Friday, 28 January 2011

Chris Port Blog #62. Is education a commodity?

(I put this question to Ed Miliband, Labour Leader of HM Loyal Opposition, in the National Union of Students Facebook Debate on tuition fees on 9 December 2010)

Background to question (posted during debate)

Until recently, I was a teacher. Teachers are not paid to motivate because, unfortunately, that is impossible. They are paid to tick boxes and take blame, and they are quite demotivated themselves. True motivation would require respect for their judgments, quality time and professional autonomy, which they don’t have. Please understand that, in our current education ‘system’, for all the deluded brochure-jargon, your children are just data fodder. 

It is no secret that our education ‘system’ has failed. Teachers aren’t allowed to say that out loud, of course. If they do, they get bullied out quietly. Nobody wants to know. Too many management jobs depend on a lie. So much for whistle-blowing and ‘accountability’. All those billions of pounds of taxpayers' money under Labour were wasted on cynical tick boxes. 

But the seeds of destruction were planted long ago, in 1976, when James Callaghan made his ‘Ruskin Speech’. He proclaimed that ‘the educational system was out of touch with the fundamental need of Britain to survive economically in a highly competitive world through the efficiency of its industry and commerce’. This is when a reductionist pragmatism crept into the British educational system with the ‘competitive energies of a market-economy ruthlessly transposed to the nursery, the school, the college and the university’ (Peter Abbs, p.44, The Educational Imperative, 1994). 

Margaret Thatcher’s fanatical obsession with the free market led to disastrously misappropriated ‘league tables’ under the Education Reform Act 1988. The promotion of performance target management to deliver competitive ‘production figures’ simply led to schools shopping around for ‘dumbed down’ exams, grade inflation, and telling the students what to write in their coursework. 

The institutional mass hysteria created by a punitive OFSTED regime led to management paranoia and bullying of the workforce. Teachers have been crushed under the paperwork of jargon-rich, funding-poor government initiatives designed to dump social problems in schools. New Labour’s obsession to improve public services with totalitarian ‘systems’ and Stakhanovite ‘targets’ first undermined and then utterly destroyed teaching as a profession. Now, the Coalition is going to price students out of the market to finish the job. 

Unless and until our paradigm (way of looking at things) changes, all government-led reforms of our education ‘system’ are doomed to failure (at prodigious expense to the taxpayer) because they are nothing to do with education and everything to do with systems. For various (cynical political) reasons, the profession of teaching has actually been de-professionalized and systematized instead. It’s what Donald Schön termed ‘The Crisis of Professional Knowledge and the Pursuit of an Epistemology of Practice’. A more humorous and dramatic interpretation of some of Schön's arguments is outlined in 'Targets'. 

Teachers should be regarded as professional experts undertaking a noble vocation on a par with medicine. Instead they are treated as a fast food franchise being hustled to make sales targets so that store managers can grab their performance-related bonuses. The streets are littered with discarded wrappers. They are called children.
Ed Miliband’s response

Chris - Of course education matters because it helps people get on when they leave school or graduate from university. But it is about more than economics - education is a right and offers the opportunity to value learning for its own sake.

My response

Ed. Thank you for your reply. It was, however, a cautious one. As a politician, in an uncertain world, you are probably wise to advocate the best of both worlds. However, I would argue that this has been the cause of the problem. We have fallen between two stools: the academic and the vocational.

There is, of course, no real argument (in the intellectual sense) between viewing education as preparation for work and as preparation for life. Obviously it is both. However, in the battle (and it is a battle) for staff, time and resources, it tends to be one thing or the other. This ‘battle’ is futile, nonsensical and counter-productive. It is a needless conflict which has arisen (I would argue) through the promotion of a performance management target culture of measurable ‘productivity’.

This performance management culture has been disastrously misappropriated from the incompatible mindset of business. Business deals in profit. Education deals in people. Business abandons unprofitable clients. Education cages them and throws taxpayers’ money at them, via meaningless tick boxes, to no avail. Hence my question of whether education is a commodity (which you avoided answering with a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’ since either answer opens up a can of worms). Until we decide what the purposes of education actually are, then questions of how it should be funded (and who should fund it) are poorly framed.

If education is about giving people work skills that are going to make them money in the future, then there is a valid argument in requiring them to pay for that training via graduate loans (so long as it is a business-related qualification). However, under current and foreseeable economic circumstances, there isn’t much of a workplace to look forward to. Higher Education no longer seems to unlock the gateway to social mobility, so why get into debt with no prospect of work?

Also, since the Arts and the Humanities are mostly considered to be of aesthetic value to society rather than of monetary value to the individual, these should be funded by the taxpayer. If the electorate no longer wish to subsidize aesthetics, or the Treasury can no longer afford them, then we should at least be honest that our education policies have, in one generation, destroyed our birthright and heritage. We used to be one of the most cultured nations in history. So much for the Tories being the party of traditional values...

If education is about socializing people to become well-adjusted and versatile with transferable learning skills, then society (i.e. the taxpayer) should pick up the tab since it is to society’s benefit. Business (which benefits from having a socialized and versatile labour force to hand) should also contribute its fair share through a ring-fenced proportion of its taxation and tax breaks for philanthropists and patrons. This is not the same as allowing business to set the curriculum, any more than we should allow social services to.

Returning to our faltering stool-straddle, it is no longer a precarious balancing act or a snap jump if we just move them closer together. The opposition of the academic and the vocational is a false and artificial dichotomy caused by moving these stools in different directions. Unfortunately, this widening gap has come about as a direct and avoidable consequence of the education policies of all governments from the 1980s onwards.

The introduction of market place methodologies and terminologies as the lingua franca of our education system has devalued academic currency. The freedom of thought necessary to develop transferable critical thinking skills for the business trailblazers of tomorrow (which you describe as ‘learning for its own sake’ – perhaps 'versatile deferred applicability' might be a better biznobabble term!) has been over-ruled by the smaller pragmatic considerations of the educational market place under the reductionist philosophy of Catoism.

Let me reiterate again, the obsession with neo-positivist data and league tables has been a disaster. Grammar schools and top universities have become increasingly distrustful of the quality and validity of standardized test results, spoon feeding and grade inflation. Meanwhile, the so-called ‘failing’ schools have only ‘failed’ because they have been held to unrealistically high ‘productivity targets’ while trying to cope with the ‘rights’ of students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Under these circumstances, to claim that education is a ‘right’ is as hollow as claiming that dignity, self-respect and meaningful work are a right. They should be but, in a free market economy, they are not. Why should education be any different? It is just the antechamber to the world of adulthood. If that world is a shambles and a sham, it is no surprise that our education system has followed suit. If schools are businesses, they will do whatever is necessary to survive in the economic system imposed upon them.

Put simply, schools need highly qualified teachers, smaller class sizes, decent classrooms, less data and more time. What they are going to get is cheap ‘learn-as-you-go’ burn-outs trying to crowd-control increasingly alienated and demotivated students crammed into decaying buildings, while management fund-chase, figure-juggle, and try to preempt litigation with ever more procedures and paperwork.

The enforcement of rights without responsibilities and resources deprives other people of their rights. Teachers do not have the time to deal with the problems of society. It is difficult enough to teach society about its problems, let alone solve them.

If education is a commodity (a market currency) then places of education are, in essence, the apprenticeships of business and should be funded by trade guilds. If this is so, then education is not a ‘right’ in any meaningful sense. I have the ‘right’ to apply for a job in a fast food franchise, but going to my local ‘McUni’ it is hardly the stuff of universal declarations of human rights.

If education is the more idealistic encouragement of individual excellence in whatever skills and interests a student shows, this would require a complete overhaul of the current system in order to allow for true ‘differentiation’. Tragically, this was the wasted opportunity of the last decade. I now suspect that neither the political will, nor the money, are available to do this.

We are now lumbered with the worst of both worlds for another half decade. During this time, I would ask you to consult widely and deeply with people who have witnessed, at first hand, the failure of so many good intentions by woolly thinking and bad management. If nothing else, education should at least encourage people to think. Unfortunately, in my experience, it has taught many people to do the opposite. Again, this is a false dichotomy that should never have been allowed to happen. It must never happen again.


  1. Facebook comment

    I'd like to see a 'locked room' solution. Hold a conference. Invite all the power brokers (e.g. education ministers from all the political parties, education experts from all shades of opinion, the Treasury, representatives from the CBI and the teaching unions, Ofsted (*spit*), Ofqual, Social Services, etc, etc.).

    Lock them in. Send in the sandwiches. Don't let them out until they have agreed a WORKABLE CONSENSUS which answers the following questions:

    1) What is the ORDER OF PRIORITIES for our education system?

    2) What is the BEST OVERALL SYSTEM for delivering these priorities?

    3) What is the BEST FUNDING MODEL to sustain this system?

    4) What is the BEST EVALUATION METHOD to ensure that the system is fit for purpose?

    5) What is the BEST ORGANIZATION to oversee this method?

    I'm sure they could squabble forever. And many would be reluctant to vote against their narrow partisan interests. But that's politics. It's been done before after wars and revolutions. Why not after the collapse of our education system? If it was chaired by a ruthlessly pragmatic intellect, all the fools and rogues would be exposed for what they are and deservedly marginalized. And all the political parties could eventually sign up to a WORKABLE CONSENSUS.

    Or we can just keep rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic (my most over-used metaphor, but it's apt).

  2. Education Rethink: Fourteen False Dichotomies in Education
    John Spencer, October 9 2012


    Sam Harris (world famous neuroscientist philosopher) is offering his critics a chance to put up or shut up. He's offered a cash prize of $20,000 (about £12,800) to anyone who can convincingly refute his central argument for a scientific morality.

    Assuming no-one can refute him, there's a consolation prize of $2,000 (about £1,280) for the most interesting response.

    See FAQs in link for further details. Closing date for entries is 9 February 2014, so you've got time to buy his book and boost his royalties.


    Hmmm… Traditionally, science has been regarded as descriptive and morality as prescriptive. But science is also predictive. So, in Sam’s moral landscape, do good* predictions = good** prescriptions?

    * Falsifiable
    ** Beneficial

    Possibly. But if they’re truly equivalent, does it work vice versa? This leads out onto some very thin ice…

    The real question is always “Cui bono” (to whose benefit?). So I suspect that Sam’s thesis could only be refuted by reference to de facto cynicism rather than de jure principle (i.e. selectivity and performativity)


    I don’t actually want to refute Sam’s thesis (fortunately for me). I just want to qualify it (modesty is my only flaw). But, in order to qualify it, I’ll have to fail to refute it in a way that grabs his interest. So, all I’m really looking for is a fascinating aesthetic conundrum at the heart of his argument…

    See also:

    Can Science Answer Moral Questions?

    First Draft PhD Proposal

    Woolwich Threads

    A Crash Course in Aesthetics

    Metamodernist Case Notes on a Think Tank Thread: Why Us and Why Now?

    Notes on Metamodernism: The Pit and the Pendulum...

    The Name of the Ghost

    Teachers Talking Rot (1 of 2)

    Teachers Talking Rot (2 of 2)

    See also: "Perhaps description is the key?"

    Marty Solves One of the Problems of the Universe

  4. WG: If morality evolved for the purpose of fostering community, can we deduce anything about what is moral/immoral without committing the naturalistic fallacy? If so, what?

    Naturalistic fallacy

    CP: Assuming evolution (and discounting intelligent design) we would be committing a teleological fallacy if we claimed that morality evolved for any purpose.

    See Teleological Argument

    It would be less erroneous if we simply claimed that community evolved as a successful survival strategy. From this we can deduce that morality evolved from a natural hierarchical pecking order into etiquette.

    See Etiquette

    The problem of the 'Naturalistic Fallacy' arises because of a manmade distinction between natural and manmade.

    This distinction seems to be an inverted form of the anthropomorphic/pathetic fallacy.

    See Pathetic Fallacy

    Man (i.e. homo sapiens) evolved IN the natural world. However, our intelligence evolved as another successful survival strategy. Eventually, this sapient differential resulted in misrecognition. We began to see ourselves as SEPARATE from the natural world.

    However, this separation is a fallacy. In (physical) reality, sentience is an emergent phenomenon. The artificial is still part of the natural world.

    From our initial premises, we can deduce that morality (i.e. evolved etiquette) can only exist in higher level consciousness. Therefore, we can deduce that morality is a complex emergent property.

    After that, we can only deduce that we are playing Wittgensteinian language games.

    See Language-game (philosophy)

    In 'The Moral Landscape', Sam Harris proposes we should discard cultural relativism and quantify these language games in terms of 'the well-being of conscious creatures'. It's a logical deduction and a valid premise.

    See 'The Moral Landscape'

    Whether his arguments are sound is still up for grabs though.


    CP: If morality is ‘the well-being of conscious creatures’, then consciousness must precede well-being.

    This is a one-way logic gate. We can talk of consciousness without well-being, but it makes no sense to talk of well-being without consciousness.

    Ergo, existence must precede essence (sans Sartrean Free Will).

    Ergo, survival must precede morality.

    But survival of what? Individuals, communities, genes, or memes?

    These qualities are entangled and interdependent. But which is most important?

    Ironically, we cannot be equitable from first principle here. Unfortunately, we do not live in a deathless paradise. Therefore, in the physical universe, we can only talk of survival and morality in terms of priorities (e.g. dilemmas or conflicts of interest).

    The scientific method can quantify well-being. But can it qualify existential priorities? If not, then a scientific morality without aesthetic qualification has no system of prioritization.

    Ergo, does ‘scientific morality’ encounter similar inconsistencies to those identified in Gödel's Incompleteness Theorems?

    Raatikainen, Panu, "Gödel's Incompleteness Theorems", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)