Category Archives: Education

Debating how many angels could dance on a pinhead, a fallacious reading on medieval education. An argument for the soundness of medieval education.

What I want to argue for is the superiority of aspects of monastic led education to that of today. Not so long ago I saw a television programme about the fall of Constantinople. The presenter, a distinguished scholar claimed that while the city was under siege, the monks in the Hagia Sophia were so completely removed from the reality the awfulness of the siege, that they were distracted by discussions such as “how many angels could stand on pin head”. This calumny directed at monkish education was in fact black propaganda used by the protestant reformers to discredit Catholicism. These unworldly monks would in fact have been very engaged with the circumstances in which they found themselves, knowing that the gold in the Cathedral would make them a target for looters from the victorious besiegers.

This famous scholar was obviously ignorant of the achievements of these monks in mathematics, astronomy and the other sciences. Monks were capable of sophisticated mathematics, calculations would be made using their hands. Not just one to ten, but my giving particular fingers symbolic values or functions they could do advanced mathematics. One monk by observing the lengths of the shadows cast by sticks in the ground calculated the latitude of the Abbey in which he lived. One of the most spectacular medieval achievements was the clock of variable hours at St.Albans Abbey. One problem that bothered the monks was the timing of the prescribed services during the day. This was particularly hard as the days varied so in length. When should the Nones service be celebrated, when given the hours of daylight differed daily, what particular point in the day was midday? If the time of daylight was divided by 12, the difference between the shortest hours at mid winter and midsummer was seventeenth minutes. St.Albans’s answer was a clock of variable hours. This mechanical clock would adjust the length of the hours in the day according hours of daylight. The monks could through a reading the figures off this clock together with a sophisticated system of mathematics accurately calculate the time.

Having now demonstrated that monks and clerics could demonstrate a level of sophistication in their thinking similar to that of today’s scientists. I can now justify my contention about that education in the medieval university could in some respects be superior to that of today. I use my now own experience of university education as proof of my contention. When given an assignment by my tutor there would always be what appeared to be a vast number of books to read. Even selective readings of these texts, that is looking primarily for those phrases underlined by previous readers as significant to note, could be very time consuming. For me at least it was often a matter of quantity over quality. The more references and quotations that I could smuggle into my essay, the higher the grade. Then and now I thought there must be a better way. When I read that for clerics and monks there was one initial essential book to study. Whose study in depth was seen as the basis for a sound theological education, I could only reflect on what I saw as so many hours wasted in study. Paraphrasing an old English phrase, my study was of forests not trees. Incidentally the primary book or books were Peter Lombard’s ‘Four Books of Sentences’. Even today I cannot understand why it was thought necessary by my tutors thought it necessary for me to read every book or article written on a particular topic What benefit is there to be gained by having a wide and superficial knowledge of a subject, as opposed to a real understanding?

The medieval professors on holy days, celebrated them by having free and open discussions with their students. Often these discussions were recorded for prosperity. I have dipped into one such Thomas Aquinas’s “Quodlibetal Questions 1 and 2”. What impresses me is not just the sophistication of the students questions, but the replies given by Thomas Aquinas. He assumes that his students are capable of understanding the most difficult of his ideas. No concessions are made in his answers, he assumes that his students can follow the sophisticated train of his thoughts This experience I can contrast with that of my students peers. One internationally recognised philosopher was complained about by some of my fellow students as giving lectures too difficult to understand. Next year he was replaced by a colleague with a more straight forward exposition manner and who gave out student handouts. Perhaps the difference in the student responses is a matter of respect. Medieval students deferred more readily to authority. However given the frequency of town and gown riots, perhaps this was not the cause. Can I suggest an alternative, in the medieval university the emphasis was on understanding, not the accumulation of knowledge?. Over a period of six hundred years students and society’s expectations of what a degree course entails had changed dramatically.

What I am suggesting is that true education is something other than the accumulation of knowledge. There is a something that resides behind and above the accumulation of knowledge, a something that makes understanding possible. A something that I can describe as a sound method of thinking, a means correct thinking and speaking. A sound technique of analysis and comprehension, the ability to derive knowledge from whatever text of subject is studied.. Real education is something that as Plato might have said, which is not readily explainable, one not given to simple common place expression. It is something whose essence once experienced is never given up. Again I wish to give myself as an example. At university I was a hopeless student of philosophy, one of my lowest marks was awarded to me in my ethics paper. However in that final year of university, I glimpsed a something, which I cannot readily put into words, but which left me with a passion for a life long study of philosophy.


Reflections on the education system from a retired teacher (or more accurately its failings)

One of the occupational hazards of being a teacher is disillusionment. The disillusionment that I experienced was something dating from the last years of my teaching career, I began to question the value of what I was doing. Teaching A level sociology was increasingly about cramming as much of the course content as possible into two short years. At best I was giving them an insight into the society in which they lived, but at worst to my teaching threatened to turn into a recitation of the facts, as were required by the exam system. Neglect of the latter would have meant, I and they would be judged failures.

English education as I experienced it can be described as ‘throwing as much information as possible at the student hoping that some of it sticks’. Quantity is confused with quality. I am a committed supporter of slow education. There has to be another way of delivering education, a way of teaching that ensures the student develops an understanding of the subject. Not that this is something new and revolutionary. When I was undertaking teacher training in the early 1970’s ‘patch teaching’ of history was in vogue. Rather than a liner course that was literally a run through of world history. Focus would be instead on particular patches of history in depth. In that way they would develop an in depth understanding of the subject. Michael Gove disliked this method of teaching and returned to subject to a history of great Britons. What I am advocating is not new, this is the discovery approach to learning advocated in the Plowden Report 1967 and Rousseau’s ‘Emile’ 1763 and Plato’s ‘Meno’ 4BCE. Education that takes the child as it’s starting point, rather than the subject, as is now the favoured approach.

I can cite Conservative philosopher Michael Oakeshott as part of my evidence to demonstrate the superiority of slow over quick education. Education he said should be the initiation of the student into new areas of experience. What he meant was that students should be inducted into a new of thinking or understanding. He believed subjects such as history had a distinct identity or essence. Only through an i immersion into a subject area would enable the student to grasp its essence. Although he did not state it as such, he was an advocate of a liberal education. A good education would involve the student being initiated into a number of distinct but overlapping educational experiences. Quick fire education of the type so popular in England will not give students the experience of education that Michael Oakshott wanted for them.

Recent changes to the national education curriculum have put limits on what is taught or certain subjects off limits. Universities have been discouraged from offering modern languages on the dubious basis that they are not self financing. Not the approach to education envisaged by this most conservative of philosophers.

Nietzsche’s criticisms of German grammar schools in the 19th century are worth considering as they add to the understanding of what bad education might be. These schools all taught the same set of facts or understandings with which there teachers had been rehearsed in at institutes of higher learning. Nothing too challenging for the students or teachers was taught in these schools. German education was focused on teaching conformity. Round pegs for round holes, no difficult square pegs. They produced generation after generation of unthinking intellectual sheep, the untermensch.

Contemporary English education would earn Nietszche’s strictures. It is a system that seeks to discourage intellectual curiosity and the love of learning. The real villain of the piece is the English exam system. A system that values mediocrity. When doing supply teaching I taught Macbeth through the use of a comic book. Macbeth can be reduced to an exciting story, but was taught is not Shakespeare’s Macbeth. English Standard Attainment Tests required that all English students demonstrated a knowledge of Shakespeare, the greatest of all English playwrights. Given that it was a test to be undertaken by all fourteen year olds it had to be rendered in a form all could understand. The comic book had the advantage of providing students a number of simple facts that could be easily learnt and memorised for an exam in which students demonstrated there knowledge of Shakespeare. Whatever was being taught was not Shakespeare. Not only facts but the demonstration of government preferred writing formats were required to pass the SAT’s. Government diktat is stifling in students in any love they may have for this most creative of subjects. It is not surprising that having done their best to destroy a love of the English language and literature, there has been a marked fall in the number of students studying this subject at university.

The real villain of the piece is the exam system, it forces the education curriculum into a learning straight jacket. Creativity or going beyond the limits as specified by the minister earns no points from the education ministry and as it was not in their curriculum it can lead to a downgrading of a school. Too much creativity or pupil enlightenment can lead to the imposition of sanctions by the ministry.

When teaching economics in the 1970s, I used to teach my students about the command economy in the Soviet Union. It was not on the curriculum, but I then had the freedom to go off course with my teaching. The interesting thing is that then the government in Moscow tried to set the direction in which the economy moved, it did so through setting out global or quantitive targets for each sector of the economy. To ensure that central directives were met they had the KGB who would sanction those politicians managers who failed to fulfil their quotas. Sanction being a spell in a labour camp. Consequently local politicians and factory managers conspired together to give the appearance of meeting their targets. If the target for shoe production could only be met by producing left handed shoes (productivity increased if all workers made exactly the same product) that is what had to be done. All politicians up to the level of the capital city were in on the act, as failure to comply with centrally set targets meant a spell in the labour camp.

I feel the current education system in the way it is administered threatens to produce the equivalent of left handed shoes in education. Nick Gibbs the education minister insisted that a rigorous grammar component was added to primary school curriculum. He was little more qualified to write a course in grammar, that the Moscow politician was to direct the production of shoes in the distant Urals. Educationalists have accused this man of making up principles of grammar to teach students. One such make up grammar was the adverbial. A term unknown to grammar specialists at university and certainly to teachers.

Ministers of education have found setting of quantitive targets, such as demanding that a certain percentage of students to get a particular level in the SATs, is the ideal way to control the how and what of teaching in schools. From my reading of educational practice and philosophy, never did I ever come across ease of central control of schools as an objective.

The dead hand of exams is choking the life out of the education system. Politicians boast of the rigour of the English exam system. Every year steps are taken by ministers to ensure that only a small intellectual elite are awarded the best grades. A levels are the gold standard of education. What they never admit is that public exams are designed to make the majority fail. Only an A grade qualifies you for entry to the elite universities. Despite being called passes, grade B or less are in reality fail grades. I cannot see any merit in an education system that is designed to make the majority fail. This is the moral rottenness at the heart of the English educational system.

Grading students from A to E, 8 to 1 or from a First to a pass degree is not part of education. It’s a sorting system for employment or higher education. It’s main purpose is to make life easier for admissions tutors at university or employers. Unfortunately contemporary society insists on school and universities sorting students into various categories of person, so schools and universities cannot escape there sorting role. The only solution is to relegate this sorting function to a minor role in the curriculum, so ensuring that education takes the central place in the school or university curriculum.

Unashamedly a ‘Citizen of Nowhere’

Although it was intended as an insult, directed by the Prime Minister at such as people such as myself that wished to remain a European citizen, it is a title I am proud to claim. Perhaps an example from my life explains what I mean. At the age of eighteen I left my country home to study at a University in London. I left behind what many would regard as an idyllic life. Our family’s life moved to a rhythm dictated by the seasons. Winter meant a slowing down, the time when nature itself entered a dormant stage. Although his work never became dormant it was by January reduced to what were a series of maintenance tasks. Then with the coming of spring when nature began to revive, he became more active in his working life. This was the breeding season, when hatched pheasant chicks from eggs in the incubator, to be followed by transferring the thousands of young chicks to small secure nurturing pens. Then when summer reached its peak he worked from dawn to dusk, transferring and settling colonies of pheasant chicks in the surrounding woodland. Although it was a hard life working as a gamekeeper he loved it. Having rejected the alternative of an easier life in the city. When asked why he did not want an easier life in the city, he said that he could tolerate the noise of the city. This digression is necessary to explain why it was a wrench for me to leave country life behind. I should add that all my childhood friends remained attached to the countryside. Consequently I became distant and estranged from them to such an extent that I now find it difficult to recall there names and facial features.

When surrounded by and living amongst people who loved the country life, why did I leave? The reason for me was it was a matter of growing into maturity, I felt that to remain I would be trapped in an eternal adolescence, a sense of ‘not-grown-upness’. I had grown out of the country life. Today when my wife suggests how nice it would be to retire to a country cottage, my reaction is panic. What country life represents for me is a closing in of the intellectual horizon. A panic akin to claustrophobia, a fear of losing that sense of freedom which I treasure.

Perhaps my schooling accounted to my sense of an intellectual claustrophobia. I studied at a country secondary modern. A school in which the boys were expected to become farm labourers, factory hands or members of the armed forces . The girls typists or clerical assistants. Our education virtually ceased at fourteen, as at that age we had learn all that was needed to perform our expected future roles. What I developed was a sense of frustration, I knew that there was much more to learn, which I was being denied. Some of our teachers recognised our frustration, and by the time we reached the age of fifteen they offered us a chance to sit a new exam designed for secondary modern students. However even this was a source of frustration. The science textbook we used was the science of the 1930s. Obviously it was a reprint, but it ignored all the scientific developments that had taken place since 1945. What I can remember is that it state the space that made up most of the universe was the ether. I term I think that dated back to Isaac Newton’s time.

Although I loved the country life, I wanted more the escape from its narrow confining intellectual horizons. A rooted life, a sense of belonging for me was the surrender of my individuality. Going trout fishing at first light was an experience I will always treasure. However even when fishing alone in the early morning in the most idyllic of surroundings could not dispel my uneasy sense of being trapped. I could not see myself endlessly repeating this experience. I needed something more.

Unlike Theresa May I value that sense of rootlessness that she abhors. It gives you a chance to remake your self. There is nothing that forces or pushes you into a particular role. Now although everybody knew that I was a gamekeepers son, it was only for them a matter of some interest or curiosity, it was not my defining characteristic. In the country being a gamekeepers son circumscribed your opportunities. You were expected to fulfil one of two roles, either follow in your fathers footsteps or become a farm labourer. The only escape was to become a factory hand in the nearby town.

The young people I met in London, were cut adrift from there roots. All were seizing the opportunity to remake there lives. Revelling in the freedom that being an unknown gave you. None wanted to go back. Patriotism of the form that Mrs May is advocating was something we scorned, it was old a drawing back to our childhoods. How could you be a British patriot of this sort and enjoy the music of Jimmi Hendricks or all the other American stars. We wanted to be citizens of nowhere adopting whatever identity suited us at that moment. Our clothes, our appearance and behaviours represented a rejection of the past. London for the young then was at the centre of the youth fashion industry. Clothes were not patriotic they were international.

Within the youth culture there was an ironic attitude towards the symbols of patriotism. A clothes shop was named Lord Kitchener’s Valet. The historical Lord Kitchener was an austere unliveable, although competent general of the early 20th century and Empire. A man who stopped his men from shooting the mortally wounded enemy after battle, on the grounds that bullets cost money, he advocated the cheaper option of killing them with the bayonet. Now the shop that bore his name mocked all that he stood for, it celebrated frivolity.

With rootless goes a sense of openness, you are open to and welcome new experiences. Michael Oakshott said that education was the initiation into new experiences. This initiation he imagined would be achieved through an intermediary, the teacher. However the citizen of nowhere is a self education, always seeking to initiate themselves into new experiences. With this freedom goes a sense of emptiness. There are times when you reach barriers or limits to your intellectual explorations. I can look back and recall reading Baudelaire’s prose poems. He like me could suffer a sense of ennui. One such poem that expressed my discontent was the one in which he describes the bleak view from his window of the rainswept Parisian rooftops.

Now there is a closing in of the horizons. New patriots that is our Brexit seeking politicians see us ‘citizens of nowhere’ as a threat to them. I think because we pose a threat to the easy certainties they cling too. Europe is a threat to them as it threatens there certainties. The cordon sanitaire

that protected there world of childish certainties has gone. Europe is now longer across the channel its here, its there neighbour. These new patriots don’t want change, they want it kept away from them. Rejecting Europe is an anguished cry of pain. Not only do they want to expel Europe from their country but they also want to suppress the fifth columnists such as myself that are a viper’s nest of ‘foreigness’ and strange ideas. I am abused as a member of the elite, my education they say has rendered me unfit to be a man of the people. I have lost what they see as my sense of Britishness. Strangely enough politicians who are Oxbridge graduates and members of the upper middle class, don’t suffer from this curse of ‘eliteness’.

Theresa the many of us ‘citizens of nowhere’ will continue to reject your notion of Britishness. We don’t want to retreat back into your comforting world of childish patriotic certainties. Unlike you we want to embrace the world out there. Fortress Britain is a chilling idea, a denial of that step forward that means embracing the uncertainty that is out there. The patriotism of yourself and your colleagues represents nothing more than the suffocating dullness of a familiar comfort blanket.

Why the wealth of Britain is more apparent than real.



Mummers of the type the author was familiar with as a child

The Idealised Non Monetary Market Economy

Having lived for almost seventy years I have witnessed a revolutionary change in society. The society I knew as a child, one rooted in a settled rural community has disappeared, to be replaced by the restless Neo-Liberal society of atomised individuals. As a child I attended a Christmas party for the estate children. The party organiser persuaded the older children to take part in a mumming play about St. George. A play in which St. George is slain by the treacherous Moor and then brought miraculously back to life by the doctor. It was a play that had been performed by mummers for hundreds of years in our community. Although were barely understood its mummery we knew it was part of our heritage and such should be cherished. Today that community has been dispersed by the forces of economic change and such a play today would only serve to remind the residents of the quaint rural past. The dairy and the houses of the dairy workers are now bijou residences for those lucky enough to have a well paid job in the new financial sector. Those inhabitants of the old rural communities have been dispersed to the margins of the rural community, living in the private rental housing in nearby towns.

The rural community in which I grew up consisted of a series of interlocking networks of supportive social relationships. When I went to a neighbouring hamlet I went there as the gamekeepers son who was friend of one of the boys living in the hamlet. Also my mother worked on the local farms fruit picking with some of the women of this hamlet. There were many other interactions between this hamlet and the one in which I lived. It gave me a seven year old boy a sense of security, if I got into trouble I could turn for help to one of the adults in this hamlet for help. I unlike the my own children could stray far from home without my parents being dogged by the fear of the stranger. Sociologists term this social capital but all too often they see it as did Pierre Bourdieu, as it being the acquisition of a series of cultural skills and attributes that make for success in society. The example usually given is being born into a middle class family and inheriting from them the cultural set that will make for a success in society. However this ignores the more important facet of social capital which is its contribution to the well being of a community. Those networks that are most supportive are developed by people living in settled communities, its part of the inbuilt sociability of being human. All this essential social capital of supportive networking requires is space and stability, people given time will always make and remake the community. Unfortunately this essential social capital that is the settled community regarded by economists and governments as a hindrance to economic development. They want a rootless labour force that moves from place to place according to the demands of industry. What others saw as misery the British Treasury saw as a success. The visitors to the Olympic games in 2012 in London had the no problem finding accommodation because the private landlords had evicted their former tenants in favour of better paying guests from abroad.
The decline of the non-monetary economy and the consequent destruction of social capital
The wealth of the British nation has increased immeasurably since my childhood. Car ownership was a rarity in my childhood, while today the majority of families own at least one car. In the street in which I live the majority of households own two cars, yet I would argue that my neighbour’s are in some ways much poorer than their predecessors. When I first moved into the street all the houses were owner occupied now whenever a house comes up for a it is likely to be bought by a landlord and the new residents are families on short term tenancies. These new residents are there on insecure short term tenancies and will rob ably be moved on within a year of two. Just as the influx of money destroyed the settled rural community of my childhood, the same is now happening to my street. Neighbour’s such as C… who have lived in this street for fifty years will become an increasing rarity, in future long term residents will be those who have renewed their tenancy agreement for the second year. To paraphrase another writer, the typical British resident will have a smart phone, a car purchased on credit, but live in unsatisfactory accommodation, possibly squalid and over crowded and working in low income insecure employment. This poses the question who lives the better life my father who having just been demobbed from the army in 1945 had a income of £4.50 on which to support his family or today’s worker on the average wage of £120 with the car etc, something my father never had. What I would suggest is that my father, had all the monetary and non monetary advantages,such as security of employment, security of tenure and the knowledge that although his income was small it be sufficient to feed and clothe his family, in other words peace of mind.

To give another example, whenever we moved into a new house, the new neighbour would always call to introduce themselves and offer the new family a cup of tea, some sugar and some basic groceries to tide them over until they could stock up on food. My first pair of slippers came courtesy of a neighbour. He stood me on a piece of cardboard and traced an outline of my foot on to the cardboard which he then cut out. Then he and his wife knitted the uppers which they attached to the sole. While it is possible to over romanticise the poor but compassionate society of the late 1940s and early 1950s, it does demonstrate that there is a wealth that is not quantifiable in cash terms. A wealth that is not exchanged for cash within the market, however as its intangible and impossible to quantify it is undervalued by economists, or more usually ignored. Yet for an economist anything that is valued should be regarded as wealth, good health is valued by all yet impossible to quantify. Economists will try to put a value on it in terms of possible days lost to work through ill health, yet this does not adequately describe the value that people attach to good health. Similarly there is no money value that can be attached to friendship or all that is good in human relationship.

The Contemporary Damaged Society

There is a canary in the mine * which demonstrates the loss of humanity within contemporary society. The canary in the mine is the young people of this society, they being the amongst the most vulnerable, will be the first to show signs of harm. Statistical evidence shows that British school children are amongst the most unhappiest in the developed world. Amongst British children there are also record levels of self harm. There further evidence which is anecdotal but there seems to be record levels of ill health amongst young women that did not seem to be there when I was young. Is this because young women are more vulnerable to stress and the ills of contemporary society? Are there additional insecurities and anxieties that affect young women in particular or is it changes in the environment that causes the harm to women’s bodies? Is it a coincidence that the two of young teenage female stars promoted by Disney, Britney Spears and Miley Cyrus, now they are adult both demonstrate the symptoms one associates with mental ill health? The struggle to reconcile the ideal female role with the reality of the real lived life, the result is unhappiness and ill health. This contrasts Justin Timberlake another former child star who seems to have suffered none of the mental health problems of his female counter parts. I know that young men have a higher suicide rate than men, but is women’s greater ill health because they are better able to handle depression, and that depression is sublimated into physical illness.

The Model for a Better Society

All the glitter and glamour of contemporary is merely the pretty surface that hides a dark interior. There is not just the physical misery of increasing impoverishment of large sections of the population but also the destruction of the non-monetary economy ( social capital) that provides the essentials necessary for a happy life. There is one interesting similarity that illustrates this and that is the prevalence of high levels of family breakdown in both the families of 19th century industrial Britain and today. Contemporary commentators in the 19th century wrote despairingly about the lack of morals amongst the working class, in particular promiscuity. Family groups were constantly breaking up and remaking themselves, either through death or the stress imposed on the family group through living in the inhuman conditions of the 19th century slum. One chilling example was the wife or companion of the ordinary soldier, usually because of the early death of the male partner, these women had to resort to prostitution to survive, taking on a number male partners was necessary to obtain the means for survival. In today’s rootless society there is a similar level of family breakdown, where it is estimated that 1 in 2 marriages will end in divorce.

Politicians and economists are obsessed with growth in the physical or monetary economy, failing to note the need for similar growth in the non monetary social economy. Whenever people are unrooted and forced to move to a new area. They immediately try to recreate the community that they have lost. Neighbours become friends and new social networks develop that provide the supportive framework necessary for individuals to thrive. In a street such as the one in which I live, increasingly the houses are purchased by landlords. The increases the material wealth of the city as the money the tenants pay for their accommodation far exceeds that paid by an owner occupier for their mortgage. In consequence the value of the houses go up in the area, the city appears to be much wealthier, as its capital stock has increased greatly in value. However the social capital is much diminished. Older people develop feelings of insecurity as they know less and less about their neighbours. The threat to the street is that it becomes a street of strangers, as the new tenants will be moving on within a year when their tenancy runs out and for such people it is a waste of their social capital to make friends. All those essential but intangible services that are provided by a stable settled community disappear. In such a society such as Britain or a society of strangers, the fear of crime far exceeds that of fear in crime in societies that experience high level crime societies. In society where you don’t know your neighbour fear of the unknown soon becomes fear of the criminal.

The solution to this problem is create a society of neighbours in place of that of strangers. The means are quite simple give the new private rental tenants security of tenure, legislate to make long term tenure the rule. Today any landlord can give their tenants two months notice to leave, and its very unusual for any tenant to remain in a property for more than 12 months. If they had security of tenure they would make friends of the neighbours and the support networks so common in the past would develop again in these urban communities. What economists and politicians never understand is that there is a wealth valued by people that living in settled communities, which is plays a key part in maximising human welfare.

The ignorance of this necessary and essential wealth is demonstrated time and time again by our political leaders. Whenever the major employer collapses in an area, such as is currently happening in the steel town of Redcar. The government sends in employment agencies for whom one of the priorities is to find work for the unemployed in another more prosperous area. Our government does not understand and therefore fails to value the social capital inherent in a stable community. Instead it sees the community as a drag on industrial mobility, that stops people leaving the area for work elsewhere. Unlike the government the residents of Redcar and other towns of the industrial holocaust recognise the value of the social capital inherent in their community.

A Surfeit of reform – the mess that is the British Education System

My understanding of economics is derived from scepticism, the philosophy of Sextus Empiricus and Nietzsche when at his most lucid. The sceptic knows that nothing is true that there is no certainty in human knowledge. What ever the answer posed to a problem at the best it is but a partial answer. Sextus Empiricus was sceptical of human knowledge that he thought it best society continue in the same old tested and proven ways, as given the limitations of human knowledge any reforms proposed by the philosophers would inevitably worsen the human condition. This is illustrated by the probable apophrical story about Plato. Dion the tyrant of Syracuse invited the philosopher Plato to advise on improving Syracuse  society. His reforms proved to be totally impractical and caused nothing but discontent among the people so much so  that an angry Dion ending up selling Plato into slavery. However I would not go as far in my scepticism as Sextus as society is constantly changing and keeping things in the time honoured way is impossible. However a sceptic such as myself knows that all the grand theories of economics are untrue, they only contain at the best only partial truths.


Syracuse, Sicily

Economists have observed that if a good is in short supply its price rises so encourages producers to produce more in the expectation of increasing their income. This is an indisputable truth but the free market theorists develop this further claiming that changes in price  will cause the market to move into an equilibrium where supply equals demand. It is this last statement that as a sceptic I would contest. There is no evidence that markets ever move into a state of equilibrium, as demonstrated by the housing market where demand has exceeded supply for decades. All that can be said is that market theory which states that price is the means through which supply and demand are brought into equilibrium is unproven.

There is one good example of the Plato school of economics in action and that is the mess that is the British education system. Concern was expressed in our governing circles about the poor quality of the British schooling system in the 1980s. A model for reform was found in public choice theory which is the application of market principles to public services. The local covered market in my city in which there are competing fruit and vegetable stall holders is a good example to explain the purposes of the reform. If one stall holder in the market sells produce that is of a poor quality or too high a price, they will lose sales to their rivals. Consequently competition between stallholders ensures that only good quality produce is sold at he lowest prices. Reforming politicians decided that the system that worked so well in the market would work well if introduced into the provision of public services. All that had to be done was to convert schools into the equivalent of competing fruit and vegetable store holders. Legislation was passed to achieve this and now there are a variety of competing state schools, academies, technical colleges and free schools to name but a few.

However this new market system of education has one huge flaw. There is no central co-ordinating authority to ensure that supply of school places matches the demand for school places. The problem that arises is that it is impossible to organise all these independent competing school to provide the number of school places needed. All the government can do is to encourage or cajole these competing schools into providing the required number of school places. However each school is responsible for its own finances and is not invest in providing the facilities for extra students unless they can be sure the places will be filled. They will respond after the event when there are a surplus of children unable to get into schools, once it is obvious that there is a need for places the school will respond. However there is one other caveat it takes time to create additional school places, it will require investment in buildings and new teaching staff and the consequence is that there will always be a time lag between demand for school places and the provision of those places. Leaving school provision to a market comprising several independent competing schools only ensures that demand will never match supply, so the provision of schooling for each child takes second place to preserving the integrity of the market, though a policy of non interference.

What I would say as a sceptical economist is that what is a proven truth in one sector of the economy cannot be easily or effectively transposed into another different sector, which may effectively run better on different principles. The free market principle of herding cats is not the best principle on which to organise the provision of school places and schooling in general.

Unfortunately the belief in the beneficial effects of the free market is so deeply imbedded in the political culture of the country that even the free market reforms produce some obviously dysfunctional results they are ignored.

The Corrupted Human Spirit

What economics lacks is the space to include other human sciences such as philosophy in the scope of its subject matter.  Philosophy has the grand vision that is usually lacking in economics, which is all too often a science of the minutiae of life. One concept outside the understanding of economists is Hegel’s zeitgeist or the spirit of the age. What Hegel means by this is that there is one overall idea that animates a period of human history. It is an idea which expresses the characteristics of an age, such as the ‘bélle époque’ of 19th century Paris. A Paris of the freeing of human spirit, painting was freed from the old conventions demonstrated in the art of the impressionists, the vitality of popular culture was epitomised by the exuberance of the ‘Can Can’ yet this was a freeing that also allowed the darker side of the human spirit, corruption and venality to thrive. French politics of this time was characterised by a series of corruption scandals. As a believer in the zeitgeist, I wondered what was the spirit of this age? What was the spirit that informed human behaviours in our contemporary world?

Usually this is seen as the age of Neo-Liberalism ,  yet that phrase needs explaining. According to its advocates the freeing of the markets will lead to a freeing of the human spirit. Yet the art of the age does not seem to embody the freedom of the human spirit, rather it embodies the spirit of reproduction or copying. One art work that epitomises this spirit of reproduction is an art work by Damien Hirst, it was a series of dots on a white background. These dots varied only in colour but not in any other way. They seemed to have been placed in lines on the screen only the colours of the dots seemed to be chosen at random. I as a viewer could see little creativity at work, it was a machine like picture, a picture that for me could only be produced by a machine. What it lacked was the spark of human imagination. Damien Hirst work demonstrative of an age that is lacking in originality and creativity.  A lack of originality that can be seen on any new housing estate, which consists of houses which are copies of those built for generations by the builder’s predecessors. They are inferior copies of the house of the past as they are being built of inferior materials and to much smaller dimensions. Houses that were built according to a least cost formula, a least cost that necessarily implies a lack of originality. Why go for the expense course of employing an architect to create a contemporary house incorporating new materials and bold design, when it is cheaper and easier to copy an old design?

What Neo-Liberalism has given to the age is a dominant mode of thought. Policy decisions are not to be made of according to values or any grand vision but according to a cost benefit calculation. A government project such as the High Speed Rail link from London to the North is made on this basis. Do the demonstrated costs outweigh the benefits in cash terms? This leads to all sorts of strange calculations to render values such the enjoyment of living in the undisturbed countryside in cash terms. Decisions can only be made on quantifiable or cash terms, this thinking leads to a diminution of the human spirit, as decision making is reduced to a process of calculation.  Human values have been reduced to a simple cash nexus, it is a corruption of the human spirit.

It is a world in which the heroes are the bankers and speculators, those who are the masters money. There heroic status derives from the fact that they handle vast quantities of money, money a product which is the holy grail of contemporary society, in that those who are greatest possess the most of this asset.  We know a footballer is a footballing genius as much through the income he commands as for his skill on the football pitch.

There is embodied in Neo-Liberal philosophy a realism of the most naive form. What is valued is what is tangible, what can be counted and weighed, not abstraction? There is the belief that abstract universal values have no place in contemporary society. What counts is the practicality of a belief or ideology. Neo-Liberalism is the most practicable of beliefs in that only those outcomes that can be quantified, the benefits be counted, are valued. Only those practices that have a quantifiable end result matter. The result is the target culture in the public sector, where performance is measured in terms of targets achieved. The emphasis is on ‘through put’ not on quality. In hospitals the target culture has damaged good practice. What matters is that the target is met, not the quality of service. This results in some bizarre practices, because there is a time limit set for treating patients in Accident and Emergency (A&E), patients will be deliberately kept waiting in ambulances, as by so doing the patient has not yet been admitted to A& and is not counted as an in patient. This means that the time they spent waiting in the ambulance does not count when it comes to measuring how successful the A&E department has been in meeting its  performance targets.

One of the most damaging aspects of the Neo-Liberal zeitgeist is to found in our schools. What is causing great excitement is the new stem subjects, the officially defined list of subjects in which students are expected to do well? These stem subjects are little more than a sophisticated version of the 3 r’s ‘reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetatic’ that formed the curriculum of many state schools in the 19th century. Dickens’ Wackford Squeers would feel very much at home in the new academies. This change has happened because schools are now measured by output. The output that matters is in that of the skills that business wants. Businessman want employees that are competent in the 3 r’s, if they do want painters it is a painter who can paint a wall, not an artist. There is in our schools a deskilling and narrowing of the curriculum. A deskilling in all that matters is those skills that can be quantified and measured, so creativity achieves a zero score while the rote repetition of the agreed answer gets the highest score.The narrowing the curriculum is caused by the downgrading of the creative arts, that is art, music and drama get few marks in the current system, so headteachers that wish to do well, discourage their brightest students from doing anything but the stem subjects.  There cannot have been a curriculum more designed to create a dull, boring and miserable education for children than the current one.

When economists look for reasons for the poor performance of the economy, the look the reasons that do not relate to the human spirit. The reigning zeitgist is one that is unimaginative, it only values the measurable and is one of uninspiring dullness.A corruption of the human spirit, one that discourages all that is best in the human personality. Are not some of the failings of the British economy to be found in a zeitgeist that discourages innovation and creativity. If economists raised their eyes from their desks they might see that there are studies pointing them in this direction. A recent study of the booming computer software industry in East London showed that one of the reasons for its success was that it was perceived as a ‘cool’ place to work and live and as a consequence attracts some of the best computer software engineers in Europe. Rather than worrying about how to make workers more productive, perhaps economists should look more to creating a zeitgeist that encouraged creativity and innovation. A zeitgeist that would drag the society out of its current doldrums.

Stepford Teachers, Doctors, Social Workers the cloning of work

There is a film called ‘Stepford Wives’, which gave me the inspiration for this essay. In that film all the wives in the Connecticut town of Stepford are replaced by replicant androids, who unlike the former wives are submissive and docile homemakers. These androids only have one desire and that is to please their husbands. The men in this town have created a race of women who fulfil a particular kind of male fantasy. In the England a similar process is being adopted in the teaching profession, whereby the Department of Education is trying to create android like teachers who behave in identical ways and who are responsive to the ever changing demands of the Education Minister. In the film the intent of the dominant men is to erase any trace of feminism and independent thinking in their wives. Education ministers wish to eradicate child centred education from schools and any independence of thought or action from the teaching profession. What they wish to do is to create their own ‘Stepford Teachers’.


Successive Education ministers have identified a series of qualities that they believe that make the ideal teacher. They have implemented training programmes to create teachers who possess those qualities. These new teachers have a limited range of teaching skills, which are those of the ministers imaginings. This imagining is informed by what are misremembered school days and are usually a range of rather mundane skills. Those skills must be quantifiable and measurable, otherwise how can these education ministers measure the success of their programme. Uwhat ever the skills they exclude those that are innovative and creative, as they are extremely difficult to measure.

Anybody with any experience of the classroom knows that the relationship between the learners and teacher is an extremely complex one that is not reducible to a simple range of skills. There is a degree of individuality to each distinct teaching session, in each the combination of circumstances that apply differ, even if it is the same teacher and class. Yet the education ministers believe that all teaching sessions can be reduced to a simple level of sameness which can be repeated over and over again, not only ‘Stepford Teachers’ but ‘Stepford students’. Sameness means dullness which will eventually produce a negative reaction in the students, as evidenced by one recent survey that found English students were some of the worst behaved in Europe.

There is one problem with creating a generation of ‘Stepford teachers’, they tend to be frozen in the time of their creation. They will as a profession be unresponsive to change, any change in the curriculum or teaching methods must be sanctioned from the top, only if the minister first can be persuaded of the need for change, will there be change. A story from the First World War illustrates the problem. A German plane dropped a bomb on some store house which immediately caught fire. The Australian troops rushed to the scene of the fire to put it out, unlike the British troops who assembled in parade ground formation waiting for instructions from the sergeant about what do about putting out the fire. Innovation and creativity will be lost from the English education system, a system which will have a tendency to repeat yesterday’s lessons rather than innovate.

Robert Merton’s manifest and latent functions can contribute the understanding the role ‘Stepford Teachers’ in the education system. The manifest or apparent function of The reforms are to improve state education, while the latent or real function of those reforms is increase the ministers control over the education system. Michael Gove is the latest in a sequence of education ministers who have behaved like latter day Ozymandias. What Shelley wrote about Ozymandias could be repeated about a succession of increasingly arrogant education ministers. On the plinth of the wrecked and disregarded statue of a once mighty Pharaoh are the words ‘King of Kings: Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’ The education ministers certainly try to impress themselves on the profession and country through a series of grandiose reforms.

Education ministers in their attempt to impose their wishes on a recalcitrant profession seem to have borrowed from the rulebook on governance used by Stalin. He understood that a combination of constant purges and revolution created an atmosphere of uncertainty which enabled him maintain control of the Soviet Union. Our education ministers purge schools of their staff and governing bodies by declaring them ‘failing schools’ . They then transfer power and control of these schools to their own favoured education providers who get rid of the old staff and replace them with new teachers. By constantly rewriting the rules by which schools are judged head teachers and staff can never be sure that their school will not be downgraded at the next inspection with dire consequences for them. Through exploiting such techniques which create uncertainty and fear the education ministers can ensure compliance with their dictates.

I am convinced that if one education minister decided the most effective teaching was done by teachers standing on their heads in front of the class not voice would be raised against such a proposal. Not only that but all teachers would be standing on their heads by the end of the week following the pronouncement.

What puzzles me is that these ministers are intelligent people who are usually parents themselves. In bringing up their own children they are too well aware of the difficulties of doing that successfully. One of the staples of discussion between any group parents is the disasters they experience in guiding their own children through the crises of childhood. These ministers must surely be the same as other parents. Yet these same people believe that despite their own limitations in educating their own children they are able to dictate to teachers how they should educate other people’s children. In the past ministers recognising their own fallibility would consult with educational experts and professionals before initiating changes in education. Now ministers believe that their own instincts and intuitions are a sufficient guide. Can there be a better demonstration of cognitive dissonance?

There is nothing unique to the changes that have occurred in the English education system, similar changes can be noted in all areas of the over managed English society. Usually the Neo-Liberal ideology is given as the cause of this unimaginative approach to organising society. Can I cite a different source the sense of self loathing and doubt that permeates the governing classes. This group in England is infected by a collective sense of failure. Their grandfathers were masters of the universe controlling the world’s largest land empire, their father’s fought a Great War then created the NHS and a new fairer England, whereas all the present governing class can do is manage England’s decline. Even the two last wars they participated in ended in defeat. All they can do is assuage their collective sense of failure in displays of conspicuous consumption. A group that is consumed with self loathing has a dismal view of humanity and cannot conceive of any positive or benign way of organising society, instead with such a gloomy world view all they can conceive of are authoritarian management systems that minimise the scope of individual deviancy. For them relying upon staff to be motivated by the public service ethos and to be allowed a degree of independence in deciding how best to provide that service is the height of folly. They know that the ‘stick’ is the best way to motivate them. This is why all our public services are increasing run on authoritarian lines.

This is why I fear for my future grandchildren’ education. All the reforms have the potential to make Dicken’s Dotheboys Hall seem to a chidren’s paradise with compared to the new schools peopled by ‘Stepford’ Teachers.