The Purposes and Functions of Schooling: some reasons governments give for building schools

Plans of Druitt Town Public School

Schools get built for many reasons. Accepting on face value that we build schools to provide buildings for schooling quickly becomes circular and banal. One way we can break that circle is to look at the reasons governments give for building schools. That helps because it makes explicit something of what schools do (or at least what they are expected to do, or said to be doing). This isn’t perfect, as I discuss below, but it’s useful to illustrate the wide range of motivations for buildings schools and also to show how enmeshed schools are in our lives – their role in the economy, in shaping urban planning, as means of gaining political support, in reforming education, in attempting improvements to social justice and so forth.

So, here’s a few (grouped) reasons why governments say they are building schools. It’s interesting, the more you dig, the more evidence there is for schools as a recurring and easy-to-reach-for cure all.

Education Reform

New Zealand: Following the 2011 Christchurch earthquake, schools were built not merely as replacements but to ‘reshape education’ (Ministry of Education, cited in Benade, 2017:105).

England: The Building Schools for the Future programme was a means to ‘transform the way secondary schools function’ (Department for Children, Schools and Families et al., 2008:5).


Political Opportunities and History-Building

These tend to be less explicit since it is in governments’ interests to emphasise social, educational, cultural etc reasons for building schools and elide self-interest.

England: In respect of BSF – ‘The Victorians bequeathed a visible inheritance of their commitment to education. It is now time – indeed, the time is long overdue – for us to start the systematic renewal of all schools, so that our legacy to future generations is at least as great (Department for Education, 2003:5).


Social / Aesthetic Justice

Rome, Italy: A competition held over 2004/5 for three new schools in Rome was prefaced by the (then) Mayor, Walter Veltroni, arguing for schools as a means to bring ‘great architecture’ (cited in Capanna, 2005:73) to the neglected suburbs in order ‘overturn hierarchies that might correspond to our idea of a more balanced, cohesive, open and calm city’ (ibid:77).


To Produce Economic Growth / Mitigate Economic Shocks

Australia: The Building the Education Revolution programme launched quickly in 2009 during the global financial crisis as part of the government’s $AUS42 billion Nation Building and Jobs Plan, where the ‘overriding goal … was to stimulate aggregate demand by employing workers in the sagging construction sector’ (Parker and Cahill, 2017:261). (The Parker and Cahill paper is excellent by the way, exemplary political analysis of public policy and financing.)


Community-building / Infrastructure-building / Urban & Rural Planning

England: One of the aims of BSF was to ‘reposition schools at the heart of communities’ (Department for Children, Schools and Families et al., 2008:5).

Florence, Italy: In 2017, proposals envisaged building schools as a ‘tool of redevelopment for the urban periphery’ (Città Metropolitana di Firenze, 2017:3). Schools are seen as a social and economic planning instrument to help knit space together.

Cambridgeshire, England / Istres, France: I mention these two just to provide a little historical context. The Cambridgeshire Village Colleges built in the 1930s are definitely worth looking at – in part they were a way to re-value rural areas (with respect to urban ones) and took the community rather than a particular age group of young people to be the social/demographic/educational focus and the village college as the means to house and celebrate that. This article in the Guardian provides a good and quick overview on their educational and architectural visions. Forty years later, the Centre Éducatif et Culturel “Les Heures Claires” near Marseille recalled many of the core concepts of the village colleges e.g. a broad education in the heart of the community, for all ages – an educational village. Note also how the design prefigured what are commonly cited as uniquely 21st century concerns: in the words of the architects, this would be “an open school”, “necessary in a society affected by rapid change” which was “the result of great complexity” cited in Blain and Borruey, 2007:104.


The above list is just a beginning and I will add to it over time. But it raises a few points that I think are interesting. Apologies, these are a bit rambling but I wanted to get some ideas down quickly and may try at a later date to write these up more formally.

  • How the purposes of schools and schooling are studied is complex and necessarily spills over into many disciplines: planning; social policy; economics; art; and of course, architecture and education. It also changes over time in that the purpose(s) of building a school is likely to be different from the purpose(s) of a school once built. However, see De Carlo, below – they are clearly related.
  • The question “Why do schools get built?” is important in and of itself. However, it is often eclipsed by “Why do schools get built in the way that they do?” which is also interesting but a different question, even if related. It’s this latter line of questioning that I think helps us to forget what schooling is for. Schooling just is: naturalised, taken for granted, left to have a grip over us. This is a problem, I think, and why I keep returning to the architect Giancarlo De Carlo’s provocative line of thinking: “We cannot deal with problems of ‘how to’ [build] without first posing the problems of ‘why’. If we were to begin discussing immediately the best way to build school buildings for contemporary society without first clarifying the reasons for which contemporary society needs school buildings, we would run the risk of taking for granted definitions and judgements which may not make sense anymore and our speculations would turn out to be sandcastles” (1969:12).
  • Some purposes for building schools will be claimed explicitly but might be more for public show than the existential core of school-building. Conversely, some reasons for building schools may never be claimed since they are unpalatable – for example, schools keep young people busy and safe in the hands of professionals allowing their parents and carers to be active in the economy: one function of schooling is publicly-funded “baby-sitting”. If that seems far-fetched, take a look at this article illustrating Swiss debate on the issue.
  • One way to dig into this is to make an analytic distinction between the explicit purposes of building schools and the functions that school buildings serve, regardless of conscious (or at least publicly advertised) intentions. Purposes illustrate intent and are more likely to belong to and be articulated explicitly by a group of (usually powerful) people [for Ackerman and other architects’ take on this relation to schools, see this post]; functions are often less visible, less owned, more embedded in existing histories and so more likely to be path dependent. Purposes can be ahistorical; functions can’t – because they’re embedded, they become sedimented over time, meshed with and adapted to other functions and the daily life of school, a form of “mission creep” where the original mission or purpose is lost or transformed. Purposes are an aspirational, directing, yet-to-be-realised sub-category of function. Purposes are a target ideally reached in a future time; functions are the current direction of travel often regardless of destination. Purposes are always normative; functions can be descriptive, just what happens. I suggest that the more innovative school architecture attempts to be, the more it is likely to focus on a school’s explicit, aspirational purpose and play down the less visible, more taken for granted functions which the school will nevertheless have to carry out. This is potentially dangerous since if consideration of functions is bypassed, the building will not be able to provide for those needs. This brings us back to the necessity of understanding clearly why we are building schools and that can only be done thoroughly and fairly through “intense and continual public dialogue about the ends and means of schooling” as Tyack and Tobin advocate (see below). Daniel Little writes interestingly in a post about functions, purposes and institutional change: “Purposes have to do with the intentions of the creators or reformers of a thing; and functions have to do with the relationship between the thing’s effects and the broader needs of the system within which it sits”. I think this is a helpful adaptation* to Robert K. Merton’s now old but so helpful writing on “Manifest and Latent Functions” in his 1968 book. This podcast with Meira Levinson about the Aims of Education on the Philosophy Bites site is very good, pointing up the need to clarify ‘for whom?’ when we discuss what schools are for. All of this takes us back to De Carlo’s Why we’re building schools and so also who that “We” is i.e. which dimension of school buildings serves who, and how might we be able to talk about building schools with purposes of serving more than lots of constituencies of interests (which may be important) and of articulating, building, a common cause.
  • This purpose-function distinction may also be useful to think about the evaluation of schools – whether educationally or architecturally through exercises such as Post Occupancy Evaluation. If neither the functions nor the purposes of schools can be reduced to learning, then which and whose values/purposes/functions should evaluation seek to produce information about?
  • Bearing in mind what Giancarlo De Carlo, cited above, argues – the need to clarify in our minds and preferably via public discussion what schools are for and what, in building new ones, we are seeking to achieve – we are not doing particularly well at making explicit the implicit work of schooling. There is, perhaps, too much work on the explicit – the aspirational school / school design of the 21st century and so forth when we need to think more anthropologically and culturally about schooling and school architecture. In fact, the anthropologist might be useful here. In writing about institutions, Mary Douglas makes a number of helpful points, all from 1986, page 92:
    1. an institution** cannot have purposes … Only individuals can intend, plan consciously, and contrive oblique strategies***
    2. Institutions systematically direct individual memory and channel our perceptions into forms compatible with the relations they authorize. They fix processes that are essentially dynamic, they hide their influence…
    3. …they [institutions] endow themselves with rightness…
    4. For us, the hope of intellectual independence is to resist, and the necessary first step in resistance is to discover how the institutional grip is laid upon our mind.

For similar reasons, buildings and their architecture cannot have purposes either. Rather, groups of people may have individual and collective purposes, and architecture is simply another tool available to help them achieve those purposes. This gets us past the “space is an agent of change” talk**** and restores agency to people – always limited and to some extent enabled, of course, by “how the institutional grip is laid upon our mind”.

It also brings us closer to seeing how stability and change are made possible and why, therefore, “innovation” is so interesting and so problematic: “Humans build organizations and can change them. Cultural constructions of schooling have changed over time and can change again. To do this deliberately would require intense and continual public dialogue about the ends and means of schooling, including re-examination of cultural assumptions about what a “real school” is and what sort of improved schooling could realize new aspirations. Shared beliefs could energize a broad social movement to remake the schools” (Tyack and Tobin, 1994:478).

Finally, if purpose is something only people can have (not buildings or institutions), then the question of “Whose purpose is this?” returns to centre stage. Is it students’ purpose? Teachers’? The economy’s? To what extent is the purpose of a given school subject to the public dialogue and the result of shared beliefs that Tyack and Tobin mention? Or someone else’s idea of what schools are for?





Note, this site has lots of excellent resources (including some very interesting historical ones) on issues to do with why and for what schools exist:

*= Merton in this part of his text is mostly interested in sharpening up discussion about consequences: who (what groups or individuals) is this a recognised and intended outcome for? What outcomes go unrecognised and were never wished for but nevertheless happen? But a key part of this requires drawing attention to the “easy confusion of motives and functions” (1968:105) and that’s something that is too easy when it comes to schools and building them, it seems to me.

**= For Douglas, institution means a “legitimized social grouping” (1986:46). Her description of what that involves is brilliant and funny but basically comes down to a question of naturalness, a seeming inevitability of existence.

***= “Oblique strategies” are one of Douglas’s tests for humans as reflexive agents e.g. people can choose to wait, or step back from making a decision.

****= The idea that space is an agent of change flies around the internet at quite a speed, rarely stopping long enough to give an explanation of itself. It seems to have come originally from a JISC document though even there the terms of the debate are never given i.e. what kind of space? What kind of agency? How can space have agency and how can that agency be activated i.e. through what mechanisms? How does the proposed agency of this space relate to other entities with agency? Does the agency of space have more agency than the agency of other entities, including people for example? The claim would be more interesting if an Actor Network Theorist, say, were to provide some kind of basis to the argument although agency there is a problem too (for me) see Dave Elder-Vass (2008) for a good dialogue between realism and ANT.



  1. Hi Adam

    re: ***: is it not the case, however, that buildings (or designed space) have an enabling (or disabling) mechanism? That is to say, what does the flexible learning environment enable (or permit) teachers (and students) to do that was not previously possible in the confines of the single-cell classroom? Admittedly, there is the linear, deterministic view held, for example, by the New Zealand Ministry of Education:

    “Approaches to teaching and learning have changed over the last 20 years. While classrooms are still the most highly utilised areas in schools, they need to respond to these changes as their performance is critical to modern education delivery…Achieving this outcome [that all NZ schools conform to a MLE standard by 2021] is critical to modern education delivery and will ensure that the performance of the physical environment is linked to educational outcomes.” (See:

    This view seems to imply that simply placing teachers in FLE/MLE will bring about ‘modern teaching and learning practice’, but equally erroneous seems to be the view that space is immaterial to pedagogy.


    1. Thanks Leon, I don’t think space is unconnected to pedagogy, but I also don’t think space (in any sense of the term) has agency: it’s not something that can have agency. Space can make a difference but it can do that without agency as such. There’s, perhaps, a conflation of agency/causal powers that comes from a too-literal adoption of Latour and others. For me, people make the causal powers of things become relevant, not things themselves. Lots of perspectives on this, I guess, mine align with this:
      I also have difficulties with flexible learning environments (and similar) as concepts (1) because sometimes these just mean more space (2) I don’t think flexibility is something an environment or space can have; it’s a category mistake. Flexibility refers to use, i.e. whether something is flexible when it is engaged with. It can’t be an inherent, independently obtaining property, independent of use (or user) – how about the user’s abilities and contexts? We need to contextualise it and see it as something that might come about if people have enough time (etc, etc) to use their spaces flexibly, to access resources…. . So this is an ontological question. Get rid of “flexible space”, question people’s workplaces, their resources, their freedoms, their capabilities as Sen said, I’d say, and the concept of flexibility becomes real world and more useful too perhaps.



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