Education and Examinations – back to Plato

In the UK, a leaked document from the Department for Education proposes that we go back to the 1950’s and separate kids at 15 or 16 into two sections of society: those who can and those who can’t. I guess this may be better than the separation at 11 that took place then (the UK’s “11 plus” exams) but not much. Hearkening back to a “bygone age” of seeming perfection is often the norm for conservatives – there to preserve rather than illuminate – but, the mistake is that we have lost the meaning of education.

Education as a Feeder system for the Economy

To educate is to develop the faculties and powers (of a person) by teaching, instruction, or schooling.

Going back to definitions may be important. If the crucial objectives of education are to develop “faculties” and “powers” – which parents are doing from the time a baby is born – why has the education system decided not to do this? Why is it that the education system devised in the mid-20th Century has, through national curricula, worked to establish something different?

In all the discussions and discourse on education that reaches most of us through TV and newspapers, the focus of education is not about maximising the powers and faculties, but about developing certain skills in order to make pupils employable. How this has come about is debatable but is likely to be as a result of economics and the view of governments that it has to feed the economic system.

Now, this is not completely unreasonable and it is not as though citizens want everyone to be a Plato, a Socrates or even an A C Grayling. Economics applied to most citizens means that we want to develop ourselves sufficiently to have a decent job. University degrees in subjects that are not job-focused are decried because they dare to deviate from the GDP-focus that dominates all our lives.

We are continuously subjected to the competition between the newly developing nations and their own devotion to exams and economic prosperity as the new mantra. “Communist” China is now held up as the beacon – we are, in effect, at war with the soldiers now the pupils in our schools and universities who are in competition with their counterparts in China. It is not just league tables to compare your local schools; we are now homogenized into comparisons on a world basis against the maths and science students of China and Singapore and Thailand.

Across the world, education has made Huxley’s dystopian Brave New World a closer reality.  We now have schools / academies split into alpha, beta and epsilon (through the division of private sector, and maintained sector split by geography / location). We have exacerbated the problem (if we agree it is one) by the almost complete drive to make our children the feeder for gross domestic product (GDP) growth. This is leading (in the UK) to Michael Gove’s attempt to split our kids into two sectors – those who can and those who can’t – by type of exam taken at 15 or 16. But, citizens are not being given the exam question that he is attempting to answer in this way.

What is the question?????

Gove wants a division of society into those who can pass exams at 16 and those who cannot. Why? Because there is a view that young people need to be divided at some age into those who can be management and leaders within the private and public sector and those who will be providers of services to them and the organisations that they manage and lead.

The 19th and 20th Century devised organisations, which have led to societies, which are now run by government and private sector priorities. Government is supposed to be (in a democracy) at the will of the people but is now a mix of career civil servants and career politicians (especially the case in Europe but true in most developed societies).

The private sector (which has been the source of so much wealth creation and so much that is good) has through competition developed an amazing monopoly over our lives. Economics never envisaged a duopoly of forces that would dominate in this way. The accommodation of the private sector by government and vice versa is how our societies are now run and education is seen more and more as the provider into these monolithic power centres.

So, the question we should be asking of our education system is whether we wish to have our kids taught in order to supply the system in this way and in addition to suffer the effects of the Brave New World of demarcation into alpha, beta and epsilon schools AND even more between top tier pupils and service providers  OR whether we wish real education to take place? Huxley’s dystopian vision (or Plato’s world view that we should divide children at an early age to educate those who will rule early and divide the rest) was based on a top-down philosophy that is outdated and pretty totalitarian. In any emergent society (and human occupy the same emergent plateau as any other living creature), we should ensure that the best opportunities are provided wherever possible and at any age. This is possible in a developed society and where our gross domestic product should be directed.

If education is really to develop the faculties and powers of an individual through teaching, we should continuously ask what these faculties and powers should be and then whether we are providing them (and, if not, how we should be).

Faculties and Powers in the 21st Century

We have reached the stage in our economic development (we probably did many years ago – as Galbraith’s “The Affluent Society” so well testified) when rapid and continuous economic growth as measured by current measurement systems is no longer rational. We are wasteful of resources and wasteful of our freedoms in the pursuit of more goods. The challenge to society is how it remodels itself in the light of diminishing economic utilities and diminishing returns for this wealth as well as the potential calamities that divisive wealth distributions (between the top 1% and the rest) are creating.

Jobs are central to economic well being and naturally feature in our minds as one of the most important priorities in our lives. They aren’t the only ones, though.

Equipping our children for the difficulties that the 21st Century society has on offer as well as for the opportunities that it provides is the most important requirement for education.

I have been involved with Education and the system for over 20 years as a pro-bono School / academy Governor and as a Chair of Governors for the last eight of those years. I have seen successive governments in the UK pass the buck on education as different theories are tried and children used for experiments. What Michael Gove is now stating is that all the changes made over the last fifty years have not allowed us to progress and that we should go back to where we were.

The trouble is that the assessment is mistaken. There is little in the proposal about exams and divisions at 16 that would provide any confidence that our children will be better educated as a result. The imperative is to equip them with the faculties and powers to make decisions, be real and pro-active members of society and to make real contributions. Some of that is about the ability to work. We are leading much longer lives, though, and young people will go through a variety of careers and need to use many of their skills (inherited and learnt) as a result. There is little chance of having one job for life any more – change is too fast and we need to change to keep up.

Where is this faculty being learned if we are determined to divide up our kids at such an early age and send them off into the world without the faculties and powers that will best equip them for that world?

Employers bemoan the low level of maths and English taught in many schools and this needs to be improved; we have too few scientists and that needs to be changed. However, employers look to the short term and to their current needs. Economics is very poor at forecasting (as the banking disasters of 2008 to now show so clearly). Therefore, friends in Government must not only listen to employers groups and change our education philosophy as a result to their advantage only.

Education must be centred on providing the faculties and powers to enable young people to make the most of themselves in society – not just to gain immediate employment when 18 (the age when young people will soon be obliged to stay at school in the UK).

Civil Society as the Bridge Between Private and Public Sector Monoliths

Most of us work in the private or public sector. I don’t these days – I have worked in the so-called Third Sector for the last five years – for NGO’s and charities. But, the Third Sector is not just about charities and NGO’s. As a School / Academy Governor, I play a civil society role in a public sector school / academy. I don’t see myself as being in the public sector.

We all live in society – some of that in work and much outside. A good education is the crucial foundation for anyone to enable them to take best advantage of what life has to offer. Getting a good first job is important but not everything. Each individual’s contribution to society (whether local, regional, national or international) is important and a good education which stretches an individual’s faculties and powers at an age when our brains are most able to grow, develop and take on new ideas is essential. This is the fundamental notion that the best societies don’t work on a top-down basis (the essence of totalitarianism – a Brave New World) but provide the opportunities to those who can best use those them – and at whatever age.

Education is core to our well-being. We should have learned much since Plato opened the first Academy in 387BC in Athens. The essence of education has to be that it is a central provision of society and that it has to be there for all to take full advantage. Arbitrary divisions at any age from the top-down perpetuate societal divisions and hinder society’s ability to grow – its emergent properties are stymied by the imposition of extra rigidities.

Further, the division of our schools by location would drive us backwards not forwards as many schools in economically poorer areas will continue to be second-tier (compared to the better maintained sector schools and remote, third tier compared to the private sector) and will never have a chance to recover that position. Plato’s division of society (or Huxley’s) will be set.

Those of us who can stand aside from public or private sector top-down views of society don’t need to accept this position. Our children should retain access to the best throughout their lives. A two-tier exam system on top of a three-tier education system is out of date and condemns too many, too early.

Under-valuing Civil Society – Wherever the Market and Government don’t work

What, in the 21st Century, is it the role of charity?  Where does civil society (the real society) fit in a world dominated by the market and the state?

Recently I became Chief Executive of Willow Foundation (www.willowfoundation.org.uk) – a Charity in the UK that works to help 16-40 year-olds who are suffering from life threatening illnesses. We do this by providing psychological and emotional benefits through the provision of “Special Days” – something exceptional that we organize and make work  for them and their close ones. Our research shows that this is important for all – whether in curative or palliative phases of their illness.

So, my question above is heartfelt as well as intellectual.

Well, the simple and well-known answer is that where the marketplace has no response to society’s need and today’s government (focused on financing an NHS as the biggest employer and where they are just getting round to looking after elderly patients with care) is not entrusted (or does not feel entrusted) with this task, then charities and civil society intervene. That response encompasses both interventions such as Willow employs all the way to campaigners for new rights (here and overseas).

Charities?

In 2010, Sir Stephen Bubb, CEO of ACEVO in his paper titled: “Rediscovering Charity: Defining our role within the State” focused on the role of charities from their origins to the present day through their varying links to Government.  Whether funded by government (the state) or philanthropists, the link with the state was crucial from early times when the state was there just to extract taxes and fight wars to now (when it seems to be much of the same!) where the state sets the minimum standards of involvement.

The state also sets the laws under which charities operate (partly to defend its citizens from rogue elements) and pays a considerable amount of its taxation to charities. My recent blog on this: Do we value the Charity Sector? (https://jeffkaye.wordpress.com/2012/04/01/do-we-value-the-charitable-sector/)

was a statement of concern that the state completely fails to lay out the economic benefits and costs of the sector.

But, it is not only in regard to the state (or government) that charities must be seen. Charities exist in the 21st Century in the USA, UK and other, wealthier countries because neither government nor the “market” meets all our needs – even if they are better met than five hundred years ago. The “Third Sector” exists where the main economic system actors fail and where the need is financeable and / or manageable by volunteers and / or better managed by this sector.

Charities (or civil society organisations) range very widely. With newer forms of company (like social enterprises, community interest companies), the blurring is intensified, but the relationship of many forms of non-government, non-traditional market organisations are continuously reforming and developing.

Also changing is the gap that is to be filled as a result of government and / or the marketplace “failure”.

Maslow described in 1934 our “hierarchy of needs” which changes as we become wealthier. From charities operating to provide food and shelter (critical in much of Africa now and the UK in the 19th Century and before), as economies grow, the gaps become different. As income grows, the market may wake up to provide the need; government raises taxation and develops new ways to disburse that income where voters shout for that need to be filled.

Charities and the economy

In 2010, Charities had an income of £36.7 billion – about the same size as Aviva’s revenue – the UK’s biggest insurance company. The UK economy’s GDP in 2011 was around £1.5 trillion – so, the Charity sector is about 2.5% of the UK’s GDP as measured in simple economic terms (comparing income to GDP).

Financially, the raw economic facts do not speak for themselves. Economic statistics are based on what is measured and it is assumed that £1 is £1 is £1. Measurement in our economy is flawed – real value is mistaken, of course, when our decisions are made almost entirely on the basis of cost data.

The impact of the charity sector, then, is much greater than the raw data. This is reflected in the media and elsewhere but because the third sector is not so easily measureable – charities don’t have financial bottom lines – it is too easy to ignore it or treat it like a small child to be patted on the head when it does well and scolded if it doesn’t.

How important is the Third sector / civil society?

If it is not practical to value civil society or that piece of society that is not government or the market (although it interfaces with both), then how can the real value of this sector be valued? If we are now working to value our natural resources, the value of the charity sector (or whatever we call it) has to be made so that decisions are not taken purely on the basis of costs.

The stupid action of the Treasury in proposing to set an upper limit of £50,000 or 25% of income for tax deductions on charitable donations is so crass as to be almost unbelievable! It is the sign (if we needed it) that valuation is not the issue. Apart from the fact that the Treasury cannot even provide decent examples of the complex schemes that they are trying to hit (sledge hammers cracking nuts), it completely under-values the Charity giving sector and the value that is created from these donations.

This is happening throughout our austerity-driven society. In the same way that pollution effects of manufacturing in the 19th and 20th Centuries (from pesticides to greenhouse gasses) were not properly valued (and are still not properly), so charity is completely undervalued by those responsible for taking decisions that have enormous and adverse impacts.

The value created by a volunteer does not show up in statistics. The value created by pro-bono help from companies and lawyers and school governors and countless others is not shown. The reduced cost of staff in the sector compared to other sectors (notwithstanding the argument about managerialism which is another important subject) is shown as much lower and demands far lower “income” to fund it. Discounts from companies, gifts in kind – all appear to reduce the economic benefit of the sector because they show up as lower costs. But, they provide huge value, which is seriously under-reported. The Big Society is much bigger than the raw data shows.

Yet, decisions are still made based on 19th Century statistics and 19th Century economics.

If we value society as a mix between the market, government and the third sector – with individuals as the customers of all three – then we have to be much smarter and less lazy in understanding what real value comes to mean and much less lazy in using out of date models to make decisions.

The Charity (or third) sector / civil society has a huge and under-estimated impact on society – far greater than the 2.5% of GDP or its equivalent to other sectors of society – which (apart from various externalities) are better approximated by GDP statistics. It is not just the market and the state which makes up society – although we are brainwashed to believe it it.

In the past, before we became beholden to numbers as the only arbiter in society, charity was understood for the huge part it played. As we have become wealthier, rightly government and the market have taken positions, which in the past were covered by charities. Charities and civil society in its widest sense have moved into new areas as the demand became clear. Now, we need to understand the impact of the sector in macroeconomic terms (across the huge range of “charitable activities”) – not just its GDP – in order to properly make decisions.

Osborne’s recent numbskullery with the £50,000 limit has not done much to Cameron’s happiness index nor his leader’s desire to establish the Big Society, has it?