taught in school.  Since 1988 our governments have taken over this role by defining (and several times redefining) a national curriculum in terms of subject disciplines, but hugely influenced by tradition.

Worthwhile survival

But what of the third element – worthwhile survival?

In terms of safety in the home and outside this is obviously a prime learning concern of parents and child-minders.  For older children and indeed for adults it has in recent years become increasingly clear that awareness of global warming and the dangers of climate change is needed by our leaders.  Beyond awareness is the need for action by individuals in terms of cutting back on consumption, conserving energy, recycling waste and, at the time of elections, voting for candidates who offer the best policies for long term and worthwhile survival. 

In the face of grave dangers such as warfare, pestilence or starvation, education for creating sustainable ways of surviving becomes the most important element of the three, at other times it takes a back seat.      

What is worthwhile?  Who decides?

The dilemma that my definition poses is: what and who determines what is ‘worthwhile’.  Is it a matter of tradition, which means that our predecessors decided it for us; or of government edict, which might seem to be a democratic answer, but actually means that a group of government-sponsored self-styled experts are empowered to legislate on what nearly half a million teachers must do in school; or of decisions made by teachers and schools in relation to their own values of what is ‘worthwhile’? 



Schools should be about young people living, and learning to live, worthwhile fulfilled lives.

Schools should be about young people learning to live worthwhile lives both in the present and for what ever may lie ahead in their futures.  

Education should mean that young people in school (and outside of school) learn how to relate to others peacefully and with mutual respect; that they learn the skills of reading, writing, speaking, listening, thinking; that they learn mathematical skills; that they learn how to develop their natural talents for creative art embracing perhaps writing in its many forms, drawing, painting, dancing, making music and other art forms; that they begin to learn of the cultural wealth that they can spend their lives exploring – in terms of science, history, geography, literature, philosophy, art, music and much else.  They may learn other languages.

Hopefully they learn to be moral citizens with ethical standards and find how to collaborate with others and when to compete, when to be tolerant, when to be assertive and when to stand up for their rights. 

In particular they should learn how to go on learning for the rest of their lives – and to expect to find the pleasure of it.

In all this schools should be joyful places, preparing young people for the good life.

These ideas can be expressed in many ways, all of which will portray education as an all-round experience and much, much broader than a preparation for examinations.  Which is why it is worrying to see our politicians ranting about ‘raising standards’, using examination results as performance targets for schools, and being over-impressed by international, but limited, measures of young peoples’ achievements. 



Teachers transmit knowledge, train in skills, and promote worthwhile values as part of young people’s moral and cognitive development  

This is the traditional view of a teacher’s job, but my description of education and schools above puts knowledge, skills and values into the broader context of helping the young to develop as rounded people living worthwhile and fulfilled lives.

Politicians, when in government, take a narrower view. 

Ed Balls was the education secretary of state in the Labour government that preceded the present Coalition government.  When a new national curriculum for secondary schools was launched in July 2007, he said that it would give young people the knowledge, skills and awareness to flourish in our fast-changing world.  And then he showed that the economic model of education was central to his thinking.

  • “At its core is a belief that we must give even more attention to the basic functional skills and rigorous academic standards on which our economy depends.”

When Michael Gove became secretary of state in 2010 he denigrated the work of his predecessors, saying:

  • “A national curriculum designed by ideologues and policed by bureaucrats has demoralised and demotivated our teachers and downplayed the vital place of knowledge. 

Which is why we need radical change.”

But he too was concerned about the future economy:

  • “Our children will never outstrip the global competition unless we know our exams can compete with the best in the world.”

The devastating fact is that the politicians who dabble in education believe in the transmission view of what it is about.  They believe that effective preparation of the young entails government telling the teachers and teachers telling the children!   They are, in Yeats memorable phrase more interested in “filling buckets” than “lighting fires”.

Teachers should be warm-hearted professional firebrands, inspiring the young: as W B Yeats said, lighting fires not filling buckets.  (Actually it can be traced back to the Greek philosopher Plutarch)

Politicians will deny it, of course, but they tend to see teachers as knowledge-transmitting and skills-training technicians who need to be given a manual and rule-book in order to operate in a gradgrind pupil factory and who need rigorous inspection and regular pupil assessment in order to ensure that they are working at maximum efficiency and obeying the employers’ rules.

Teachers are NOT technicians in pupil factories with government manual, regular inspection and pupil testing to ensure efficiency.



Primary education: one class teacher for most of the work of a year is best for young children to support personal development.

Secondary education: subject teachers for most of the work is best for older children to enable depth of study.

While the secondary school teacher needs to be able to relate effectively to adolescents and to be a specialist in both a subject and the pedagogy of that subject, the primary school teacher needs to be, in a time-worn phrase, all things to all people, but particularly skilled in the pedagogy of reading, writing and elementary mathematics (as the government properly expects). Both primary and secondary teachers need to develop the skills of ‘assessment for learning’ which aims to ensure that teaching is geared to learning for all. 

All teachers need the personal skills, sometimes very demanding, to be able to maintain order and good discipline in the classroom.  But there is much more to the work of school teachers if they are, in Yeats phrase, to ‘light fires’ in the minds of their pupils.

They need to have variously some of the attributes of creative artists, inquisitive scientists, well-read librarians, successful entrepreneurs, sports enthusiasts and more.  They need to have empathy and respect for young people and their parents.  They need to be able to inspire the young and generate enthusiasms that excite their pupils’ imagination with ideas that will stay with them for years. 

Few can cover such a spectrum of interests:  primary teachers need a broader coverage but can hardly be expected to excel at all.  But if, as children move through primary school, they meet one year a class teacher with a bent for creative art, next year one who enjoys scientific enquiry in the classroom, next year someone skilled in drama, and so on, they are likely to find much inspiration and develop their varied talents.  By comparison the national curriculum, telling teachers year by year what they must teach in science, geography, history, music, art, physical education, etc is often a recipe for boredom in both teachers and pupils.  Inspired teaching comes from people with ‘fire in the belly’. While the classroom teacher must provide a variety of activities, as all parents will expect, the freedom to put emphasis on a personal strength will benefit many children.

A vision of what primary and secondary education could be like is at #content_35631736

Demanding?  Yes. Some will say that it is a tall order. But others will recognize that it sets an aspiration for those who believe, as I do, that teachers must walk tall in our society.  For as the late Ted Wragg said:

  • “There is no higher calling. Without teachers, society would slide back into primitive squalor”.



The page was completely revised and this version posted on 9 August 2013