An ornament in prosperity

Getting a little caught up in the political knockabout surrounding last week’s by-elections meant that there were one or two things I’d intended to blog that fell by the wayside, at least until Justin reminded me of what I’d intended to write with these observations.

The other day, I wrote a ‘joke’ that, at the end of the new Harry Potter book, Hogwarts is closed after a poor OFSTED report only to be reopened as a City Academy specialising in training call centre workers. Whoops, a bit of satire there.

Of course, it’s rubbish, isn’t it? An absurd extrapolation of the notion that schools now only exist to produce economically-optimised drones. Bollocks, in other words.

But then

A secondary school which has opened an on-site call centre where pupils can practise selling mobile phone contracts and answering customer complaints has been criticised for lowering children’s expectations.

Christ. I feel sick.

Me too.

I turned forty last year and, as is apparently obligatory on such occasions, took a little time to mull over my present situation and consider what, if anything, I might still like to achieve in the years remaining to me before advancing age and a life of dissolute pleasures rob me of all sensibilities.

Should I, perhaps, take up the ‘Way of the Clarkson’ and buy a sports car and several hundred pairs of ill-fitting jeans at the recommended two sizes too small for my waistline?

Or perhaps I should set as my personal goal that of becoming one of those dessicated health obsessives whose declining years are spent in ruthless pursuit of the goal of living to be a ripe old burden on their offspring and a world renowned expert on the correct size, shape, colour, consistency and odour of the perfect poo?

No, thought I. Popularly as both options seem to be these days, neither holds much appeal so far as I’m concerned.

So, after a little thought, I settled on a goal much more in keeping with my temperament and interests and decided that I’d quite like to take a crack at becoming a bit of a polymath. A ‘Renaissance Man’ aka ‘Homo Universalis’. I mean I’ve been a bit of a smart arse, so why not spend the next few years usefully employed in the task of doing the job properly, I thought.

Now I’m not saying that I’m definitely going to be any good at it, but I’ve always rather admired those like Da Vinci, Newton, Franklin and Gallileo who did manage to carry off the whole polymath thing pretty well and, in any case, whether or not I succeed in such a goal seems rather less important that the enjoyment one gets from trying.

And so, over the last year or so, any time not spent working, doing family things or blogging has been usefully taken up with reading anything and everything that takes my fancy, which means mostly non-fiction spanning everything from history, politics and philosophy right through to cosmology, quantum mechanics and chaos theory – none of which is the slightest bit of use to my current employer or to the economy in general, I dare say, but I enjoy it and that’s ultimately the only thing that counts.

That’s my personal take on the purpose and value of education and, particularly, on the notion of ‘lifelong learning’, which is, and has been, the favourite buzzword amongst education policy wonks over the last few years, although that’s not quite how the buzzword fetishists see it.

And that brings me neatly to Matthew Taylor, formerly the Director of IPPR and head the Downing Street Policy Unit, under Tony Blair, and now the Chief Executive of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manfactures and Commerce, and to an article published on his blog in regards to a recent speech he gave to the Training and Development Agency for Schools entitled ‘The Future Task of Schooling‘, which he describes as:-

…trying to link some of my ideas about pro-social behaviour and how we create the citizens of the future with questions about the future of teaching.

There is, to my mind, something intrinsically creepy about that particularly statement, creepy as in Aldous Huxley meets The Jetsons; a feeling that Taylor’s first line of argument does nothing whatsoever to dispell:-

1. The future task of schooling must be about building children’s capabilities (as we do with the RSA Opening Minds curriculum).

This means developing children who, as well as the basics, have attributes like self-confidence, the ability to solve problems and show initiative, team working and communication.

Above all the aim of schooling is that every child leaves school with the desire and the ability to continue learning throughout life.

Its that second paragraph that I find, well, rather dislikeable. Assuming that by ‘the basics’ what Taylor means is the ‘3Rs’ – reading, [w]riting and [a]rithmatic – what follows in terms of Taylor’s view of desirable attributes seems to amount to little more than the same kind of boilerplate bullshit one writes as a matter of routine in reply the ‘any other relevant information’ question on application forms, safe in the knowledge that everyone else is putting the same thing, before getting on with the business of explaining what actual skills, knowledge and experience you have to offer.

Seriously, does anyone ever claim that they have anything but that they have good (or maybe even excellent) communication and problem solving skills and that they can work under their own initiative and be a ‘good team player’. I’ve been on the other side of fence, so to speak, in taking part in recruitment short-listing and interviewing and, to be frank, I pay absolutely no attention to any claims of this kind on application forms precisely because I know that the vast majority of applicants will lay claim to all those ‘attributes’ simply because they believe, or have been told, that that’s what employers expect these days.

What’s rather more disturbing, however, is what this reveals about the underlying ethos of Taylor, and other like him, when it comes to their views on the future role and purpose of education, which seems to amount to nothing more than a production line churning out an endless stream of worker ants ready to take the appointed place in front of bank after bank of telephony-enabled PCs.

That’s the so-called ‘knowledge economy’ for you, a society in which the knowledge requirements for employment amount to a matter of the ability to read and on-screen script and type the answers given by the person on the other end of the phone into the right boxes in a bespoke database application. Rather ironic, don’t you think? A ‘knowledge economy’ in which malleability and the minimum possible knowledge required to push the right buttons on a PC quickly enough to be profitable is the primary requirement and that towards which eleven years of formal education is to be directed.

One can hardly wait for Matthew to turn his intellectual faculties towards trying to link his ideas about ‘pro-social behaviour and how we create the citizens of the future’ with questions about the future of transport and the environment, an exercise that’s likely to lead to the suggestion that we can readily cut carbon emissions in the shipping industry by bringing back the trireme and replacing school gyms and sports fields with banks of rowing machines.

Reading some of the material relating to the ‘Open Minds’ curriculum that Taylor refers to, particularly the report entitled ‘Opening Minds: Education for the 21st Century‘, one cannot help but be disturbed by the ‘vision’ of the future it sets out.

The practical challenges faced by education are not simply economic. In many countries, Britain among them, rising prosperity has been accompanied by substantial social change, some of it problematical: family breakdown, changing attitudes to personal relationships, social exclusion. More generally, young people face an increasingly complex world where many old certainties have disappeared. The effects of these developments are very quickly felt in schools. They are places which often seem to bring together and focus the challenges posed by economic and social change. But the ability of schools to cope with the impact of these changes beyond their boundaries is in question. This is true in both the economic sphere – as expressed by the rising number of employers engaged in what they openly refer to as ‘remedial education’ of their new recruits fresh from school or university – and the social, as expressed in the view that schools are failing to educate young people to function in democratic society.

Halifax plc has defined a set of 10 core competences relevant to all grades within the organisation. This framework defines the key ‘attributes, characteristics, behaviours and knowledge exhibited by successful performers’. Their competences are in 3 categories: people, personal and process.

People:direction setting, developing self and others, communication, and working with others.

Personal:achievement orientation, customer orientation, and change orientation.

Process:forward thinking, judgement, and quality focus.

Halifax plc has also created a structured and rigorous assessment process.

Each competence has 5 levels, each describing a different type of behaviour. These levels are progressive, becoming increasingly complex and demanding. In addition to assessing current progress and achievement the system is transparent, enabling participants to set goals for the future thereby providing motivation.

These problems will not go away. They are inseparable from the growth of the consumer society and the knowledge economy, rooted in the spread of technology which can shift economic activity round the globe almost at will and hence act as a destabilising force. They must, therefore, be addressed – at the right level. The problems faced by education in the coming decades have little to do with, for example the failings, real or assumed, of teachers. They are problems of strategy and purpose, and they are not peculiar to the UK. Across the industrialised world people are struggling to engage with the questions ‘what should the system look like in twenty years’ time? how should it be preparing young people for their adult lives?’

You see? Consumer capitalism has won the day. Its the end of history as we know it and all that’s left to do is turn our schools into corporate-sponsored social engineering factories churning out painstakingly indoctrinated workers fit only to be directed by the corporate hive minds.

Never mind education, understanding and real knowledge.

Think nothing of individuality and – gasp – the public heresy of thinking for yourself.

Forget qualifications and examinations, in Taylor’s Brave New World everything you’ll need to can be accommodated on a plastic badge with space for five tin stars.

Humanity? Dear old Homo Sapiens Sapiens? Doesn’t really exist any more – he’s/she’s just another resource.

How bitterly ironic is all this?

Marx predicted that the government of men would be ultimately replaced by the administration of things, and it seems he was right on the button, although who would have thought this would come about not by means of a communist revolution and the eventual withering away of the state but by way of corporate capitalism simply redefining people as things to be administered? Not Marx, certainly…

What of the Fascist thinkers of the 1930’s? Would they be gratified to see their vision of a unified Europe in which whole populations were ordered, organised and transferred around to meet the demands of efficient production, seemingly coming to fruition, or merely disappointed at the lack of patience shown by their political leaders in seeking to create such a New World Order by force, violence and war, when they could simply have played the waiting game and let big business do the job for them…

And what of Freidrich Hayek, whose ideas, one can argue, more than any other helped unleash the forces to which Taylor so obsequiously and ostentatiously kow-tows? Surely he would have hated the vision of the future set out in the report cited above even in acknowledging the role his economic and political ideas have had in making such a future a distinct possibility.

But then again, if Taylor and his ilk have their way then who’ll be left to even consider, let alone care what Marx or Hayek might have made of the future being laid out for our children, but for those few of us ageing bloggers who might still aspire, however imperfectly, to heights of Homo Universalis? What competencies can there be in the new educational order that demand a knowledge of political philosophy?

Certainly nothing that would interest Taylor’s new breed of humans, Homo Servitus.

Title Quotation – “Education is an ornament in prosperity and a refuge in adversity.” Aristotle

  • Bob

    They start their experiment (well they

  • Once young people have read HP 1 to 7 they should be offered ‘Deschooling Society’. Learning webs not schooling funnels.

    Taylor does talk about problem solving, initiative and communication skills and in the right, or ‘left’?, hands this could amount to a licence to Summerhill-ise Education.

  • Three cheers Unity- great post. I have to say I completely agree- the thing is as well that its a profoundly anti-democratic view of education- producing worker drones is not a way to produce voters

  • Hawthorne

    Having passed through the schooling system recently (now student) I have to say I was lucky. I went to state school’s of unusual excellence, not only did I pass my GCSE’s and A-Levels but in between I occasionally learned something as well. It has stood me in good stead for University but I am shocked at some of my fellow students.

    For example a friend of mine went to University because he was told he would get a job after it. He picked economics because he enjoyed it at A-Level. He did no research on what was going to be involved and was shocked that he would have to do maths and stats as a compulsory element of his course. I however was more shocked to discover that he couldn’t do a simultaneous equation or re-arrange an algebraic formula. 5 years of maths at secondary level and he can’t do a simultaneous equation or re-arrange an algebraic formula (he got a B GCSE Maths which is ‘above average’ and a BBB average at A-Level).

    Children don’t get taught knowledge anymore, they get taught exam answers to pass exams. I was lucky in that my teachers always told me to expand by reading other material. So as I have grown up I have tried to read widely, from 1984 to Rights of Man, from Fahrenheit 541 to The Prince, even Brave New World last month. But most of my contemporaries, not all, but most are just reading model questions and answers.

    Education is no longer for learning, it is to accumulate increasingly meaningless scores, to then furnish you with a job. A report recently, 1 in 14 adults cannot answer what an 1/8 of 32 is. Its worse than that if you ask just the younger generation I believe.

    Cheeky quote back.

    [i]Whoso neglects learning in his youth,
    Loses the past and is dead for the future.[/i]

    Euripides

  • epsilon

    I am a little concerned that this thread might just be having a dig at Academies.

    Now, I am not going to be a huge cheerleader for them-although the Prime Minister is- but they are not the force for evil that some sources would make you think.

    Certainly, the ability of the sponsor to buy their way onto a majority or near-majority on the Governing Body needs real adjustment; but they are serving to pull public schools into the maintained sector…one in Bristol will enter the state sector next year. Lets not forget that LEAs have to have representatives on the Governing Bodies….when did you last see that at a public school?

  • >>> He did no research on what was going to be involved and was shocked that he would have to do maths and stats as a compulsory element of his course.

    Sadly, that’s not that uncommon in the social sciences – the attrition rate on my degree course stood at something of the order of 35-40% at the end of the first year precisely because of a mandatory statistics element that had to be passed in order to get an honours degree at the end of the three years.

    Fortunately for most the unwitting, the course itself was a combined BA in Social Sciences at the outset, in which one had the option of chosing any one of four majors (psychology, sociology, economics or politics) at the end of year one, giving those who couldn’t hack the stats at least the relatively mathematics-free get out of majoring in politics.

  • Epsilon:

    So far as Academies, and the involvement of businesses in such, are concerned, what needs to looked at carefully is the amount of influence exerted by the sponsor and the precise nature of that influence.

    Business involvement in schools needs to be handled selectively to ensure that what this delivers is real benefits to young people and not simply a semi-skilled labour pool geared to the needs of the employers.

    Linking schools to universities is a positive move and one worth encouraging and, to be frank, its rather a disappointment to note that, as yet, no Trade Union has come forward with plans to sponsor one of more academies providing a mix of academic and vocational options suited to the industries in which that union has a clear stake on behalf of its members.

  • Hawthorne

    Unity:

    Couldn’t agree more. Combined honours is the way to avoid it, if you do PPE you have complete freedom of choice in the 2nd and 3rd years. But I personally don’t see the particular challenge of first year stats. Firstly it lends itself to learning via repetition. And secondly 15/100 marks in my stats exams was drawing 3 scatter graphs from 3 tables. I almost laughed out loud in the exam at it (40/100 is a pass, so 38% closer to that pass already).

    As for Business’s and schools I instinctively don’t like it. In capitalism no Business does anything for no reason. So it begs the question, what’s in it for them? Either profit, market share or regulation (less of it or more beneficial), maybe PR but its an expensive and inefficient method. From the example given in the post above, why not just bolt the school onto the call centre, that way they can talk to actual workers as well and get work experience. Hell the school could even tell them how to fill in a CV to apply for somewhere like…ooo I don’t know….maybe a call centre.