Book Review: ‘The Life and Death of Secondary Education for All’

Book Review: ‘The Life and Death of Secondary Education for All’ by Richard Pring

Abingdon, Oxford, Routledge, 2013. Pp. 208. Hb. £90.00, Pb. £25.99.

Reviewed by Ruth Heilbronn

In speaking to power at a time of rapid and sweeping educational change, we need clarity about what is being chosen and what discarded: we need coherence in disentangling argument from political rhetoric. Philosophers of education are not numerous in policy forums and Richard Pring’s former role as director of the large-scale Nuffield Review of 14-19 education and training in England and Wales (Routledge, 2009) lends weight to the discussion about what ought to underpin policy and practice in the provision of education in a context of frequent, fragmented government interventions. ‘The quality of learning’ is foregrounded as a key driver of the account, which might help to commend the book to policy-makers since the term figures extensively in school effectiveness discourse. 

The book has a broader remit than the 14-19 review, however, and draws on debates in education in the USA, UK, and more widely, intending to be philosophical in analysis and empirical in example. But the analysis is founded on the same initial question that shaped and drove the review: what counts as an educated 19 year old today? Starting with the assumption that education is a fundamentally normative endeavour, the account of the desired essential knowledge, capabilities and qualities of an educated 19 year old is suggested as the rationale for what ought to underpin educational policy, as it relates to the learning experiences of young people; the curriculum; the role and training of teachers; the indicators by which schools and colleges are judged; the qualifications framework, and further training, employment or higher education.

The general argument is illustrated with examples from practice in formal and informal educational settings across several countries. The book’s three sections concern: the aims of education and the values ‘which do and should govern education for all’; the application of these aims to practice; and policy implementation. The final chapter sets out ten recommendations for achieving ‘education for all’ – a concept situated in the Deweyan ideal of ‘the common school’ (Dewey, 1916) in which an aim of education is to nurture a sense of community. This ideal implies non-selective entry and an assumption of social, cultural, and academic diversity in the school population and the whole school community in the widest sense.

Oakeshott’s views on the general rules of ‘conversation’ open an enquiry into the question ‘what counts as an educated young person in this day and age?’ (p. 2). What does it mean to become human? Which human qualities do we wish to nurture and develop and how could education foster them? These qualities are stated as the knowledge and understanding required for the intelligent management of one’s life; competence to make decisions about the future in the light of changing economic and social conditions; practical capability, including preparation for employment; moral seriousness with which to shape future choices and relationships, and a sense of responsibility for the community.

Answering the broader questions about what constitutes an educated 19 year old presents a challenge to an impoverished view of education and the book is particularly engaging in the discussion of the managerial language of ‘deliverology’. Pring claims that ‘our intelligences have been bewitched’ by managerial language, which he likens to Orwellian newspeak (p. 32).  A richer view of education would bring the child’s experience of the world to the classroom, there to meet ‘the best that has been thought and said’, particularly in art, literature, music, and drama, which are creative pursuits now being scaled back in many of our schools. Oakeshott’s ‘voice of liberal learning’ is invoked to reveal a contradiction in the notion of learning related to managerial aims, since children learn in non-schooled and informal settings. Additionally, Pring argues, even within its own terms managerialism does not work in ‘delivering’, for example, literacy and numeracy targets. Drawing on contextual details in PISA surveys he concludes that many of the world’s most successful educational systems have moved away from ‘command and control’ environments. International evidence shows that ‘where there is success there is greater discretion over the content and the curriculum and teachers work together to frame what they believe to be good practices, including conducting field-based research’ (p. 20). There is less standardisation and therefore less top down control. Pring advises trusting teachers and others engaged in the work of education. This chimes with much work on judgement as practical wisdom (see e.g. Dunne, 1993), on work-place learning (Smith, 1999; Hager, 2000), and on the downgrading of teaching to the role of functionary rather than professional. Pring’s analysis of the requirements for the educated 19 year old in contemporary conditions implies that teachers need to be what Sachs (2001) has termed ‘democratic professionals’ rather than ‘managerial professionals’. Trust should also extend to attending to the voice of the learner and enabling a space for learners to speak: ‘Cultural development arises not from the direct transmission of knowledge, but from the serious social interactions taking place in the light of evidence and of experiences brought to the discussion by the learners themselves’ (p. 86).

This assertion will not go down well with those who believe in the value of ‘high culture’, which in their view needs to drive an academic and vocational divide and a curriculum of canon and dates. A short chapter on culture succinctly discusses the implications of a view of high culture as it plays out in educational policies, and argues for a view of ‘a common culture’ (pp. 42-3), citing Tawney’s (1938) position that social well-being ‘depends upon cohesion and solidarity…a high level of general culture, or a strong sense of common interests’ (p. 43). I find this a timely reminder, since a form of high culture is currently promoted in England, and echoes earlier instances (see Furlong, 2002), such as Flew’s promotion of education for ‘examinations, excellence and elites’ (Flew, 1982, p. 23). The book argues, however, that if the aims of education are to be based on the value of learning to become human, humanity implies inclusivity – ‘the common school’. Curriculum implications are then developed in a later chapter entitled ‘Bring back curriculum thinking’.

It is difficult in a short review to do justice to the range and depth of the material used and the coherence of the argument overall, developed through a rich series of connections of evidence and practical examples. For example, I like the connections between Oakeshott’s ‘conversation’ and other strands of work in education and language and the links made to oracy, to the Bullock Report, A language for life?, and to Bernstein and Britton. This is a story I know from experience in schools, from pedagogy which encouraged and theorised children talking to each other as a way in which knowledge and understanding is socially developed. Student talk needs nurturing and enabling, and Pring pertinently cites research on learner voice and students’ preference for active collaboration in learning, particularly strong in the work of the National Association of Teachers of English (NATE), which is committed to teachers enabling pupil talk. I endorse his view that an emphasis on speaking and listening gives scope to pupils’ own ‘exploratory talk’. It is necessarily collaborative and in its affordance ‘stands out starkly in the world where academic prowess is assessed almost entirely in the capacity to write’ (p. 119).

The evidence and the argument in the book are not new. So do we need another text to add to the weight of claims that a technically rational approach to education is concerning, that it distorts the human and the social, value-laden nature of education? Although much has been published previously I conclude that the meticulous accumulation of detail and the comprehensive nature of the issues discussed lead to a coherent and convincing account of present perils and future paths to take to restore a humanistic, liberal education in contemporary times. It is a rich and multi-textured book that adds considerable weight to others who warn that children deserve more than being treated as a means to an end of better test results. Going to school should not be like a call up for compulsory education service. It is a strong and optimistic voice for a view of education for human flourishing, and I hope that this book is widely read.  


Correspondence:  Ruth Heilbronn, UCL Institute of Education, University of London, 20, Bedford Way, London, WC1H 0AL. 

Email: [email protected]


Dewey, J. (1916) Democracy and Education (New York, Free Press).

Dunne, J. (1993) Back to the Rough Ground (Notre Dame Indiana, University of Notre Dame Press).

Flew, A. (1982) ‘Education Fundamentals; the Four Es’. In C.Cox and J.Marks (eds), The Right to Learn, pp. 17-26 (London, Centre for Policy Studies).

Furlong, J. (2002) ‘Ideology and reform in teacher education in England’, Educational Researcher, 31 (6) pp. 23-25.

Hager, P. (2000) ‘Know-How and Workplace Practical Judgement’, Journal of Philosophy of Education, 34: 2, pp. 281–296.

Sachs, J. (2001) ‘Teacher professional identity: competing discourses, competing outcomes’, Journal of Education Policy, 16:2, pp 149-161.

Tawney, R.H. (1938) Equality (London, Geo Allen and Unwin).

Pring, R., Hayward, G., Hodgson, A., Johnson, J., Keep, E., Oancea, A., Rees, G., Spours, K., Wilde, S. (2009) Education for All: The Future of Education and Training for 14-19 Year-Olds (Abingdon, Oxford, Routledge).

Smith, R. (1999) ‘Paths of Judgement: the revival of practical wisdom’, Educational Philosophy and Theory, 31:3 pp. 327-340.