Okay – it’s a globally competitive world and countries like China, India and more so smaller developing countries have pools of cheap labour to undercut us. Our manufacturing base is decimated and we are left floating on a flimsy raft of a service economy. Our competitive base is fragile and so we must rein-in our aspirations. Back to this falsity later.
The pressure is on schooling to cool down expectations among young people and to ready them for a no-nonsense, compliant, performance-based workforce entry with only limited career opportunities. The curriculum young people receive is a stodgy gruel of non-work-related and antiquated subject groupings like Geography, History, Biology, Art and so on with no vision of an expansive future, of energetic engagement with a changing world, much less of new forms of interdisciplinary knowledge that reach well beyond subjects. The curriculum message is one of ‘keep your head down for 15,000 hours, settle for less and don’t think about how knowledge might be modernised and relevant to you’. Worse, still, the curriculum is a ‘National’ curriculum with only a local relevance where it can be forced or conceded.
But it gets worse. Any chance that this might be subverted or modified – say, by a teacher who wants to engage young people with a curriculum that addresses their lives and local communities – is carefully policed and expunged by a low-trust, punitive accountability system. OfSTED – the English secular equivalent of Sharia law, based on control and the mobilisation of opinion and prejudice. The outrider to this command-and-control state of affairs is a testing and examination regime that focuses young people and teachers on what is required and not on what is needed. Young people are not introduced to critical ways of thinking, for they are to be prepared for a compliance role in work and citizenship. The world around them is a given, and they are instructed in its characteristics, not inducted into a culture of critical reflection on those characteristics.
The underpinning is one of despair at England’s capacity to hold its own in a globally competitive world. Schooling is the expression of that despair. There is no greater symbolic expression of despair than the arbitrary use and abuse of authority. Teachers and young people are not persuaded to settle for less, they are coerced, forced to do so. There is no alternative.
This, perhaps more than any other feature of schooling, defines a right-wing approach to education and points us to the alternative, left-wing approach. Right-wing because the ‘settling-for-less’ applies only to the majority, with striving for more an encouragement to a small elite. Right-wing because the overwhelming resort to authority is a suppression of individual freedom and social ethics. Authority becomes authoritarianism – the insistence on submission. Right-wing because the values on which decisions are based are conservative and reactionary – ‘reactionary’ defined as ‘opposed to progress or reform’.
The remorseless obsession with ‘results’ also finds its place here, in this right-wing paraphernalia – in, perhaps, more subtle ways. To define educational quality in terms of examination or test results is to deflect attention away from process and interactions in classrooms. It is here that authority potentially loses its control. If we look for educational quality, for example, in the richness and insight of classroom exchanges – discussions, questioning, negotiations – in the urgency to get young people thinking critically and creatively – then we must relax our grip on results. Things become less certain in their outcomes. Probably the best educational thinker this country has had was Lawrence Stenhouse, unknown to most beyond the field of education. His central principle was this: “education as induction into knowledge is successful to the extent that it makes the behavioural outcomes of the student unpredictable”. If we teach our students to be free and critical thinkers, who knows where they will go.
Here, indeed, we find the centre of the battleground between Right- and Left-wingers. Authority and control require predictability; individual rights to self-determination insist on a tolerance for unpredictability. More of this in forthcoming Blogs. For now, this is a good point to return to the opening argument of the demise of the UK in a globally competitive world, and its implications for schooling.
The drive to break the backs of the British workforce, to make work more precarious so as to reduce wages has a chilling effect on education and schooling. It reduces expectations – but more importantly, it erodes our respect for youth whom we come to see as an expense which we need to cheapen to remain competitive. But think again. We will not compete for cheap labour with China, the Philippines, India and so on. That way went the British motor industry and British computing technology. We will compete in terms of quality, however. This is the lesson of Rolls Royce. We will compete where we emphasise our strengths: cultural maturity, sophistication of thought and philosophy, the openness and questioning of democratic exchange, our creativity. What we can bring to global competition is a sophisticated workforce capable of innovation and quality. But these will not be fostered by narrow, profit-seeking business. It is only in schooling that we achieve this, the perfect marriage between individual freedoms and creativity with economic advantage. Where the Right-wing approach will be to teach business values so as to co-opt the young person, the Left-wing approach is to teach young people how to be constructively critical of business values so as to own them and improve on them; where the right-wing approach is to teach low-level competencies and limited skills, the left-wing approach is to teach experiment, exploration and the skills of critical thinking – and to locate skills development within an occupational culture; where the right-wing approach is to model industrial compliance in the classroom with behavioural techniques, the left-wing approach is to encourage individual difference and self-determination with self-discipline to be discovered.
Look no further than Summerhill School (www.summerhillschool.co.uk). This school was affirmed by OfSTED (when it was trying to close the school down!) as performing at or around the national average in terms of exam results. And yet classes are voluntary, students might and often do spend 6 months or more not attending classes. Adults can be fined by the students’ parliament (‘moot’) for trying to persuade them into a classroom. There is no school library – A.S. Neill, the founder, knew that book-learning was the easiest and could come at any time. The emphasis is on exchange, conversation, constant exploration of the nature of individualism and the individual’s obligation to the collective – the substance of conversation revealed in my interviews with Summerhill kids during the judicial review of OfSTED gerrymandering as they tried to close the school. The curriculum, the core of the educational mission is conversation, and the school excels at it.