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Crisis? What Crisis?

Re-examining what education is for

10:00am, Saturday 3 July 2004, Park Crescent Conference Centre, International Students House

Education Secretary Charles Clarke recently announced that he wants to stimulate an open public debate about secondary education - this weekend conference takes him at his word. Plenary and seminar panels made up of journalists. academics, writers, practitioners, policy advisers, parents and chalk-face teachers will lead noholds-barred discussions to examine critically what current educational initiatives mean, inspect key debates, and set some positive challenges to the status quo.

Tony Blair’s 1997 promise of education, education, education seemed to capture society’s post-Thatcherite optimism and speak to a positive aspiration for future generations. While many of New Labour’s policies seemed managerial and limited,  here was a grander vision and a promise of an end to lhe time when excellence was restricted to the few, with bog standard for the many. New Labour presented education as a means of creating a better, more egalitarian, society. offering hope that all kinds of social problems could be solved.

This promise has turned sour. Despite overblown rhetoric. the reality has been disappointing and the jargon grates against frustrated ambitions. The government’s means of assessing its own success. through target hitting, results quotas and bureaucratic interference, has led to cynicism and accusations of grade inflation and dumbing down. The idea that state education is in meltdown is widely espoused and has become something of a parental and political obsession.

The endless churn of initiatives has not led to an atmosphere of dynamism, but rather a sense of permanent dissatisfaction. Every month new ideas are floated: more exams, fewer exams. vocational GCSEs, AS levels - yes or no? - and now baccalaureates or diplomas. Or take your pick from specialist schools, city academies, training schools, CTCs. beacon schools or extended schools.

Far from education offering the key to a better society, it seems instead that schools and teachers have been burdened with expectations, with neither the resources nor the vision to realise them. Education is presented as the solution to every social problem from obesity to teenage pregnancy, and yet it seems increasingly unclear what education means in its own terms. The constant changes and new proposals appear as a bewildering array of disjointed ideas conspicuous by their lack of educational vision. What is education for. and what should be done about it?

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