home  news  search  vre  contact  sitemap
 Education for all (home)




Section 2. Educational Aims and Values

Central to the Reviews were deliberations about the values which implicitly or explicitly direct educational policy and practice. What is education for? Only in the light of thoughtful answers to that question can we think about the quality of learning and the institutional arrangements to promote it. This section therefore permeates all that follows.

Key points

  • Aims of education are too often seen only in terms of economic and academic success.
  • There is a need instead to consider the development of the ‘whole person’.
  • Those aims frequently neglect lifelong learning.
  • Those aims too often focus on individual achievement rather than on the public good.

The need for clear aims

It would seem self-evident that policy and practice should be shaped by clear aims and values. Even so, the Reviews noted how little attention is given to these, despite the unexamined values which often clearly underpin policy and practice.

One danger, pointed out in the Reviews, of neglecting these essentially ethical questions is that education is principally seen in government documents as the promotion of the knowledge and skills deemed necessary for economic success. That of course is important. But, where such an aim comes to dominate educational discourse, reflected in the language of  ‘targets’, ‘audits’ and ‘delivery’, then the intrinsic worth of educational activities tends to take second place. And those learners who cause the targets to be missed may be seen as educational failures

What the Reviews say

For the reasons described above

  • the Cambridge Primary Review asked ‘What is primary education for?’ (p.174-202), and answered with a list of aims which reflect values and should drive the curriculum. Those values arise from what it means to become ‘an educated person’, namely, developing the capacities in young children: to ‘make sense’ of their experiences and thereby to be empowered through knowledge; to have a sense of personal fulfilment; to be actively engaged in their learning; to have the moral qualities of respect and caring; to participate actively in the wider group in anticipation of becoming active citizens.
  • the Nuffield Review (p.12) started with the question ‘What counts as an educated 19 year-old in this day and age?’, and similarly responded to this question by spelling out those qualities and capacities which are distinctive of being and growing as a person:
  • the knowledge and understanding through which all young people attain a more intelligent grasp of the physical, social and economic worlds which they inhabit;
  • the practical capabilities through which they are able, not just to think, but also to act, make and create intelligently;
  • the moral seriousness with which they address and care about the ‘big questions’ which confront them and the wider society - e.g. those concerned with environment, racism, poverty;
  • community relatedness – both a recognition of their intrinsic attachment to the wider community and a disposition to help shape it as citizens;
  • a sense of personal fulfilment through the pursuit of worthwhile interests – the opposite of a state of boredom.
  • the IFLL Report (p.8) starts with the assertion that learning throughout life, as a human right, should be broadly conceived – to develop the capacities to respond to changing employment patterns and economic needs, certainly, but, more than that, to continue (even into the ‘fourth age’) personal growth, emancipation through knowledge, a sense of solidarity with the community both locally and globally, and control over one’s own life (e.g. in the spheres of health, finances, civic duties, employment and digital technology).
  • TLRP (1, 3, 12), reflecting the values underpinning other TLRP papers, emphasise these broader aims of education. These are intrinsic to the understanding of teachers as educators (no mere trainers) and to the value of ‘widening participation in higher education’ (TLRP 4) which lies in more than greater economic utility.
  • the MCWB Report (see p.34-42) underlines this broad purpose of ‘learning through life’ and ‘the wider benefits of learning’ –  namely, a concern for the ‘well-being’ of each person. Such well-being requires mental good health, dispositions to continue learning, knowledge and skills for an economically useful life, qualities for participating in the social life of family and wider community, and social cohesion. Mental good health is in part an educational matter, too often ignored in the provision of formal learning.

A moral dimension to education

These broad educational aims provide a moral dimension to education. They point to what it means to be an educated person and what it means for such a person to contribute to the ‘public good’. That is important for two related reasons.

  • First, the moral dimension has tended to be neglected in many government documents in recent years.  But values, even when unexamined, still shape in detail the structure and content of education and training ‘from cradle to grave’. Consequently, education is frequently seen as but a means to some further non-educational end – as reflected in the dominant reference to ‘skills’ for economic success in a competitive market and in the language of ‘effectiveness’ and of performance management in the achievement of that end (NR p.16; CCPR ch.12).
  • The second, connected, reason why constant deliberation of such aims is important is that questionable but unexamined values get embedded in the everyday practices which follow from an over-emphasis on performance alone – as for example, in:
  • the narrow regime of SATs tests and consequent impoverishment of learning at the primary stage (see CCPR ch.16 and this document, section 8);
  • the option to drop the arts and humanities at the age of 14 (NR p.107) or their marginalisation (CCPR p.252);
  • assessment which neglects practical competence and creativity (CCPR ch.17; NR p.80/2);
  • lack of room for prior experience in the curriculum (NR p.82) and in HE (TLRP 4);
  • predominantly economic justifications for widening participation in higher education;
  • lack of broad educational opportunities for adults and the ageing (IFLL ch.3);
  • neglect of less measurable aims like personal and social well-being (MCWB, p.35).

The Reviews considered here provide a continuing reminder of the vision of society in which learning plays its full role in ‘personal growth and emancipation, prosperity, solidarity and global responsibility’ (IFLL p.8)

Moral dimension continued: addressing inequality and discrimination

Also emphasised in the respective Reviews was the connection between educating and creating a fairer society (3, 5, 11; NR p.21/2; CCPR ch.12; MCWB ch.4) – what IFLL (p.xvii) refers to as ‘public value’, namely, its impact on the reduction of discrimination, crime, poverty and ill-health. This contrasts with the view of education as essentially a personal and ‘positional’ good. 

That ‘public good’ embraces the creation of a society which eliminates prejudice and discrimination on the basis of gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation and social class. ‘Fairness’ and social solidarity is seen as a central educational value, more urgent today in the light of increased diversity and lower social mobility (see Section 3 below).

Moreover, the National Child Development Study (NCDS, 30), drawing on its synoptic analysis of 50 year olds, endorsed the words of the Report Born to Fail(iv), in saying,

Educational achievement seems to play a central role in later life outcomes. Much of the relationship between disadvantage, delinquency, lower earnings and unemployment is generated because of the lower educational attainment of disadvantaged young people.

Hence, it is argued that a central role of education lies in addressing problems of a more culturally diverse and economically divided society and in contributing to greater social cohesion and equality. Thus, MCBC (p.17) points to the evidence for greater social cohesion, low prevalence of crime and high prevalence of pro-social behaviour, which can be nurtured through education: ‘education has a potential role to play in the prevention of most, if not all, of these features of personal and social dislocation’ (p.34).

However, as IFLL argues (thereby filling a gap in the normal narrative on education ‘from cradle to grave’), the ‘more just society’ includes not only the ‘socially disadvantaged’ but also the ‘adult disadvantaged’, namely

  • adults over 25 no longer entitled to formal education and training but whose continuing further education and training are crucial for their and society’s economic well-being;
  • those adults who are disabled and have special needs;
  • those who are retired but whose lives would be more fulfilling if they too had educational opportunities.


Education aims to nurture the personal good of individuals and the public good of the society of which those individuals are part. That ‘good’ is to be spelt out in terms of the knowledge and understanding, the practical capabilities and skills, the moral seriousness and dispositions, the active participation in the wider community and the sense of achievement which are thought to be worthwhile. There will never be universal agreement on exactly what is worthwhile, but that is why educational policy and practice should constantly be subject to open ethical deliberation.

Furthermore, in pursuing such broad educational aims and values for all young people, the Reviews warn against the narrowing of those aims to purely academic achievement or to what is easily measurable. Such narrowness guarantees ‘educational failure’ to many who have achieved much and who demonstrate the benefits of a wider vision of learning.

Therefore, everyone who is engaged in education and training needs to think carefully and often about the aims of education and about the values which education should foster in all young people – not just for the privileged or the academically able. Such essentially ethical deliberations affect all that follows – the vision of learning, the assessment of that learning, the opening up of opportunities through different progression routes and qualifications, and the provision and funding of formal education ‘from cradle to grave’.

Notes and references

(iv) Wedge, P. and Prosser, H., 1973, Born to Fail, London: Arrow Books, in association with the National Child Development Bureau.


homepage ESRC