The Shifting Nature of School Education

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I have been invited to write a blog for Newman Tuition, and understand it is customary to introduce oneself. I retired from classroom biology teaching last summer (2018), having begun my career at Harrow School in 1969 on coming down from Oxford after four years spent reading Zoology and Human Biology. I remained at Harrow for 34 years, eleven as Head of Biology, and graduated from Birkbeck in Philosophy and from Imperial in History of Technology. I also co-authored four editions of Penguin’s Dictionary of Biology and lead overland expeditions to Lapland and Iran. Subsequent to Harrow I taught Biology at Winchester College and St. Paul’s School, Barnes, among others; and I authored Penguin’s Dictionary of Human Biology. I have been passionate about natural history since childhood and no less passionate about Biology and how it is taught.


In a recent article the BBC education reporter Katherine Sellgren commentated that using data for 2015-6 a think tank has  revealed that ‘Up to a quarter of students in England are doing degrees that will not give them sufficient earnings to justify the cost of their loans.’ The centre-right group, Onward, reportedly urges ministers to cut places on those courses offering little financial return and to increase those in post-18 technical education.

In November 2017 the Institute of Fiscal Studies published figures showing that five years after graduation the median income of a junior doctor or dentist was £47,000 and that of a Arts & Design graduate was £20,000. Maths, Economics and Veterinary Science graduates were also in the upper (£36,000 plus) end of the spectrum. But as the careers of these higher earners took root the median annual earnings really took off, leaving the low starters well behind. Graduates in ‘technical’ disciplines such as Computing, Architecture and Engineering & Technology earn median salaries significantly better than those in Agriculture and Psychology, but not a good as graduates in Nursing.

Of course parents want the best for their children, and one would expect them to advise them to opt for A-levels that can lead on to high-earning careers. Something that might be a little concerning about the UK school curriculum is what the philosopher Martha Nussbaum regards as its increasing politicization in the service of state economic growth. Her thesis is that in making education a means to promoting economic growth rather than allowing it to be an end in itself, government risks undermining the very critical thinking and balance that underlie democracy itself.

I hope my gross paraphrasing of Nussbaum’s book will at least nudge the reader towards having a look at it. She has much to say about the increasing global slippage into ‘teaching to the test’ and away from the kind of classroom debate that should widen rather than narrow a teenager’s educational experience. As a teacher of fifty years’ experience I find myself sympathizing with her concerns and agreeing with her identification of probable contributing factors to today’s polarization of society.


[2]Martha C. Nussbaum (2010). Not For Profit: why democracy needs the humanities. Princeton.

Michael is a science tutor with Newman Tuition. To book a lesson with him, or one of our other excellent tutors, please call us on 020 3198 8006, email us at [email protected], or complete the form on the Contact Us page.

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