What are schools for?

The following is a guest post by Professor Gert Biesta. The article originally appeared in the Herald on 08/04/14 – http://www.heraldscotland.com/comment/columnists/agenda.23905478


It has become quite popular to say that schools are there for learning. Hence children and young people are nowadays called ‘learners,’ teachers ‘facilitators of learning,’ and the school ‘a learning environment.’ The dominance of the language of learning is unfortunate, because to say that schools should make children learn actually doesn’t say a lot. After all, the point of the school is not that children and young people just learn, but that they learn something, do it for particular reasons, and learn from someone. Education always raises questions about content, purpose and relationships, and of these the question of purpose is the most important one, because If we do not know what we want our educational endeavours to bring about, we have no criterion to select the most appropriate content, nor can we decide how to use educational relationships most productively. From this angle the question ‘What are schools for?’ is indeed the most important question.

Yet here we encounter further problems, as there is no shortage of answers to this question but the answers pull the school in very different directions. Some argue that the school is a motor for the economy, hence the need to drive up standards in order to keep ahead in the global economic rat race. Others require that the school transmits values and instils good behaviour and character, often for laudable aims like citizenship or sustainability, but sometimes informed by narrow nationalism or an intention to reproduce the existing social order. Still others highlight that the task of the school is to support children’s development so that they can reach their full potential and develop talents.

These agendas are problematic for two reasons. They are limited in themselves and, when taken to their extreme, result in one-sided views of the school. While economic considerations are important, there is the question what kind of economy we actually need – the current unsustainable one or a more sustainable one – and there is the urgent question how we can balance the demands of the economy with those of democracy and social justice. While values, behaviour and character are important, the real question is which values, behaviours and character the school should be promoting in a world that is increasingly becoming diverse and where this diversity is largely seen as good and desirable. And while children should have the opportunity to develop their talents they, as everyone else, have a talent for the good and for the bad, so that the real question is which talents should be promoted and supported, and which talents should be questioned, interrupted or even blocked.

While matters of the economic life, of social and cultural traditions, and of the person are important and legitimate reference points for the school, each of these in themselves result in a one-side vision. We see, for example, that so-called ‘high performing’ education systems – which score high in rankings that mainly measure how schools perform in relation to the demands of the global economy – can be hugely damaging for the well-being of children and young people (as high suicide rates in some countries show). The real challenge, therefore, is to keep the different agendas in a meaningful balance, so that each can be given a place without leading to distortions in any of the other domains.

To approach the question what schools are for in this way, requires educational self-confidence and courage, particularly in a climate where fear often prevails, for example the fear of being left behind that seems to be a key driver of education policy around world, without anyone ever asking where the whole system is or should be heading towards. It needs a belief in a broad and balanced view of the school, ultimately orientated towards a concern for the dignity of the human person and meaningful and peaceful human co-existence. This is not only important for Scotland as it looks towards its own educational future, but may be also where Scotland can set an example for a different, more humane and more democratic vision of the school.


After having taught at the Universities of Exeter, England, and Stirling, Scotland, Gert Biesta is, since 2013, Professor of Educational Theory and Policy at the University of Luxembourg, and Head of the Institute of Education and Society. He has published widely on education, schooling and the curriculum. Recent books include Good Education in an Age of Measurement (2010) and The Beautiful Risk of Education (2014) – both published by Paradigm Publishers USA – and Reinventing the Curriculum (2013; co-edited with Mark Priestley), published by Bloomsbury UK.