I can remember as a child my mother picking blackberries while waiting to pick me up from school. They’d appear just before ‘blackberry week’ which was literally the name people gave to October half-term.
Now, 30 years later, blackberries appear around 10 weeks earlier here, ready to be picked in mid-August. That makes for tasty summer holiday desserts, but leaves me slightly concerned about the pace of climate change.
Of course, things are worse on many fronts elsewhere; there are plenty of people, especially refugees, who are desperate to seek asylum in our country. Yet, instead of thinking in a joined-up way about the global climate emergency and the effect it will have on migration over the next 30 years, the inept UK government sends in the Royal Navy.
Within my lifetime, those in charge have missed so many opportunities to steer us of disaster, meaning that now we haven’t got long to avert climate catastrophe. I just hope that elections over the next few years replace the emotional toddlers we’ve got running the show with some grown-ups committed to action.
I’m a big fan of paying attention to what people and organisations actually do rather than what they say they’re doing.
Let’s take Michael Gove as a for instance. Last year I asked whether there was evidence he is systematically dismantling English state education. If we take the 30,000ft view, what’s changed since then? Certainly nothing in terms of the trajectory in which he’s trying (and largely succeeding) to take state education in England.
If you’re a teacher, you’re not really Mr Gove’s audience. If you’re a parent you might be – but only if you read his semi-official outlets such as the Daily Telegraph or Daily Mail. So who is Gove’s real audience? Well the Conservative Party for one (he wants to be the next leader) as well as big business. Both applaud his moves to introduce the logic of the market into state education.
The ideals of the right in politics include lower government spending and private enterprise competing in a marketplace with as little regulation as possible. This is the future for our schools in England under Michael Gove; Academy chains, already growing larger, will be allowed to make a profit as the ‘saviours’ to progressively-defunded state schools. Chomsky was right.
There’s nothing new about Gove’s approach, apart from a maybe a new kind of clinical cynicism. Schools will be forced into becoming Academies by hook or by crook. He’s already changed the Ofsted inspection regime, caused chaos via the EBacc, and suggested lower pay for teachers (under the smokescreen of ‘performance-related pay’). We can look at all of these things as separate examples of a floundering Education Secretary who doesn’t know what he’s doing, or we see them as the constituent parts of a approach by a manipulative politician who plays Realpolitik.
The big political idea of 2013 is government as platform. It is not a new idea, but rather one whose time as come. It is also an idea that will seem more and more obvious and valuable as the gap between government resources and public needs continues to increase. The divide between the societies that have the values and the resources to make government as platform work, and those that continue to work through command and control, will help define the political cleavages of the 21st century.
So what is ‘government as platform’, exactly?
To understand government as platform, first think of government as control tower: an entity that sits above us, directs us and regulates us. Then imagine government as vending machine… where citizens pay taxes in and get services out.
That sounds like a spectacularly bad idea. Not everyone has access to the ‘vending machine’ in the same way. And don’t people have different needs, etc.?
Government as platform… is government as iPhone, providing the basic hardware and software to enable citizen participation, innovation and self-organisation.
Ah, so here it is. An Apple-inspired metaphor (everyone loves those!) to provide a new twist on basic Conservative principles: small state, low taxation, self-reliance. Never mind systemic injustice, eh? Just get out of the way and let people get on with it.
Government as platform sounds exciting. It’s a buzzphrase. It trips easily off the tongue. But behind it is the same old Conservative approach of favouring the rich and damning the poor. Pointing (as the author does) to Tim O’Reilly and to “a set of principles that are often the exact opposite of the way government traditional works” doesn’t help either. We’d still have the same old corrupt politicians and outdated legal structure.
Let’s take an example of how government as platformConservatism works in action, shall we? Newcastle-upon-Tyne, the city closest to where I live, is being ravaged by cuts. First came the news that because of the need to find ‘cost savings’ of £90 million the city council is to close all but one of the libraries in the city. Next it was revealed that there would be no more funding – none at all – for arts and culture in the city.
Once this stuff is gone it doesn’t come back for a long time, if ever.
There’s an elite in this country. A privately-educated, unaccountable elite wrecking everything that’s good whilst upholding everything that’s bad. It was bankers who got us into this mess. Yet they’re the ones being rewarded with tax breaks whilst the poor have their welfare cut.
In my opinion, my children’s generation will judge the current UK administration as one of the most damaging there’s been for a very long time.
Over the last few months my good friend Nick Dennis and I have been debating the merits and otherwise of independent schools. I made my position clear in this blog post.
Nick – who, unlike me, is still working as a classroom teacher and senior leader in an (independent) school – has finally had time to respond. He’s written a thoughtful, considered post entitled Beyond stereotypes and raincoats. You should go and read it in its entirity before reading this post any further.
I don’t really want to write this post because I’ve tried very hard to separate what I see as Nick’s implicit justification of his position with my criticisms of the independent schools sector. I don’t want to attack my friend.
What follows, whilst borrowing quotations from Nick’s blog post, shouldn’t be taken as an attack on him per se. Instead it should be seen as a critique of those who seek to justify the existence of a private walled garden of education available only to those who are able to pay.
As far as I can see it, Nick makes five main points in his post:
Those who are anti-independent schools lack a nuance of approach to the ‘complexity’ of the UK school system
Some state school places attract a de facto ‘price tag’ as houses in the catchment area are disproportionately expensive
There are some independent schools that cater to minority interests – faiths, ethnicity, learning difficulties, and so on
Independent schools are caused by an unequal distribution of wealth
The founders of independent schools were virtuous individuals with noble intentions, therefore independent schools have a moral purpose
At the end of his post, Nick presents a dichotomy inspired by the film The Matrix, asking the reader to choose between different ‘pills’:
[Y]ou can take the pill of the state/private stereotype as it stands and the story ends and the debate will continue with no real resolution. Alternatively, you could take the pill that allows you to move beyond reductionist stereotypes and be part of something life changing
I would reject this dichotomy. As I hope to show by going through the five pillars of his argument in turn, what he terms a ‘stereotype’ is based on a very real (and very divisive) truth that pervades our education system,
1. The simple truth
Nick claims, mainly through the anecdote that introduces his post, that we often jump to conclusions based on mental models. These shorthand ways of thinking he refers to as stereotypes. It is implied that stereotypes are bad. And, for the most part, I would agree.
Another caveat: I have never worked in an independent school. I went for an interview at one, but withdrew from the selection process as I felt I wouldn’t have been able to live with myself had I taken the job. As I mentioned recently, I think we should be aiming for the high ground in our lives more generally.
Why do I see independent schools as occupying anything other than the ‘high ground’? Because they’re an extreme example of market forces in education. Independent schools are walled gardens that charge for entry. Pointing to the fact that some independent schools have bursaries is like saying Glastonbury gives away free tickets. It’s still a paid-for event.
There’s a market in the state sector. Of course there is. Sadly. There’s grammar schools, selective schools, girls’ schools, faith schools, and now Academies, Free Schools and almost every kind of school you could imagine. But two wrongs don’t make a right: markets have no place in the education of our young people. End of story.
2. The mobile middle class
My wife works as a teacher in a Primary school one day per week. We were considering moving to that area at one point but couldn’t afford the house prices in the immediate vicinity to the school. That’s an example – even in the North East – of inflated house prices caused by Ofsted deeming a school ‘Oustanding’.
Middle-class parents moving to ensure their children get a place at the school of their choice isn’t an easy problem to solve. Even if you remove the market-based rhetoric of ‘choice’ in state-funded education provision, the problem would remain. Some people use their capital – financial, cultural, intellectual – in an attempt to gain advantage over others.
The fact that people act in selfish and sociopathic ways does not mean, however, that we should institutionalise such behaviour in the system itself. It be morally wrong for middle class parents to move houses to secure a state school place but, I would argue, it’s definitely wrong for them to buy a place outside of that system in an attempt to advantage their offspring.
3. Special cases
The debate between Nick and I has, on occasion, spilled out onto Twitter and led to some interesting exchanges. Many people have pointed out to me that some parents send their children to independent schools out of sense of desperation. The state sector, they argue, just doesn’t provide what their children need.
I realise there’s sensitivities in this area. My children do not have learning disabilities (that I’m aware of at the moment). We’re a white, British, middle-class family. Our aggregated religious beliefs are not strong enough to make it a factor in school choice.
Despite all this, I do feel that it’s still dubious to send your child to an independent school instead of fighting for understanding and better provision within the state sector. These two things are not mutually exclusive, of course, but often (again, in my limited experience) sending a child to an independent specialist provider is seen as a ‘solution’ to the problem rather than the beginning of a campaign.
I have to say that I have more sympathy for this argument. But I still think it’s problematic to argue that fixing the problem for your children is anything other than, at the end of the day, a selfish decision.
4. The rich get richer
To his credit, Nick points out in his post that there’s a clear link between independent schools and the most powerful, privileged and wealthy individuals in our society:
Despite this, all the differences seem inconsequential in light of what many see as the burning issue with the ‘independent sector’ – the dominance privately educated students have on British ‘Public’ life which recent government reports and speeches confirm. The phrase ‘morally indefensible’ was used to describe this influence and the waste of talent within the country and this was picked up fairly quickly by those who buy into the ‘stereotype’ of what an independent school is.
Nick’s conclusion is that this link obscures the ‘real’ issue which is the unequal distribution of wealth within our society. This, somehow (he seems to claim) means that this unequal distribution is the root of the problem.
To be honest, I don’t really understand Nick’s argument here. I absolutely agree with his central premise that we need a more equal distribution of wealth but his acknowledgement that independent schools specifically militate against this seems not to tally?
One last rejoinder to this point. Nick claims throughout the state/independent dichotomy is problematic and that this lacks nuance. I’d agree with this to the extent. We’ve internalised the logic of the market to such an extent that we find it difficult to criticise those who choose to pay for their education. Somehow, access to money is seen to be ‘earned’ within our society – no matter how this has come about.
5. Intentions last forever?
When I studied for my MA in Modern History at Durham University my dissertation title was ‘Educational ideas in mid to late Victorian England: their origin and application’. In the course of my research I found out that, surprisingly, when state schools were introduced in 1870 attendance attracted a fee.
Previous to the 1870 Education Act the only education provision was through Dame schools or those set up by men of privilege. Nick’s argument is that because these schools were set up by individuals of (perceived) high moral fibre that this somehow gives them a perpetual raison d’être.
I’d argue otherwise.
Not only that, I’d argue that such a position is hypocritical. Many, if not most, independent schools have charitable status – at the same time as charging £30,000 per year for tuition. This makes a mockery of charities who do valuable work and actually need the tax breaks and other perks that charitable status provides.
I like Nick. I respect his position. I’ve tried very hard in this post to examine the arguments he put forward in his post – arguments that others have also presented to me over the years. I hope I’ve gone some way to responding to these and why I feel they’re not strong defences for the continued existence of independent schools.
And for those who say that things aren’t like to change anytime soon, I present you Evidence A: the introduction of Academies over the last few years: state-funded and under direct ministerial control. I’m against those as well (and have worked in one!)
It’s not likely given that most ministers themselves attended independent schools, but an Act of Parliament could oblige all parents to send their offspring to state-funded schools. Of course, at the same time I’d like to see the abolition of grammar schools, faith school, selective schools, and any type of system in education that allows for walled gardens.
What I’ve proposed may be utopian. It may have you quoting lyrics from John Lennon’s Imagine at me. But I refuse, whilst I still have breath in my body, my own children, and a strong interest in education, to believe that de facto situations can’t be changed.
Over the last couple of days I’ve listened to two excellent podcasts that I wanted to share with you. Both of them are about the relationship between technology and politics.
I’ve always found politics difficult. What I believe society should look like doesn’t fit well with the traditional two-dimensional left/centre/right representation.
On the one hand, I believe that a guiding principle should be for the State not to interfere in our lives (wherever possible). So far, so Libertarian (and usually, so Conservative).
On the other hand, however, I’m not a great believer in the ‘invisible hand’ of the free market to solve all our woes. And I certainly don’t think that billionaires should co-exist in a world with starving people. So that’s fairly Liberal and left-wing.
To me, we seem to be missing a third dimension to politics. Sometimes it’s not either/or. Sometimes it’s and/and/and.
Whilst I enjoy the high quality of podcasts from the BBC (In Our Time and Thinking Allowed being my favourites) my go-to podcasts when commuting come from Canadian broadcasters.
The first, Sparkis hosted by Nora Young, who has a voice like butter. Not only that, but the Spark Plus podcast features the full version of interviews we only hear a snippet of in the regular podcast. It’s a goldmine of interesting people talking about important ideas.
The second, always high-quality, Canadian podcast I think is fantastic is Big Ideas from TVO. Not long ago they featured John Duffy on The Emerging Politics of Technology. The last 17 minutes or so are devoted to questions, leaving just over half an hour of really thoughtful consideration of the three-dimensional nature of politics I allude to above.
Both are well worth watching or listening to. And if you haven’t subscribed to any/many podcasts, I’d highly recommend both Spark and Big Ideas.
The left/centre/right two-dimensional version of the political spectrum has served its purpose as what I call a ‘convenient hypocrisy’. But to try and force every issue into its confines forces the metaphor to breaking point.
Apart from perhaps politicians in line with the party whip, no-one I know exhibits purely Liberal or purely Conservative behaviours. We’re three-dimensional.
What I find really interesting is that, as John Duffy points out, the political battleground is shifting from the economy to issues surrounding technology.
And that sounds like a debate I’d like to be part of.
As a nation England is pretty good at raising money for things it deems worthwhile. So donating time and money in aid of people affected by the tsunami that hit islands in the Pacific ocean in 2004 or the earthquake and tidal wave that hit Japan earlier this year are OK. After all, goes the reasoning, that wasn’t their fault.
What we’re not so good at is rallying round when people are in need because of human agency. So fighting in Darfur or the Congo? Best avoid donating towards that. It could end up prolonging the conflict, couldn’t it? We struggle to separate the results of tragedies from their causes.
Last week’s riots in English cities were a wake-up call to middle England. There are people in this country who need our help. And not just on the level of donating a couple of pounds to homeless people, but on a systemic level. Don’t see it? Open your eyes:
I said elsewhere that I’d often wondered what happened to the 13 to 20% of kids who walk away from school with no qualifications and very limited numeracy and literacy skills. many of you assumed those are precisly the kids I used to teach, but I taught the ones who scraped through with low grades and went on to vocational courses, or who were resitting their GCSEs in the hope of doing better. Each year’s 13 to 20% largely end up on benefits or in jail or in the grey area between the two, claiming what benefits they can and supplementing that income with criminal activity. This is not a recent development; those kids at the bottom have always been there. I know the stats for the last thirteen years only because I’ve been a teacher for the last thirteen years. These kids often have virtually no social skills. By that I mean they literally cannot sit in a room and hold a conversation with someone other than those in their peer group. That doesn’t matter. They don’t have the skills to fill in a job application form, they have nothing to put on it if they did, so no one is going to sit them in a room and give them an interview, unless that someone is in a blue uniform, and they are recording the interview.
Pretty much every time I’ve been served a coffee or a sandwich or walked past someone cleaning the streets and noted they were a recent immigrant, I’ve wondered about the 13 to 20% leaving school each year and going straight onto the dole. The last government, with its bold claims of ‘an end to boom or bust’ boasted of our growing economy needing all these extra workers from abroad. Many were coming in to fill gaps in the UK labour market. We kick up to twenty percent of our kids out of school illiterate, innumerate and socially dysfunctional, then we import people to the lowgrade jobs those kids cannot do, so the immigrants can pay taxes to pay the benefits that just about keep that underclass quiet. The last government merely consolidated the neglect of the previous ones. All governments of all hues since the seventies have failed to address this problem; the only difference between them is the narrative they have fed their respective voters about it.
Unemployed people are being sent to work without pay in multinational corporations, including Tesco, Asda, Primark and Hilton Hotels, by Jobcentres and companies administering the government’s welfare reforms. Some are working for up to six months while receiving unemployment benefit of £67.50 a week or less.
The government says that unpaid work placements, which are also given in small businesses, voluntary organisations and public sector bodies, help people gain vital experience and prepare them for the workplace, but campaigners say they provide companies with free labour, undercut existing jobs and that people are “bullied” into them.
A spokesperson for the Boycott Workfare campaign said: “These placements are not designed to help people into full-time paid work but they serve to increase organisations’ profits. They provide a constant stream of free labour and suppress wages by replacing paid workers with unpaid workers. People are coerced, bullied and sanctioned into taking the placements. Placements in the public sector and charities are no better and are making volunteering compulsory. This is taking away the right of a person to sell their own labour and their free will to choose who they volunteer their time for.”
It’s too late to put the genie back in the bottle, but it’s not too late to talk about, campaign for, and act on reasonable, sustainable approaches to the disaffection and marginalisation of our young people.
Let’s open our eyes so that we can see.
The answer isn’t to respond in a reactionary way and threaten to evict the families of those involved in the rioting. That cannot help but make people more desperate and the overall situation worse. What’s needed is restorative justice to put right the wrongs that have happened recently and then to re-establish the social contract that successive governments have managed to rip to shreds.
Amid all of the dogmatic and cocksure explanations following last week’s rioting in English cities was an excellent BBC News magazine article giving an overview of 10 explanations for the protests, violence and looting.* They are presented in the article as ‘competing arguments’ but, as ever with these things, it seems clear that each was a causal element in an bigger problem. Simplistic explanations may be alluring but, historically speaking, are seldom accurate.
What strikes me is that people are quick to blame some kind of decline in morality, discipline or community spirit when what they really mean is that (post)modern life lacks a rhythm. Let me explain. Without getting into whether the following things are objectively right or wrong we have had a complete breakdown of what many have seen as ‘traditional’ ways of life: nuclear families with 2.4 children, church attendance, strict discipline in schools, etc.** What these things did (again, for better or worse) was to provide a rhythm to the everyday life of people in the country. They often came at the price of quashing individuality and diversity but they did provide structure. What we need new non-repressive and inclusive societal rhythms instead of harking back to old ones.
You don’t have to be right-wing, reactionary and authoritarian to want society to have a rhythm. And you don’t have to be a hand-wringing wet liberal to want more toleration and social justice in society. Governments cannot impose morality on a population, nor can the police arrest their way to solving an an endemic problem. What the authorities can (and should) do is legislate in ways that encourage justice and cohesion in society: the answer to a crisis is not to try and turn back time but to look forward together.
Unsurprisingly, not all of the ways in which English society has lost its rhythm are to do with a decline in the moral fibre of young people. Take, as a seemingly-trivial (but actually quite important) example, the changing ways in which we watch television. Some young people watch barely any TV, whilst the rest of the population is able to view not only a multitude of channels and programmes but at a time which suits them. Conversations starting with “did you see X on the TV last night?” are increasingly rare and the chances of people from different generations having the same stimuli these days are few and far-between. What we need, therefore, are social objects, things to talk about that are provided by people other than advertisers. Discussing an advert does not count as positive citizenship.
Rhythm comes through consensus but also through respecting diversity of opinion. It doesn’t come through top-down imposition of ‘values’ or by marginalising and excluding people from society. We need to move away from a blame culture and combative politics towards more consensus-led policies. We need to find new ways of talking about important things. We need, above all, to find new ways of including people in a sustainable debate about identity and nationhood.
* I’ve saved the article as a PDF at archive.org in case it goes missing at the BBC website.
** To a great extent this rose-tinted view of a ‘golden age’ is a myth as any social historian will tell you. Government propaganda and censorship during the Second World War, for example, prevented reports of opportunistic burglaries due to people keeping their doors unlocked. That’s not the story my grandmother will tell you though…
One of the wonderful things about getting involved in a new venture like Purpos/ed is the connections that you make to people and organizations you’ve never heard of before. One such person is Dougald Hine, who’s been involved in a myriad of projects. This post centres around The Dark Mountain Project, something Dougald co-founded.
What struck me upon reading the manifesto was, as I was discussing recently, the assumption behind most of what we do that business will continue as normal and that ‘reality’ is a stable, coherent, objective concept. In fact, what we term ‘reality’ is merely a “bloomin’ buzzin’ confusion” (William James) of competing narratives and stories. It’s the reason we often talk past one another: what some may dismiss as ‘semantics’ hide very real phenomenological difference in the way individuals are using terms to descibe things and ideas.
I urge you to read the whole of The Dark Mountain manifesto, but certainly the part quoted below (and definitely the last bit which I’ve emphasised in unmissable bold):
If we are indeed teetering on the edge of a massive change in how we live, in how human society itself is constructed, and in how we relate to the rest of the world, then we were led to this point by the stories we have told ourselves —above all, by the story of civilisation.
What makes this story so dangerous is that, for the most part, we have forgotten that it is a story. It has been told so many times by those who see themselves as rationalists, even scientists; heirs to the Enlightenment’s legacy —a legacy which includes the denial of the role of stories in making the world.
Yet as the myth of civilisation deepened its grip on our thinking, borrowing the guise of science and reason, we began to deny the role of stories, to dismiss their power as something primitive, childish, outgrown. The old tales by which generations had made sense of life’s subtleties and strangenesses were bowdlerised and packed off to the nursery… It is hard, today, to imagine that the word of a poet was once feared by a king.
Yet for all this, our world is still shaped by stories. Through television, ?lm, novels and video games, we may be more thoroughly bombarded narrative material than any people that ever lived. What is peculiar, however, is the carelessness with which these stories are channelled at us — as entertainment, a distraction from daily life, something to hold our attention to the other side of the ad break. There is little sense that these things make up the equipment by which we navigate reality. On the other hand, there are the serious stories told by economists, politicians, geneticists and corporate leaders. These are not presented as stories at all, but as direct accounts of how the world is. Choose between competing versions, then ?ght with those who chose differently. The ensuing con?icts play out on early morning radio, in afternoon debates and late night television pundit wars. And yet, for all the noise, what is striking is how much the opposing sides agree on: all their stories are only variants of the larger storyof human centrality, of our ever-expanding control over ‘nature’, our right to perpetual economic growth, our ability to transcend all limits.
As you’d expect from reading the above, Andy and I have separate reasons for starting Purpos/ed. One of mine certainly centres around creating space(s) to encourage and enable people to air their own stories and powerful ideas. Collaboration and transparency are key. As the maxim goes, light is the best disinfectant and, as Paul Mason explains in the if-you-haven’t-read-it-yet-you-really-should Twenty reasons why it’s kicking off everywhere, now (more than ever) ideas can acquire memetic status within hours rather than years and decades. We live in exciting, confusing but ultimately liberating times.
I’m all for Free Schools in principle. The idea of community involvement in setting up a school is exactly what should happen in my book. I’m not so sure about the ‘parent-led’ part of it, but a school as reflecting community values and being responsive to context is highly in tune with my own political and educational thinking. That’s the good.
But I’m not in favour of Free Schools if they’re all going to be along the lines of the West London Free School. It states proudly that it’s going to have a ‘narrow, academic’ curriculum focused on the Classics. Yes, that includes Latin.
I can remember reading for my MA in Modern History the debate between T.H. Huxley and Matthew Arnold (see here). The latter had a tough time defending the idea of a Liberal education based on the Classics in the 19th century, never mind the 21st. To say that “a classical education forms the bedrock of Britain’s most successful independent schools” is to commit the logical fallacy of post hoc ergo propter hoc* – i.e. that there is a causal connection between the content of the curriculum and the success of the current elite maintaining their hegemonic power.
Toby Young, the son of a peer in the House of Lords and author of How to Lose Friends and Alienate People is leading the project for the West London Free School, linked to above. I’m not sure who’s doing his PR but I really wouldn’t be using the video featured on the site (and below) as promotional material. Given the title of his book, perhaps he’s taking his own advice. I have never come across such a perfect example of a smug, inconsiderate and xenophobic story as the one he recounts with narrowly-contained glee towards the end of this interview:
So, schools free of Local Authority control, with the power to adapt their curriculum to the needs of their local community? Yes please!
What I don’t want to see, and what I think the school Toby Young is helping set up is a prime example of, is the perpetuation of middle class cultural capital masquerading as parental choice. Unfortunately ‘answering’ the question about the middle classes in your FAQ doesn’t make an iota of difference in practice.
*See, I can do Latin too and I just went to the local comprehensive. :-p