“Farewell, fair cruelty” – The Age of anti-welfare

The “Safety Net”

Ian Duncan-Smith has introduced a new system of welfare payments in the UK that seeks to better link payments to the sick, disabled and those out of work to their ability to find work and get paid for work. His (and his government’s stance) is that since the introduction of welfare payments (brought in by the post-WWII Labour government following the Beveridge Report in 1942), the world has changed and welfare has become a “right”  that needs to be changed.

Churchill had previously voiced his view that a safety net be provided to all those in society who fell on hard times. In 2006, Greg Clark  (now Financial Secretary to the Treasury) urged the Tories not to be caught up in Churchillian rhetoric as: “The traditional Conservative vision of welfare as a safety net encompasses another outdated Tory nostrum – that poverty is absolute, not relative. Churchill’s safety net is at the bottom: holding people at subsistence level, just above the abyss of hunger and homelessness.”

Mr Duncan-Smith, according to Peter Oborn, writing in the Daily Telegraph “is animated by a profoundly Christian vision of free will, redemption, and what it means to be human in a fallen and imperfect world.” It is this vision that hearkens back to Churchill and pushes this coalition government in the direction of the 19th Century.

Individual vs. State

The balance in any modern, developed State is to balance the interests of individuals and State (and also at least think through the requirements and abilities of the third sector / civil society). While, as Oborn writes, Margaret Thatcher ignored the welfare system and the NHS by refusing to substantively alter them, and while Blair and most obviously Brown made them more a political football, Duncan-Smith has taken a view that individuals must be given the incentive to work and stand on their feet.

This fits well in a society still in a state of shock following the banking crisis of 2007/8 and where our sovereign debt position is a massive risk for our future.

It fits with Tory doctrine of the 19th Century (although not with the post-WWII consensus that MacMillan and succeeding Tories espoused).

It fits partially with the Liberals (although not necessarily the Social Democrat wing in the Liberal Democrats) in that the balance between individuals and the State should always veer toward the former – although Liberals will usually point to freedoms and open society issues rather than the “incentives” that Duncan-Smith talks about.

Welfare Stands Alone

The problem is that while it is possible that Duncan-Smith has a mission and feels genuinely that welfare needs to be changed, the world is not just about welfare. It is also about economics and opportunity. Attempting to change welfare benefits (which will naturally come down hardest on the weakest sections of society) without successfully managing up the fortunes of the wider economy and critical areas such as education (a crucial force for change and a massive “enabler” in ensuring people have the skills and capabilities that allow them to stand on their feet) cannot work.

Even Samuel Smiles (the 19th Century author of Self-Help) said: “I would not have any one here think that, because I have mentioned individuals who have raised themselves by self-education from poverty to social eminence, and even wealth, these are the chief marks to be aimed at. That would be a great fallacy. Knowledge is of itself one of the highest enjoyments. The ignorant man passes through the world dead to all pleasures, save those of the senses… Every human being has a great mission to perform, noble faculties to cultivate, a vast destiny to accomplish. He should have the means of education, and of exerting freely all the powers of his godlike nature.” (my underlining).

Government is split into different areas of control and it is a real dilemma. If David Cameron really wishes to go back to the 19th Century and bring in welfare reforms that attempt to force people to work or lose benefits, then the same Government has, at least, to generate the capabilities that will allow them to do so.

This means that George Osborne and his Ministers have to attack our substantial problems of growth (or the lack of it) while we seem to be entering a Japanese-style lost decade.

This means that Michael Gove (himself on a mission) has to ensure that those areas of greatest need in education (which are the areas most adversely impacted by Duncan-Smith’s welfare reforms) receive the resources (investment and brainpower) that they need. This could, for example, mean forcing top quality schools (from private and public sectors) to link up with worst performing schools in the country much as Lord Adonis tried to do voluntarily as he describes in his recent book “Education, Education, Education: Reforming England’s Schools”.

Of course, this means jointly pursuing policies as a Government rather than addressing individual issues one at a time because individual Ministers want to make a name for themselves.

Of course, this is the job of a Prime Minister (and in a Coalition, the Deputy Prime Minister) to see that the key decisions of each Ministry complement each other. They have failed to see how disjointed it all is and failed to understand the changes that have been put in place since the 19th Century that repels the drive to go back in time.

Back to the Poor Laws

There is a real danger that the failure to articulate a vision by our politicians, allied to an economic position that is perilous is leading the UK (or at least England) back to the Poor laws as articulated in 1834. This was the age of the workhouse as described so well by Charles Dickens. The 19th Century zeal, which Duncan-Smith is bringing to bear, is allied to monetarism and austerity together with an education philosophy which focuses on individual schools (Academies) without much understanding of how to best ensure the worst ones thrive.

This means that a “perfect storm” is likely to erupt: an economy of austerity, a goodbye to welfare and a lack of educational opportunity where it is needed. This may be seen in the future as a Government that forgot the riots of 2011 much like the riots against the Poor Laws in the 1830’s.

Modern times deserve modern remedies and better leadership

The challenge for any Government in a post-2007 world is to sufficiently understand the role it places in providing the underpinning for a thriving society. This is not the old Tory rule from the top – where the top 3% get the resources and everyone hopes for a trickle down effect. The class system in the UK – no longer just three – may have been dispersed but the political class may not have yet picked up on their duties.

Whether or not many welfare recipients have pro-actively taken themselves out of the work markets and work ethics, Government’s job is to enable them to come back into the market. This means motivating and educating at the same time as gradually changing the rewards structure.

Tell a workforce that they are pathetic and they will become so. Tell people that they are work-shy scroungers and they will not co-operate. Cameron and Osborne (and Gove) understand little about leadership. They want to show leadership by forcing issues not by motivation (or nudging – I understand they read that book – shame they never read any on good leadership) in the same way that the Upper Classes ruled in the 19th Century.

Modern times need a government that motivates and has a vision that is constant throughout – not a bunch of managers with no sense of leadership.

This should mean that rhetoric changes to encouragement not estrangement in a way that Miliband’s desire for “One Nation” (Disraeli) is meant to work. Within that rhetoric (maybe the start of some vision), the economic policies of sustainable growth have to be applied not just hope that austerity will somehow work and shift us to private economy growth; within that rhetoric, an education system that drives the worst schools to function along with the connectivity with local people (including parents); within that rhetoric, a welfare system that rewards such involvement in the community – not just salaried work.

The latter means that people should be able in a modern society to be able to work in a variety of areas – within civil society – rather than for a pittance in a salaried job. This also means spending time with kids where the worst performing schools are victims of poverty and estrangement of parents and local leadership.

This is joined up Government where each part of government takes fully into account what is happening in other sectors of society. It is not what we have now.

Farewell, fair cruelty was said by Viola in Twelfth Night – Viola was trying it on – a woman pretending to be a man.

Duncan-Smith is worried about welfare beneficiaries who shouldn’t be getting welfare – people who are not what they say they are.

This government is pretending to be showing leadership – it isn’t. It is merely repeating the mistakes of their forebears from 200 years ago.

Farewell welfare, indeed. We run the risk of becoming an anti-welfare society that alienates huge sections of it while the rest of government stands aside. Time for some vision and leadership and for this government to understand the impact one part has on another – Duncan-Smith needs Osborne and Gove to help him succeed.  Malvolio’s experiences in Twelfth Night may also be educational for Ian Duncan-Smith – he was also a man more sinned against than sinning.


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.