Educating Ruby: What is education for? | Ashley Pearce

If you are able to spare a couple of hours in the next few weeks and raise your head above the endless forms, data entry, verbal feedback stamps and meetings, I’d recommend a book. I was sign-posted the book Educating Ruby (by Guy Claxton and Bill Lucy) by a Primary head but as an Economics teacher of mainly sixth formers, I can vouch that it spans the whole school spectrum in relevance.


The “star” of the book’s title is a fictional ex-student called Ruby. She left school a couple of years ago and bumps into one of her teachers in town and says “Thank you”. This confuses the teacher who remembers Ruby and recalls that Ruby didn’t achieve the fabled 5 A-C at GCSE. But Ruby goes on to say the school taught her an invaluable list of skills that have set her up for life, this got me thinking, what are we in education for? If school is to prepare young people for work then we are failing at it. Britain’s woeful productivity levels, stubbornly high NEET rates and disagreement from the CBI tell us that. If it is for kids to enjoy it and gain a thirst for learning then again, we are lacking. Too many students leave school disinterested in learning and the high levels of mental health problems we are seeing in our children show it is no easy ride. If it is to give teachers an easy ride, the huge increase in teacher workload and teachers leaving the profession in their droves say it’s not.

So what is it for? Why did we go into teaching? I believe (and Educating Ruby has helped me remember this) it was to inspire young people, to engage and enthuse them in the hope that they will want to go on and be as enthusiastic about something in the same way that I am about Economics. I don’t believe any of us were nervous at the teaching of our first lesson because we were worried we were not showing Ofsted 20mins of progress in a lesson. We wanted to inspire.

Teachers and schools are like political parties in that they are remembered in themes. I don’t remember much of the facts I learned at school despite how important it seemed at the time. I dare say that if I didn’t go on to become an Economics teacher, I may well have forgotten where the point of allocative efficiency is! And anyway, the pub quiz curriculum is made redundant thanks to Google. But I do remember being gripped by it, I remember the lessons being fun, I remember laughing, I remember wanting to find out more, I remember the teacher speaking to us like adults and being interested in our views. It helped that football was one of the major common interests but there was some discussion of politics and economics in there too.

I keep thinking of two phrases where education is concerned: pluralistic ignorance and collective conservatism. Pluralistic ignorance is where a majority of group members privately reject a norm, but incorrectly assume that most others accept it, and therefore go along with it. Collective conservatism is where groups stick to established patterns even as new needs arise. To me these two perfectly encapsulate where we are in education. The book ends with a call to arms for parents, teachers and communities. If we are not happy with the way education is for children today we have to take steps to change it, these all essentially stem from asking questions. This is something schools seem to beat out of kids from a young age and so adults are not very good at it. But question why things are done in a certain way, to teachers, to school leaders and to politicians.

On my classroom door I have Tony Benn’s 5 principles of education (what I believe to be “British values”):

  1. To discover and realise the genius in everyone.
  2. To learn about the people in the world with whom you have to live and their history and culture.
  3. To acquire the skills to do the work you want.
  4. To build up your confidence in yourself.
  5. To discover the danger of hate and the power of love.

Educating Ruby calls them the 7 C’s (I’ll let you look them up) but whatever they are called, they are a world away from what we are currently doing in schools.


Ashley Pearce  (@ashleypearce84) is a secondary school economics teacher in a comprehensive school just outside of Reading.  Last year he was elected as a councillor for the Labour party for an area in South Reading.  He is also a Reading FC fan and keen reader of educational literature.

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