The NEED for better rhetoric.

Agreement about needs, then, depends upon agreement about values. An adolescent, you may say, needs freedom to express himself; I may say that he needs to consider other people’s feelings. To claim, therefore, that education should ‘meet the needs’ of adolescents (or any other category of pupil), or to argue that the curriculum is a good one if it ‘meets the children’s needs’, by itself is meaningless. ‘Needs’ for what? Unless goals are specified no ‘needs’ can be identified. Even then, unless goals are agreed to be good ones, ‘meeting needs’ is still far from being justified. A young bully, for example, from his point of view may ‘need’ to find victims. Plainly this is a ‘need’ which, though identifiable, should not be met. Further still, though, even if we managed to reach agreement about which of his ‘needs’ we satisfy, it would still have to be shown that it was education, specifically, which should be employed to bring about these deprivations and satisfactions.

Wilson, P.S. Interest and Discipline In Education, Routledge And Kegan Paul, 1971


We need to stop talking about children’s needs.


I like rhetoric.  Even Plato grudgingly acknowledged it has a place, in the Gorgias; but its place is to serve the philosopher: the custodian of truth and virtue, someone who carefully defines their terms, and knows what they mean when they speak.  There’s a great exchange about who better knows what medicine would cure the patient: the doctor, or the sophist?  Admittedly, the doctor.  But… who might be better to persuade the patient to take their medicine?

‘Rhetoric,’ as Sam Leith points out, is often prefixed in people’s minds by words such as empty, just, mere, and only.  Yet, Leith argues, it is unavoidable.  Rhetoric is everywhere, all around us, even now.  It is the world that has been pulled over our eyes to blind us from… wait…

The analogy is not so far fetched.

Earlier this week I wrote about reading a line in a document, and in that moment, something hit me.  It was a realisation, and realising that realisation felt like waking up.


You’re here because you know something. What you know you can’t explain, but you feel it.  You don’t know what it is, but it’s there, like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad.

That’s pretty much what it was like before.  I heard Daisy Christodoulou describe a similar feeling when she realised how much of what her teacher training had taught her did not hold up under scrutiny.

It is the rhetoric of need.

Everywhere, all around us, even now.

As a result, we don’t notice it anymore.  People just talk about needs, children’s needs, meeting the needs of children, meeting their needs.  Need, need, need, need, need.

But of course, when you start talking about people as an amorphous blob of need, you rob them of all power.  As Wilson wrote, quoted above, what needs?  The need to be educated?  Well I feel like we’ve got that down.  The need to get into school each day so that they can be educated?  Again, I feel like we’ve got that covered.  The need of a social worker.  Wait, what?

Talk about needs, and you can mean anything.  I wondered when this all started, how we got stuck on needs, and of course, Old Andrew was there, eight years ago, pointing out how we’ve been making this mistake for at least 47 years now.  Wilson and Andrew together make the point far more eloquently than I can (thank you to Andrew for the quote from Wilson at the start of this post.)

So, we need a new rhetoric.

We need to stop talking about needs.

If you find you regularly talk about ‘meeting the needs of children,’ take a moment to ask yourself what you really mean.  What needs, exactly?

If you don’t, start challenging it in others.  When they talk about needing to meet the needs of all children, ask them to take a moment to consider what they really mean by that.  What needs, exactly?


Part 1 – Should we meet the needs of all kids?

Part 2 – When did we start to see children as needy?

About Kris Boulton

Teach First 2011 maths teacher, focussed on curriculum design.
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5 Responses to The NEED for better rhetoric.

  1. suecowley says:

    When we talk about meeting the needs of children at preschool, what we mean is exactly that. What does this individual child need to settle into our setting, and to be able to learn most effectively while he or she is with us? For some children it is about helping them build confidence to separate from their parents; for others it is about developing language and communication, for instance using Makaton; for a child with SEND it was about some physical adaptations that we had to make to the space where we run our setting; for other children it has been about support with regulating their behaviour. Needs are not the same as wants, and focusing on what a child needs is not the same as giving a child exactly what he or she wants.

  2. Jim Gordon says:

    You may enjoy “Why education isn’t educating” by Frank Furedi if you’ve not yet read it. Goes into some depth regarding this important topic.

    • Kris Boulton says:

      Thanks, I’ll give it a go.

      Can you offer a quick summary of Furedi’s thoughts on this. Would he agree with my statements, or argue in favour of a rhetoric of need?

      • Jim Gordon says:

        He’d agree. Hard to summarise succinctly but I think he’d argue that the focus on needs is part of a wider issue of infantilizing education. He links this to the wider issues of the breakdown of adult authority in society, and the reliance on experts, and also to the problem of schools being seen as the answer to societies problems – leading to a lack of purpose and effectiveness.

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