Professor Richard Pring is an Honorary Research Fellow in the Department of Education, Oxford University. Since retiring as Director of that department in 2003, he has led the Nuffield Review of 14-19 Education and Training in the UK and several subsequent large-scale research projects. He has continued to publish extensively on philosophy and educational research and vocational education and training. Here he discusses ‘The Life and Death of Secondary Education for All’ (Routledge, 2013).
Why did you decide to write The Life and Death of Secondary Education for All?
The idea and desire to write the book arose from the six years of leading the Nuffield Review of 14-19 Education and Training 14-18 for England and Wales. The Report Education for All was published in 2009 and was widely reviewed. However, there were many issues which I wanted to pursue further without having to share with (and hence be inhibited by) a team. There were particular issues I wanted to advance, especially the ethical grounds which should guide policy and practice, reflected in the question: ‘What counts as an educated 19 year old?’ – seeking an analysis which draws on what it means to be and to grow as a person, irrespective of academic ability.
What’s the main aim of the book, and why is it important now?
The aim, therefore, was to think philosophically about what it means to be and to grow as a person, to show how the musings over such a question requires entry into ethics, epistemology and the philosophy of mind. But the book refuses to remain just within the philosophical terrain. It examines critically, in the light of all that, the practice of education and training with this age range – the changing organisational framework, the increased programme of tests and assessments, the impoverished role of the teacher, the nature of learning (especially the neglect of practical learning), the content of the curriculum, and the need for objective and impartial Information, Advice and Guidance.
And what is it that draws you, personally, to this area of research?
What drew me over many years was my involvement with these issues as an Assistant Principal in the Further Education Branch of the Ministry of Education, teaching adolescents in a London comprehensive school, being involved from the 1970s with the Further Education Unit and with TVEI, and as a member of the £15 million ESRC research project SKOPE (Skills, Knowledge and Organisational Performance). I have always been concerned with the tendency of philosophy of education to be engaged with in isolation from the practical and political world to which it should be relevant. My interest has always been in making that connection.
Did the book gain the reception you hoped for?
The book was aimed at politicians, teachers, and university courses in education and received excellent reviews and references, even in political circles. But I am not sure that it is now referenced much except in the occasional academic paper. Sic transeat gloria mundi.
What’s your current project? What’s next?
I am promoting, first, the third much rewritten edition of Philosophy of Educational Research, which seems to be used as a text-book both in the UK and abroad, second, the recently published paperback edition of John Dewey: the philosopher of education for the 21st century, in preparation for the centenary next year of Democracy and Education. There is to be a big conference in Cambridge. A book edited by Martin Roberts and myself (A Generation of Change: through the eyes of those who were part of it) will soon be with the publishers, giving a critical account of the last 50 years of change from the points of view of 15 authors from schools, further education, universities, government, the press, local authorities (including London). Meanwhile, I am teaching one day a week at the University of Winchester, and I have been brought in to teach the course in philosophy of educational research to 40 research students at Oxford.
What is philosophy of education and why does it matter?
Philosophy exposes the muddle in everyday thinking by asking the question ‘what do you mean?’ since, as Wittgenstein argued, the intelligence is constantly bewitched by the misuse of language. This is particularly apposite to educational thinking; the pursuit of that question ‘What do you mean?’ takes one into the traditional philosophical areas of ethics, theory of knowledge, aesthetics, philosophy of mind, and political philosophy.
Read Ruth Heilbronn’s review of Richard Pring’s ‘The Life and Death of Secondary Education for All’.