Ed Balls, Michael Gove and David Laws, the respective spokesmen on schools for their parties, have been slugging it out in the past few days, and I do mean slugging it, from the BBC's Newsnight studios to newspaper forums. They are on the prowl trying to convince us why they should be entrusted with running the country's education system after the May general election.
All three are sure they have the right answer. Balls wants to build on a long list of achievements over the past 13 years, including 40,000 more teachers, and offers a programme of increased spending on schools which the Tories are not willing to match. Gove's pitch concentrates on reversing what he regards as sinking standards under Labour, and wants British schools to be more like Swedish free schools and US charter schools, while Laws for the Liberal Democrats bases his case around "intelligent accountability".
I have no doubt that all three are capable and sincere men, who are earnest about their intentions. My concern is that, if their policies are put into action, the experience of schools and education will remain much the same for children in 2015 as it is in 2010. Considerable progress has been made on academic results since 1997: schools are brighter, more purposeful and more efficient. Children are better taught, teachers better supported and schools better resourced.
I am absolutely confident that, whichever party wins the general election, the upward trend in GCSE and A-level results will continue, and the successful party will boast at the following general election that "education has never been better". But I am far from convinced that we will see the sea change in the experience of children at school that can and must occur.
We need to ask ourselves the question: "What is education for?" To all three main parties, it would seem to be primarily about maximising exam results. This is not at all unworthy. Exams are important as a way of measuring the performance of a school, and assessing certain skills of individual candidates, which allow higher education and future employers to make judgements upon them. But exams tell only a small amount about the quality of the human being. Consider all the many very distinguished figures in Britain from Winston Churchill to Richard Branson who did not fare well in exams. Schools need to have a far broader vision about their role than being exam factories, and it is this vision that I am missing from our three education champions. Concentrating on exams is not even improving teaching and learning, or the understanding of academic subjects: it is reducing the glory of human knowledge and wisdom to the memorising of correct techniques and answers.
The time is ripe, not least in the week that we learnt university cuts are to be even deeper than we feared, to launch a fundamental debate about the purpose of education. Is it all about metrics, whether A-level passes or grades on final papers at university, or is there a broader vision? Higher education too is suffering from the same dehumanising reductionism of exam-passing, which is one reason why US universities, which offer a much more holistic education, are becoming popular. It was Einstein who said: "Everything that can be counted does not necessarily count; everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted."
Education, I believe, is in part about the end product – producing young men and young women able to benefit from higher education, to contribute positively in employment, and to lead meaningful and productive lives, and for the first two ends at least, exams can be instructive. But it is also about developing the whole human being. Philosophers have endlessly pondered what constitutes man. I find no better model than that produced by Howard Gardner of Harvard University, who has argued that we have not one, but many intelligences. At my own school, Wellington College, we say each child has "eight attributes", which we see as four sets of pairs: drawing loosely on Gardner, we describe these as the logistical and the linguistic, the creative and the physical, the spiritual and the moral, the personal and the social. All schools in Britain should see their task, in the classroom and beyond, as developing all eight of these aptitudes, recognising that what is not nurtured and developed by the time a child leaves school may well remain dormant for the rest of their lives. Our education system should be trying to educate our leavers to lead not half lives, but lives in the full.
Where children come from backgrounds of lesser means, where they may not enjoy the same opportunities for enrichment and cultural development as others, it is even more important for schools to develop the whole child. If such children are fed primarily on a diet of exam preparation, by teachers who have had their initiative and individuality sucked out of them by a regime which dictates that school teaching is replaced by mere instruction, then large numbers of pupils will be bored and resentful when they are at school, and under-fulfilled after they leave it.
Schools can and should be places of engagement and delight. But too many pupils today resent and insufficiently value them. Parents should be actively engaged in and full of gratitude for the schools that their children attend. Instead, they are often indifferent and even uncooperative. Teaching should be a profession which the brightest and most energetic should aspire to and fight to join. Instead, it is hard to get top graduates to apply. And when they do, it is difficult to keep them in the profession. To be a head should be the apex of every teacher's dream. Instead, such is the emasculated nature of the job, many heads' posts remain unfilled.
I would like to hear those who want to run schools and universities after 6 May telling us less about structures and organisation, and more about education, and how they are going to trust schools, heads, and teachers again to do the job, and how they are going to re-engage the minds, the hearts and spirits of our young. It is not about statistics; it's about children. Truly, nothing matters more, and deep down I suspect Messrs Balls, Gove and Laws know it.
Dr Anthony Seldon is headmaster of Wellington College. His programme 'Trust in Politics' is on BBC2 on Monday at 7pmReuse content