Education and Equal Concern


I was at two contrasting events this week that provided strong connections.

The first was the Annual Prize Giving at Ashmole Academy, where I am Chair of Governors / Directors. Our guest of honour was Professor A C (Anthony) Grayling – one of this country’s best-known philosophers and writer on ethics through books such as “Liberty in the Age of Terror”. He has also recently opened the New College of the Humanities (NCH) in London – a new private university.

The second was the inaugural meeting of the Board of Directors of Future Brilliance Limited – a not-for-profit set up by Sophia Swire, a courageous and hugely talented woman who has spent much of her life working to improve the lives of Afghans. Future Brilliance – Afghanistan has already begun work to provide business skills training and business opportunities to young Afghans and has a focus on especially improving access to woman for education and business in Afghanistan.

Education

I introduced Anthony Grayling to parents and students and quoted from his book mentioned above – a quote he himself had taken from Ronald Dworkin’s “Sovereign Virtue”:  “Equality must be understood in terms of the equal concern for its citizens that any legitimate government must show  – equal concern is the sovereign virtue of political community: without it government is only tyranny” and equality of resources or opportunities, giving everyone a fair start in making something of their lives.”

The concept of “equal concern” for all is not about providing everyone with the same standard of living but a desire to provide everyone with the same opportunities. It is up to the individual how they exploit those opportunities.

Anthony Grayling gave an excellent talk to our students. He described how we only have around 1,000 months to live and 2/3rds are spent sleeping and shopping or similar. That leaves just 1/3rd of our lives to do something meaningful. He believes that we should use our time in education to broaden our knowledge, ask questions, to develop the enquiring mind.

This was brought home by Sir James Dyson’s comments about education – where he decried the reading of French lesbian poetry as his example of a liberal, humanities-based education rather than one focused on science and engineering. Michael Gove defended the former. Anthony Grayling provided a very good set of reasons for ensuring that the humanities gain equal concern.

At Ashmole Academy, we have developed the ability to help students pass the exams they need and at the right level to gain acceptance to Russell Group Universities (and a large percentage do this in science and maths) but also produce individuals ready and equipped to face the world. Ashmole is non-selective and provides equal concern for all students – providing that equality of opportunities that gives everyone a fair start in making something of their lives. If only that was true of the whole education system in this country – where there is a major disparity between independent (alpha schools) and maintained sectors (although we believe Ashmole now challenges that assertion) and between good maintained schools (beta) and those who struggle (epsilon) for any number of reasons – see https://jeffkaye.wordpress.com/2012/05/13/the-fight-over-education/  We do not have equal concern yet borne out by the equality of opportunity.

Equality of Opportunity

However, in the UK we are blessed when compared to the range of destructive problems that exist in countries like Afghanistan. The problems are well known but the solutions are tough to consider let alone implement. In 2014, US and UK troops are expected to leave and it is there will be a major exodus of the brightest and best as the Taliban threat grows.

Sophia Swire has been working in Afghanistan for some time to improve the lives of those working to make the most of their lives. I met her at Global Witness – an anti-corruption NGO – when she was working with the World Bank. The Future Brilliance task is to develop young Afghans to benefit from the huge potential that their natural resources offer them by building their skills and business base within a code of ethics and good governance.  The US and UK are now working to provide financing in the next two years to help this process before they pullout – to work to get traction amongst the people who have been traumatised by the Taliban and by war and, to an extent, by aid programmes.

What is clear is that the country is also beset by corruption and a weariness that people struggle to shake off. This weariness is because the various governing classes, whether politicians, tribal chiefs or Taliban, have a view of leadership that we find out of date. There is no equality of concern. Concern is primarily for those already in leadership positions and a country that develops this manner of leadership will not break out from its current trauma.

Beyond this, of course, Afghanistan has a view of women (in general) that we see as 16th Century. Religion-blamed customs keep women from education and business in most cases. Like Malala, the young girl shot by terrorists in Pakistan, young women struggle to be allowed any freedoms – whether for the right to be educated or to enter into business. Again, customs deny equal concern for its citizens.

As A C Grayling highlighted in his book “Liberty in the age of Terror”, in the West, we have fought hard for centuries to secure basic human freedoms such as those enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In this country, we have witnessed the strain that terrorism has wrought as freedoms have been whittled away for the cause of security. But, human rights have to be based on equal concern for all. In a world that is now so interlinked, it is impossible to close our eyes at the problems in other countries. To a large extent, their problems are ours. Terrorism affects us in the UK in heavier security that reduces our freedoms. It is better to also work towards improvements in those countries where terrorism is bred. Acknowledgement human rights and of economic improvement are crucial not via handouts and aid (except in emergencies) but through the use of focused assistance to bolster the ability to help themselves and to relentlessly work to rid the country of corruption.

To succeed, government has to show equal concern for all its citizens – to provide the fair start – and it has to start with education (both boys and girls) and lead into business and wider, governmental responsibilities.

In the UK, education for all must be an equal concern as we struggle to get our worst schools anywhere near the level of acceptability. The same struggle (but, with horrendous consequences of failure) exists in countries like Afghanistan. “Equal concern is the sovereign virtue of political community: without it government is only tyranny.”  Whether in education at home or in the fight against terrorism abroad, the same ethical principle is true. In the global economy, it is essential that everyone has “a fair start in making something of their lives.”

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