Knowledge-rich and skills-rich

We can learn a lot from the telly. Skills competitions like ‘Bake Off’ and ‘Strictly’ and quiz shows like ‘University Challenge’ and ‘Mastermind’ are among the most popular programmes on TV.

These shows fall into two main camps, reflecting a skills / knowledge divide. But both types speak to our deep interest in both learning and skills.

‘Bake Off’, ‘Strictly’ and other skills-based competitions celebrate the ‘doing’. We are shown both the process and the product of the contestants’ learning and the purpose is clear: to make something delicious to certain specifications or to perform something entertaining in a particular style or tradition. The purpose, the process and the product are all ‘in the room’; we see the point of it all and we get a sense of the learning journey the contestants have been on, often by watching them practice and struggle. We also know that they didn’t develop these skills purely for the show, they are useful beyond the competition.

In contrast, ‘University Challenge’ or ‘Mastermind’ seem to be celebrations of pure ‘knowing’. The contestants are tested on their recall of a range of discrete facts in a way which is disconnected from their usefulness. While we can admire their performance in accessing this knowledge, the purpose and process of acquiring it are not ‘in the room’ and are not shared with us. We assume that the contestants can recall the names of composers, artists and writers because they have some interest in their work, but none of that is shown. Contestants may well prepare for general knowledge quizzes, but presumably the quiz is not the main reason they know about subatomic particles or Chinese dynasties. Their general knowledge is the product of a useful broad general education and what we are watching is an entertaining side-effect of that learning rather than its actual purpose.

In their various ways, all these shows are celebrating learning by showing us how it changes people. In Ofsted terms, the skills competition has clear ‘intent’ and ‘implementation’ as well as demonstrating the ‘impact’ of learners’ performance. The quiz show is a bit less transparent; the performances may be impressive, but we would need to dig a little deeper to see the connection between ‘impact’, ‘implementation’ and original ‘intent’. Quiz performance, like exam performance, is a limited, though useful, proxy for the change which education seeks to bring about. Incidentally, it’s that ‘digging a little deeper’ into purpose and process which schools and colleges are likely to see more of under the new inspection framework.

Do these shows confirm a clear divide between practical and theoretical learning; the ‘vocational’ and the ‘academic’? I don’t think so. The fluent and skilful performances we see in the skills competitions are underpinned by plenty of prior knowledge which has been laid down by the contestants over time; knowledge about ingredients, tools and genres for instance. And the apparently disconnected knowledge and concepts being displayed in the quiz shows come from a meaningful context and can contribute to useful practical action such as solving problems and making new things.

The distinction between acquiring knowledge and developing skills is deeply embedded in our thinking. The ancient Greeks regarded ‘episteme’ or theoretical knowledge as quite independent from ‘techne’ or craft skill. The 20th century British philosopher Gilbert Ryle brought them a little closer to each other by describing them as two types of knowing which he called ‘knowing that’ and ‘knowing how’, or ‘declarative’ and ‘procedural’ knowledge. The procedural will tend to be more specific and involve more senses because it is more ‘hands-on’. It is possible to go further and argue for a completely unified model where all knowledge is defined broadly as a capacity to ‘get things right’. The issue continues to provoke lively debate but however we choose to describe the relationship, it is clear that knowledge and skill are highly interlinked and interdependent in education as in life.

Assumptions about knowledge and skill also shape the way we describe our educational programmes. Terms such as ‘academic’, ‘applied’, ‘general’, ‘vocational’ and ‘technical’ suggest a spectrum ranging from the knowledge-rich ‘academic’ to the skills-rich ‘technical’. But as soon as we start to examine the content of each type of course and what students on them actually do, some of these distinctions start to blur. For instance, there’s no doubt that the new T Levels will require a great deal of knowledge acquisition while also having a very substantial work-based component. On the other hand, A Level subjects require students to demonstrate a wide range of subject specific and more general skills, such as essay writing.

 This labelling of qualifications suffers from ‘jingle-jangle’ (no, not the fictional street drug from the American TV series ‘Riverdale’). ‘Jingle’ is the use of one term to describe different things and ‘jangle’ is when different terms are used to describe the same thing. So ‘general qualification’ is a fairly ‘jingly’ term covering a range of very different courses from an Applied General in Business to an A Level in Philosophy. On the other hand, the terms ‘Vocational’ and ‘Technical’ are often used in a ‘jangly’ way. According to the government, Technical qualifications require “the acquisition of both a substantial body of technical knowledge and a set of practical skills valued by industry”, a definition which could serve equally well for vocational qualifications. Inevitably, the noise of all this jingling and jangling can get in the way of understanding the role of qualifications.

These labels are also used to define the purposes of qualifications and sometimes to place those purposes on a pedestal. For instance, the current review of qualifications at level 3 and below in England talks in terms of qualifications being designed to ‘lead directly to a clearly defined outcome’ and ‘delivering on their purpose’ which is either employment (for T Levels) or further study (for A Levels). At this point, we need to take a step back and remind ourselves that qualifications do not ‘deliver’ outcomes. They are taken by students, who then use them for a range of purposes in the real world based on their value and currency. The qualification outcome represents something useful about what the student knows and can do, but in practice, the qualification market, the labour market and individual learner journeys do not provide uniform or linear routes. Plenty of A level students don’t progress to higher education and plenty of vocational and technical students do – this is evidence of the value of those qualifications, not a sign of their failure.

Take a graded piano exam or a driving test; designed to accredit your ability to do something to a particular standard. Passing the test does not carry with it any expectation or requirement to play the piano in public or drive a car regularly, and the qualification is not judged in terms of how many professional pianists or drivers are ‘delivered’. And what of the Performing Arts student who becomes a lawyer or the Mediaeval History graduate who becomes a banker – did their qualifications ‘deliver’ for them?

If the implied polarity between knowledge and skill doesn’t make sense at the course level, it’s even less helpful at the human level. Labelling students as ‘academic’ or ‘vocational’ based on the type of course they are on feels like categorising them as either a ‘knower’ or a ‘doer’. This does everyone a disservice and only limits our concept of we are capable of.

For education to fully develop our capacities, it needs to do justice to the full range of possibilities and provide all students with the opportunity to both know important and interesting things and do important and interesting things without seeing these as separate spheres.

And yet further education is often described as the ‘skills sector’ tasked with ‘delivering skills’ – as if they could be detached from knowledge and passed on free of that troublesome burden. No educational project involves a transfer of useful knowledge; it can’t be knowledge-free. And we would not be doing our job as educators if we offered a ‘knowledge-poor’ curriculum.

But although calling for a knowledge-rich curriculum for all post-16 students should not be controversial it still feels a bit subversive. And there are risks. In emphasising the importance of knowledge, we need to guard against the fetishization of facts. Acquiring knowledge in disconnected gobbets is of very limited use. What makes knowledge useful is the connecting and reconnecting of the things we know to each other, and the fluency with which we can mobilise those mental schemas of linked knowledge which help us understand, recall and apply.

Having agreed that knowledge is vital, we then need to ask how we select which knowledge we value most and which knowledge is actually most useful. This can require us to challenge historical power structures and received wisdom to make room for different perspectives. But when we ask “whose knowledge, serving whose interests?” we are challenging current curricula, not the importance of knowledge itself.

Planning any educational programme necessarily involves carefully selecting essential or useful knowledge and thinking about how it builds on prior knowledge and paves the way for the acquisition of more knowledge. But arguing that knowing stuff is all there is, is a bit like saying ‘subatomic particles are all there is’. It may be true at one level but even knowing about all the subatomic particles in the universe wouldn’t help to explain the complex interactions and dynamic change which they are involved in at higher levels.

Running alongside this, we should also be advocating an entitlement to a skills-rich curriculum. Doing, applying, creating, putting into practice, developing, practising and refining in all sorts of contexts are key to learning. We should not regard practical, applied or contextual learning as being of a lower order.

In making the case for a more creative, skills-rich curriculum we should guard against claiming that focusing on knowledge necessarily implies irrelevant content, a decontextualized curriculum, rote learning or high-stakes tests. These things don’t automatically flow from a commitment to knowledge and ‘skills-boosting’ doesn’t have to be paired with ‘knowledge-bashing’.

We should also avoid making claims about practical skills which ‘embody’ them or locate them beyond normal learning. For instance, the skill of a brilliant pianist or craftsperson may appear to be located ‘in their hands’. While it may have shaped their physical development and the habits of performance may seem like second nature, this is still a learnt fluency, developed through intelligent practice and informed by knowledge and culture. Claiming these skills are ineffable just mystifies them and gets in the way of trying to understand them or help people acquire them.

Being able to do stuff requires both knowledge and skill. Trying to separate out the acquisition of skill as if it is a completely different type of learning – as in the ‘skills strategy’ or the ‘skills sector’ – is like trying to detach a current from the water which it travels through. They can be described separately but are inseparable in practice. While it may be useful to understand the components of a skill, such atomised competences are not much use in isolation. Becoming skilled can’t be achieved through the simple accumulation of competences, and becoming a skilled engineer, a skilled historian or a caring, responsible citizen is an emergent process which can’t be achieved rapidly or be measured on a simple scale.

So, rather than building barriers between knowing and doing, ‘knowing that’ and ‘knowing how’ should go hand in hand, making connections, emphasising the value of ‘learning by doing’, ‘knowing for doing’ and ‘doing as learning’ as ways of building on our previous knowledge and experience.

Whatever their starting point and wherever they are on their lifelong learning journey, our students need both knowledge and skills and their education should cherish and cultivate both. If we want the best possible curriculum, we need to make sure it nurtures our ‘dancer’, ‘baker’ and ‘mastermind’ capacities and possibilities by being rich in both knowledge and skills.

Originally published in the Times Educational Supplement in April 2019 here. You can also hear Eddie discuss knowledge and skill with Sarah Simons in an FE podcast on 25th April here.

See also:

What is powerful knowledge? (Aug 2015)

Skill shortage, training shortage or job shortage? (Feb 2016)

A short reading list:

Pat Ainley, ‘Class and Skill’ (1993)

John Dewey, ‘Experience and Education’ (1938)

Harold Entwistle, ‘Education, Work and Leisure’ (1970)

E.D. Hirsch, ‘Why Knowledge Matters’ (2016)

Paul Hirst, ‘Knowledge and the Curriculum’ (1975)

Richard Johnson, ‘‘Really useful knowledge’: 1790–1850’ (1988) in ‘Culture and Processes of Adult Learning’ (1993).

Gilbert Ryle, ‘The Concept of Mind’ (1949)

Leesa Wheelahan, ‘Not just skills: what a focus on knowledge means for vocational education.’ Journal of Curriculum Studies (2015)

Terry Wrigley, ‘‘Knowledge’, Curriculum and Social Justice’, The Curriculum Journal (2018)

Michael Young et al, ‘Knowledge and the Future School: Curriculum and Social Justice’ (2014)

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‘Unsheltered’ by Barbara Kingsolver

Barbara Kingsolver’s novels are always fascinating and rewarding and her latest, Unsheltered (2019) is no exception.

We follow two stories over a hundred years apart and set in the same location; Vineland, New Jersey, a town originally established as a utopian community in the late 19th century by visionary entrepreneur and autocratic control freak Charles Landis.

In today’s world, Willa and her family are threatened by a full set of very modern challenges including unemployment, casualisation, childcare, costly health care, collapsing housing and fragile mental health. She and her close family, ostensibly ‘middle class’, are living on the edge of absolute poverty without the protection of universal welfare support and assumptions of steady progress which she expected as a baby boomer who tried to do everything right. As the decline continues, Willa is also gradually uncovering the story of the pioneering woman naturalist, Mary Treat, who lived in the same street, and possibly the same house, over a century earlier and is a genuine historical character. All of this is overshadowed by a growing awareness of the unsustainability of the current economic system and the rise of a xenophobic demagogue towards the U.S. presidency; a man who boasts the he could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and people would still vote for him.

Back in the 1871 incarnation of Vineland, its founder’s rhetoric of freedom and opportunity is already transparently ‘fake news’ given the reality of the town’s yawning inequality.  We see Vineland through the eyes of the fictional Thatcher Greenwood; new High School science teacher and enthusiastic advocate of Darwinian evolutionary theory. He befriends Mary Treat and is deeply impressed by her intense commitment to observation and rationality and the fact that she is in scientific correspondence with his hero Charles Darwin and writes journal articles on entomology and botany. With the support of Mary, Thatcher feels able to challenge the blinkered and obscurantist opposition to Darwin’s theory coming from Vineland’s leading citizens and eventually finds himself at the centre of a sensational and historic murder trial involving the shooting of an unarmed man in broad daylight.

Before the murder or the trial, Thatcher is drawn into a public debate about natural selection with his employer, the blinkered and dogmatic High School Principal, Professor Cutler. The confrontation, chaired by Charles Landis himself, is framed as ‘Darwin versus Decency’ and designed to expose Thatcher as a dangerous Darwinian who seeks to undermine the accounts of holy scripture. Cutler and Landis are hoping for an excuse not to renew Thatcher’s teaching contract.

Thatcher is encouraged by Mary Treat and his spirited sister in law, Polly, to hone his arguments and present them as succinctly and persuasively as possible and he rises to the occasion:

“I would like to make four statements that will offend no one in this room… First principle. Individuals within a population are variable… Second principle. Traits in their variation are inherited…”

Thatcher admits that the mechanism for this inheritance is not known and suggests an ‘elixir for transmitting character’ in the absence the science of genetics. This draws scorn from Cutler, who says: “I do not like the sound of that. I do not. It makes me think of a witches brew” and booms that characters are only transmitted because God wishes it so.

Thatcher continues:

Next I offer the third principle which is death. Death stalks us all!… Into this world more lives are born than are granted to live…

Here is the last of my four principles: survival is not haphazard. Creatures differ in their ability to survive, not by chance but owing to traits inherited from their progenitors. And with these four declarations of the obvious. I’m finished!”

This brilliant set piece debate is the core of the novel and is mirrored by some less formal, but equally lucid, 21st century debates about values, growth and sustainability between members of Willa’s family with their different perspectives.

Each story sheds light on the other and the parallels are never forced or contrived, In their various ways, the people in both narratives are facing the prospect of losing some of the shelter of their lives; with comforting certainties withdrawn and exposure to new ideas, new conflicts and social fracture of various sorts. They are starting to piece together the new social relations which they will need to confront a new reality.

Mary is instrumental in helping Thatcher see clearly what is necessary:

“…your pupils depend on it, Thatcher…they will go on labouring under old authorities until their heaven collapses. Your charge is to lead them out of doors. Teach them to see evidence for themselves, and not to fear it.”

Thatcher adds:

“To stand in the clear light of day, you once said. Unsheltered.”

In the twenty first century, Willa reflects on human learning as she watches her grandson start to master the skill of standing up:

“First they would stagger. Then grow competent, and then forget the difficulty altogether while thinking of other things, and that was survival.”

In the late nineteenth century, denying the evidence for the mechanism of evolution might provide short term comfort for some, but this ‘shelter’ would become increasingly difficult to sustain. And today, turning away from the reality of environmental and social breakdown and the drastic action needed may also offer us a little respite, but ignoring the enormity of the crisis is no solution. In order to survive, we need to both understand the world as it is and start thinking about building a better one. Pretending that we can shelter from the truth just puts things off and makes the transition more difficult.

Unsheltered gives us a humane perspective on many of the challenges we face today. As we grow up and learn to stand, stagger and face the crises and confusions of our world, it offers us the consolation of clarity and love.

See also:

‘The Overstory’ by Richard Powers (March 2019)

Primo Levi on work and education (May 2016)

‘Carthage’ by Joyce Carol Oates (February 2016)

Hadrian, the enlightened pre-enlightenment leader? (December 2015)

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‘The Overstory’ by Richard Powers.

Richard Powers is an extraordinary writer. If you’ve not yet discovered his novels, I strongly recommend them. He tackles big ideas which concern all of us while at the same time telling compelling stories about complex and conflicted characters who have a rich inner life and develop over time. He writes beautifully about science and music among other things and I find myself returning to the themes of his books long after finishing them. Reading a Richard Powers novel is like taking a comprehensive course in both the reason and the emotion of a given set of human challenges.

The Overstory is a kind of meta-narrative of a meta-life form; specifically old-growth forest, in all its richness and diversity. This is built on several overlapping and interlocking human ‘understories’ told at a human level while also being connected to the bigger scale and longer time-span of tree-life.

This is not a book about trees, neither is it nature writing. It’s an attempt to demonstrate, through a web of human and tree stories, that the Earth’s living things are highly interdependent and that the way we are using our planet’s resources is destructive and unsustainable. The focus on trees and forests and the threat they face is a means to make the case.

We seem to be aware that we are careering towards environmental catastrophe – but what are we to do about it? The principal human characters of The Overstory are all grappling with this question and, for various reasons, they are particularly tuned in to a tree-pace and a forest-level analysis. Among the cast, maverick researcher Patricia Westerford is one of the most persuasive advocates of the case; for instance in her teaching:

It’s a miracle, she tells her students, photosynthesis: a feat of chemical engineering underpinning creation’s entire cathedral. All the razzamatazz of life on Earth is a free-rider on that mind-boggling magic-act. The secret of life: plants eat light, air and water, and the stored energy goes on to make and do all things… (p.124)

Apparently loosely based on the Canadian professor of forest ecology Suzanne Simard, Patricia writes a seminal book The Secret Forest:

All winter she has struggled to describe the joy of her life’s work and the discoveries that have solidified in a few short years: how trees talk to one another, over the air and underground. How they care and feed each other, orchestrating shared behaviours through the networked soil. How they build immune systems as wide as a forest…

Something marvellous is happening underground, something we’re just learning how to see. Mats of mycorrhizal cabling link trees into gigantic smart communities spread across hundreds of acres. Together they form vast trading networks of goods, services and information…

There are no individuals in a forest, no separable events. The bird and the branch it sits on are a joint thing. A third or more of the food a big tree makes may go to feed other organisms. Even different kinds of trees form partnerships. Cut down a birch, and a nearby Douglas-fir may suffer…

…Maybe it’s useful to think of forests as enormous spreading, branching, underground super-trees… (p.218)

Environmental activists Nick and Olivia, or Watchman and Maidenhair as they rename themselves, spend several months living high up in a giant redwood called Mimas, in an effort to prevent loggers from felling it. While there, they read Patricia’s book The Secret Forest:

You and the tree in your backyard come from a common ancestor…A billion and a half years ago, the two of you parted ways…But even now, after an immense journey in separate directions, that tree and you still share a quarter of your genes… (p.268)

Testifying as an expert witness to a hearing which could halt logging on Federal land in Oregon, Patricia

…describes how a rotting log is home to orders of magnitude more living tissue than the living tree… The judge asks what living things might need a dead tree.

‘Name your family. Your order. Birds, mammals, other plants. Tens of thousands of invertebrates. Three quarters of the region’s amphibians need them. Almost all the reptiles. Animals that keep down the pests than kill other trees. A dead tree is an infinite hotel…

Rot adds value to a forest. The forests here are the richest collections of biomass anywhere. Streams in old growth have five to ten times more fish. People could make more money harvesting mushrooms and fish and other edibles, year after year, than they do by clear-cutting every half dozen decades…’

‘I’ve looked at your book’ the judge says, ‘I never imagined! Trees summon animals and make them do things? They remember? They feed and take care of each other?’

In the dark-paneled courtroom her words come out of hiding. Love for trees pours out of her – the grace of them, their supple experimentation, the constant variety an surprise. These slow, deliberate creatures with their elaborate vocabularies, each distinctive, shaping each other, breeding birds, sinking carbon, purifying water, filtering poisons from the ground, stabilizing the microclimate. Join enough living things together, through the air and underground, and you wind up with something that has intention. Forest. A threatened creature. (p.285)

Each of the human protagonists of The Overstory finds their own way to speak and act for the trees, the forest, human and non-human life on Earth. They are not always consistent or effective, but their collective story succeeds in shifting our attention from the individual to the system and onwards to planetary survival.

We have no long-term future if we cannot think long-term and act sustainably at the global level or if we believe we can continue to destroy so many of our planet’s ecosystems without consequences. As Richard Powers has said about the natural world: “competition is not separable from separate forms of co-operation”. This book is full of important lessons about trees and forests and also about ourselves; lessons which hold the key to our survival as a species.

See also:

The social origins of human thinking (Mar 2016)

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Familiale (Jacques Prévert)

The mother is knitting

The son is fighting

She thinks it quite natural the mother

And the father what is he doing the father?

He’s doing business

His wife is knitting

His son is fighting

He’s doing business

He thinks it quite natural the father

And the son and the son

What does he think the son?

He thinks nothing absolutely nothing the son

The son his mother is knitting his father is doing business he is fighting

When he’s finished fighting

He will do business with his father

The fighting carries on the mother carries on she is knitting

The father carries on doing business

The son is killed he doesn’t carry on

The father and the mother go to the graveyard

They think it natural the father and the mother

Life carries on life with knitting fighting doing business

Business fighting knitting fighting

Business business and business

Life with the graveyard

Jacques Prévert –  Paroles (1946)

translated by Eddie Playfair, 2019

Some issues translating ‘Familiale’

When I looked for a version of Jacques Prévert’s anti-war poem ‘Familiale’ in English, I wasn’t fully satisfied with any of the ones I found, even that of the great Lawrence Ferlinghetti (1958). So I had a go myself. Translating anything, especially poetry, requires give and take and there can be no final authoritative version as the choices made are often a matter of interpretation and taste.

With this poem, the inevitable big loss in translation is one of rhyme. There is no way of reproducing ‘père, mère, guerre, faire, affaires, cimetière’ as rhyming words in English. Once you accept that loss, it’s then about trying to make up for it with similarly simple, everyday sing-song language which communicates the universal message and works in repetition.

The choice of ‘knitting’ for ‘faire du tricot’ and ‘fighting’ for ‘faire la guerre’ was based on their directness. ‘Doing the knitting’ and ‘making war’ or ‘going to war’just didn’t work for me and I felt that Ferlinghetti’s ‘fights the war’ and ‘finishes the war’ weren’t quite right either. I realise that there is some resulting ambiguity about what kind of fighting is being referred to if the word ‘war’ isn’t used. When it comes to ‘faire des affaires’ there’s no good substitute for ‘doing business’ but obviously ‘knitting, fighting and doing business’ in English does break with the repetition of ‘faire, faire, faire…’ in the original.

I also thought carefully about using ‘carries on’ rather than ‘continues’ for the French ‘continue’ and decided to go for what I thought felt most conversational. With ‘think it’ rather than ‘find it’, it was about making the lines ‘What does the son think? / He thinks nothing’ work. ‘He finds..’ is not the same as ‘Il trouve que..’

Lots of difficult choices, but of course the joy of translation is that different versions can coexist.

See also:

Abdellatif Laâbi: attesting against barbarism (Dec 2016)

‘Five minutes after the air raid’ by Miroslav Holub (Nov 2013)

Seeking refuge in poetry (Sep 2015)

Poem: Corsica (Jul 2015)

‘Saying thank you’ – a poem for father’s day (Jun 2015)

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Fred Jarvis and ‘what the future holds’.

It was a great privilege to join with so many others this week  in a belated celebration of Fred Jarvis’ 94th birthday at the Institute of Education in London.

It was both a joyous and a serious occasion. Far from simply basking in all the affection, Fred was keen to get his many friends to think constructively about the various challenges we face, both locally and globally. He selected the theme ‘what does the future hold?’ and invited a panel of Estelle Morris, Helena Kennedy, Jackie Ashley, Sally Tomlinson, Wes Streeting and Polly Toynbee to get the discussion started.

There is plenty to be pessimistic about in our current context and the speakers’ pessimism ranged over a wide terrain including climate change, the devastation of public services caused by austerity, the likely long-term impact of Brexit divisions on British society, the rise in human rights violations and injustice around the world and the potential for new technologies to disrupt employment and deepen inequality.

This ‘pessimism of the intellect’ was tempered with some ‘optimism of the will’ and the panel identified some green shoots of hope in the people and movements capable of offering an alternative, but the overall feeling was that progress cannot be taken for granted and that things could get a lot worse.

Quite rightly, people at the event expressed great hope in our young people, who seem to represent the promise of a better future. The young clearly have a big stake in the future; after all that’s where most of their lives will be located. Investing in a better future has to include investing in our young people. But no generation has a monopoly of idealism or optimism and we are never the wrong age to consider what legacy we leave to future generations and to do something to make sure it’s better than the one we inherited. People of all ages can come up with world-changing ideas and every generation has the potential to work with others to transform things for the better.

The greatest source of hope at this birthday celebration was Fred himself. In his 95th year, he is a living embodiment of the clear-sighted, radical and practical idealism which we need. In his contribution he reminded us that we achieve nothing without collective action built on bonds of mutual understanding and friendship.

Fred; the Plaistow boy, the student leader, the teacher trade unionist, the education campaigner, the photographer, the enthusiast and the friend, reminds us, in everything he has done and does, of the life worth living. When the oldest person in the room is so focused on making a better future, the rest of us must surely put aside any despair and cynicism and recommit to life and human progress.

See also:

The best of things (July 2017)

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The promise of a National Education Service

The proposed creation of a National Education Service (NES) for England offers us the possibility of a decisive break with the market model, where education is treated as a commodity and where individual and institutional competition are regarded as the drivers of improvement.

Is the advocacy of an NES an historic opportunity for English education and what might be the benefits and challenges of implementing such a proposal?

1. The need for a system and a turn away from the market

The very idea of creating a single national education system seems novel, if not utopian, in the current English context, even though such systems are commonplace in most developed countries and generally command wide political support. Education in England does not function as a coherent system capable of achieving the aspirations we have for it; whether for greater opportunities or greater equality for all. England lacks both a national vision of what education is for and the system of public education capable of fulfilling our educational aspirations. Different school types run by a bewildering range of unelected bodies compete in an unequal contest for students and results. Selection, both covert and overt is increasingly prevalent and distinct segregated pathways from age 14 are becoming the norm. Students seen as ‘less academic’ are steered towards routes with reduced opportunities for breadth and depth of learning.

I wrote about the creeping marketization of the English education system in the Spring 2015 edition of Forum1 and concluded by imagining two different futures for English education following a 2015 general election. One, (Future A) was based on an extension of marketization and the other (Future B) on the development of a National Education Service.

In this imagined Future B scenario, the demand for a National Education Service grows from dissatisfaction with the incoherence and chaos people are experiencing across all the phases of education and a sense that the solution might be found in the imagination and daily practice of the people actually concerned with education. So, following a national debate about the purpose and organisation of education in England it becomes clear that there is a real consensus that England needs a common national education system with both social and personal objectives to meet the needs of all its people. The most common expression of this is that ‘education needs to be like the NHS’. There is a groundswell of support for a comprehensive national education system based on agreed common aims, cooperation and universalism rather than competition and selection. The breadth and depth of the national debate gives people the confidence that change is possible and promotes a sense of optimism about the future. Another outcome is a celebration of the work of teachers and pride in the work of students as people learn more about what happens in our schools and universities.

The commitment to create an NES “open to all throughout their lives”2 offers solutions to many of the problems of our fragmented and divided education ‘non-system’ and a possible route to Future B. Using the NHS paradigm for education requires a major shift in the way we think about our educational institutions. The idea of mobilising all publicly funded education providers to serve the whole community could be very popular if it can be attractively fleshed out. People will need to understand what a National Education Service might look like in their area and how it might benefit them. This requires concrete examples of how a fairer and more effective system could be assembled from the somewhat dysfunctional set of elements we currently have.

In order to make the case for an NES, there also needs to be a clear critique of the marketization of education. Providers in all phases in England are operating in a market where they compete for students and are subject to a high-stakes accountability regime where any performance below average is seen as failure. This is not conducive to a high-performing and supportive system.

With at least one major party now placing the idea of an NES on the political agenda, there is the opportunity for a real debate about the extent to which we want to turn away from market mechanisms and reinvigorate public service values in education. So far, the proposal has mainly been defined in terms of resources; university tuition fees and school funding for instance, with less attention given to purpose and organisation. While the case for more investment is clear, the creation of an NES is a higher order question. A national drive to make the best of what’s on offer available to all our citizens could be the centrepiece of a winning programme and education could find its ‘NHS moment’. The idea could be a game-changer and could lead to a new consensus which could attract support from across the political spectrum.

2. What do we want from an education system?

Any attempt to construct a new system needs to be based on what we want it to achieve. At the highest level, we could start with ‘human flourishing’ as an aim; addressing both the development of fulfilled individuals and the creation of a good society. We shouldn’t have to choose between preparation for life, preparation for work, active citizenship or cultural literacy as aims. They are all indispensable and interdependent. Any definition of purpose also has to do justice to where we are and where we’ve come from; the world as it is and the world as it could be. Education has to help all citizens join the world while also opening up the possibility of challenging and changing it for the better.

Asking the question ‘what is the purpose of education?’ inevitably leads us to rethink many of our current assumptions, such as the binary thinking about people’s capacity to learn which has them being either ‘good with their brains’ or ‘good with their hands’. It should require us to challenge the received wisdom that education is essentially a private commodity to be rationed and fought over and not a social good based on co-operation. It should also blow the case for selection and segregation out of the water.

The more widely and deeply the question of purpose is discussed, the more powerful the answers will be. The debate needs to go well beyond the Westminster bubble of policy makers, think-tanks and experts and involve as many people as possible. Such a debate goes to the heart of our view of ourselves and the kind of society we want. What emerges might well surprise and delight us.

Our current ‘anti-system’ of unequal competing providers in a somewhat chaotic market is not capable of achieving any national educational aims based on equality or inclusiveness. If we want to have national educational aims, we need to give ourselves the means to ensure they can be achieved. This requires national coherence and consistency across the board, in short, a system.

3. How we got here: learning from the turn to the market

Before discussing where we go next, it’s worth briefly considering how we got where we are now. The market experiment has had many negative effects and many victims. Those who would reverse it need to highlight the problems, but also to understand what drove it in the first place and to learn the lessons.

What were the ideas and arguments which drove the gradual turn to the market from the 1980’s onwards? They started at the margins of politics with the Black Papers and the early ‘culture wars’ of the 1970’s and worked their way to the heart of policy making during the Thatcher governments, morphing into the target-driven public service reform of the Blair governments. The stages in this process are well documented by Ken Jones3 and others.

The claims about the system as it was in the 1970’s included that it tolerated low achievement and failure, discouraged ambition and achievement, was wasteful, inefficient and bureaucratic, was subject to local authority political whims, was unresponsive to parents’ wishes or the needs of the economy, offered little choice and was organised for the convenience of its workers rather than the aspirations of students and parents.

Whatever we think of these claims, they had some purchase and resonance with parts of the electorate and all contributed to justifying an incremental reform agenda which has built the new market ‘common sense’, in education as elsewhere. This was presented as benefiting the consumers; parents and students in this case, by strengthening their market power. The trend to greater marketization was in tune with the ‘choice and diversity’ and ‘freedom and autonomy’ agendas which were themselves a response to an alleged crisis of ‘standards’.

These tendencies fit within what Pasi Sahlberg4 has called the Global Education Reform Movement (GERM) and connect to global pressure to ‘open’ public services to greater competition and market forces, encourage new entrants and reduce the influence of education workers and their unions.

This movement is neither monolithic nor irreversible, but we need to learn from the last 30-40 years and acknowledge the power of its arguments. We cannot ignore such key concerns as standards, choice, innovation and efficiency. These questions need to be addressed and it is not in the interest of advocates of an NES to be seen as tolerating mediocrity, inefficiency or bureaucracy.

NES advocates need to have something to say about what the benefits of institutional autonomy might be, how success and achievement should be defined, how to use performance data and research evidence to best effect, what the potential is for innovation and creativity within a national system and how to achieve a balance between system stability and competition as conditions for improvement.

An NES needs to be based on the wider public interest while also responding to the aspirations and ambitions of individuals. Rather than rejecting the language of ambition, advancement, choice and standards, it could be appropriated and broadened by finding a language of ‘self-interest plus’ with the ‘plus’ being the social or civic interest, intergenerational solidarity, pride in collective achievement, concern for community; local and global. Rather than rejecting the idea of ‘rigorous’ curricula and assessment, the case could be made for a broader kind of rigour.

To the benefits of hard work, concentration, pride in a job well done, we could be adding those of democracy, deliberation and debate, co-operation and consensus building. To the rhetoric of social mobility, we could be adding that of social equality; creating a society where the cost of failure and the spoils of success are reduced in the interest of social cohesion. To the consumer’s instinct to select, evaluate and acquire, we could add the educated citizen’s instinct to inquire, reason and critique. The market teaches us to be acquisitive, but where are we to learn to be inquisitive if not in our public education system?

4. What might a National Education Service look like?

Creating an NES will be an evolutionary process without a final destination. We have lost much of the ‘hard wiring’ which a good system needs, and it will be necessary to build on the commitment of education staff, leaders and parents, to gradually ‘re-wire’ our system based on different values. Nevertheless, even at this early stage, it is useful to sketch out some of the opportunities for change which will arise as well as some of the attractive headline ‘signature policies’ which could attract support:

  • The new system should be built from the existing one with collaboration around nationally agreed shared aims, core entitlements and funding as givens. Requiring education providers to work together in the interests of their communities would release a ‘co-operative dividend’ or ‘partnership premium’ by squeezing out much of the waste and inefficiency of market competition.
  • There needs to be a new settlement between national, regional and local levels of government about where to locate different responsibilities. This would include an equitable national funding system and admissions processes as well as a new level playing field with a single legal status for all schools which describes their degree of autonomy as well as their accountability. This will mean a shift from competing chains of schools towards local and regional collaborative networks. Strategic planning and decision-making should be transparent and subject to democratic scrutiny. A regional level will be needed for post-16 and higher education where catchments are wider and specialisation greater. There needs to be a balance between local democratic accountability and national minimum standards of service. The planning and regulation to ensure quality and equality will need to be light touch, with a minimum of bureaucracy.
  • There should be room for regional and local innovation as well as specialisation, and the regions could lead on different themes, share this work nationally and create new forums for action research, evaluation, curriculum and professional development. There should be scope for choice and diversity within this comprehensive system without the need for competition or market incentives. There could be friendly rivalry between different parts of the service as they strive to offer the best to their communities, but this should be combined with a commitment to sharing what they do best to help the whole service improve.
  • The English regions should be given the right to elect education councils to oversee the development of the system in their region using the full range of educational resources available, giving the new councils a strong mandate to develop a distinctive approach for their area compatible with the national aims.
  • The school curriculum should be redefined in terms of human flourishing as well as the fundamental knowledge and skills that everyone needs to build on to be a successful contributor to society. There should be both breadth and specialisation at upper secondary level, with no options being closed off at any age.
  • Any national curriculum will need to command widespread support, to be broad and challenging and apply to all, while allowing for some innovation and experimentation at school and regional levels. We should aim to give young people the tools and the opportunities to access the best that human culture has to offer and to develop the skills which allow them to make a difference in the world.

5. The need for compelling ‘signature’ policies and new institutions

The idea of an NES is the high-level organising principle. To gain support it will need to be exemplified through policies which appeal to people and gain popular support. As well as deciding how much additional investment can be found for education from total public spending, any government introducing an NES also needs some attractive and concrete ideas which symbolise their approach. What might such ‘signature’ policies look like, based on an ambitious, egalitarian and life-long vision of a National Education Service? Here are a few suggestions:

  • A National Baccalaureate for all young people to aim for. This would recognise and celebrate the talents and skills of the nation’s young people, including their creativity and contribution to community and cultural life. Achieving a full diploma would be recognised as a challenging and valued milestone for all young adults and a passport to further progression.
  • A broader National Citizen Service for young people which would include all volunteering and civic activity with the opportunity to ‘earn’ credit towards university or adult education based on the number of hours of activity. This would be a mutual ‘something for something’ way to move away from fees while also promoting community development and cohesion.
  • Local arts and language education hubs to guarantee access to ‘minority’ or threatened subjects not available in all schools or colleges.
  • An adult learning entitlement to free education for all non-graduates, delivered through new adult learning partnerships and driven by learner demand. This could lead to a renaissance of all sorts of adult learning with universities working with others to respond to the needs and interests of adults in their region. Study circles, reading groups, current affairs groups, cultural and health activity, community organising and volunteering could all feed in to university extramural programmes with a consequential strengthening of community solidarity.
  • Elections for new regional leadership for education across all stages, creating space for debate and discussion of educational aims and priorities.
  • A new deal to recruit and retain teachers: free training, sabbaticals and exchanges for all teachers working in the public sector

A new system will also need new institutions; responsive, inclusive and democratic ones which we have yet to invent. This will require an experimentalist culture, as described by the Brazilian philosopher and politician Roberto Unger5. Unger argues that we should not give up on the central promise of democracy which is that people’s ‘constructive genius’ can be applied to the task of achieving greater equality and a better life, democratise the market and deepen democracy itself in order to overcome what he calls the ‘dictatorship of no alternatives’ which can paralyse those who want to make real change.

6. Creating a National Education Service

Popularising the idea of a National System is just the start of a process of renewal. How might it be brought about? We need to make sure that it is informed by the best of our values while recognising that the aims and values of education are always going to be contested and subject to debate. This doesn’t mean that we should give up on striving for consensus or aiming for system stability. It will require a broad and inclusive process of policy deliberation and construction, allowing plenty of time to put together a coherent popular alternative for 2022 if not sooner. Developing the policy that could make this a reality will require considerable discussion around both values and priorities.

An NES should be grounded in equality and opportunity for all and the vision must be generous and inclusive; based on the belief that everyone can benefit from a full, broad education and everyone is entitled to access the best that our system can offer.

The architecture of such a national system could be created by a single Education Act early in the new parliament. But the work of building support for such a system, of embedding and developing it, will need to come from ongoing deliberation about the role of education in our society, both before and after the next election.

7. Objections to an National Education Service

It is also useful to anticipate some of the objections the idea will face. These include:

‘It would represent a huge centralizing ‘power grab’ by the state’

Recent years have seen a big shift of power to the national state in order to impose curricula, changes to the status of schools and to prevent local authorities from opening new schools. An NES needs to shift power back to accountable local authorities to plan provision and respond to the needs of their areas. The national state should not try to micromanage education but instead use its powers to regulate the system to ensure quality and equality and protect the interests of learners, particularly the most vulnerable. Providers receiving public funding should be publicly accountable and we are entitled to ensure that our money is being spent in the public interest. This does not require a big bureaucratic state, but can be achieved by a small, often local, smart and democratic state.

‘It would force ‘bog-standard’ uniformity and reduce choice’

The current patchwork of ‘57 varieties’ of school with different ways of sorting and segregating learners or offering curriculum specialisms creates confusion, narrows opportunity and institutionalises inequalities. A better planned system could enhance choice while aiming for a good school for everyone. Incentives which encourage some friendly competition between providers or areas to innovate and experiment would be entirely compatible with a national planning framework. A local, regional and national system based on schools with a single status working together could help to achieve excellence for all and respond to all our various educational needs much better than the chaotic market we currently have.

‘It would reduce standards’

We need to try to establish a consensus about what ‘standards’ we actually value, but clearly we would want a national system to be focused on offering the best to everyone and to promote high expectations. We know that selection does not raise standards but generally concentrates privilege. Selective admissions are all about keeping people out and we need to make the comprehensive case for opportunities and high standards for all; bringing people in.

‘It would be prohibitively expensive’

While there is a good case for spending more on education, the creation of a national education system does not in itself depend on this. Despite damaging cuts and austerity, there are plenty of examples of waste and duplication in the current landscape. Better co-ordination and collaborative planning can ensure that resources are used more efficiently rather than being wasted on competition. If people feel a real sense of ownership of the system, they will support the case for improvements and be prepared to vote for them.

8. Conclusion

The case for a National Education Service is strong and clear. It can be made by analogy with the National Health Service. If we see public education, like health care, as a social good which can benefit individuals while also benefiting society, we need to ensure that the best we can offer is available to everyone throughout life and regardless of means.

The fact that such a proposal is now on the agenda shifts the terrain of debate and has the potential to build a new consensus based on valuing education as a means of social advance as well as personal liberation rather than overemphasizing personal economic gain. The 2020’s could provide us with a historic opportunity to ‘re-set the dial’ in English education in a way which benefits everyone and transforms the lives of many, just as the creation of the NHS did for health in 1948. If such a change is to be sustained and developed, the debate about the ends and means of public service education needs to involve as broad a constituency as possible; before, during and after the creation of such a Service. If the development and implementation is well handled it could usher in a period of cross-party agreement on the broad design of the system, as there is in many other developed countries, without precluding continued lively political debate about purposes, priorities and direction.

At a time when we face major social fracture in England and a demoralised public sector, the promise of a National Education Service is the promise of social advance and personal fulfilment for all. Are we ready to grasp this historic opportunity to transform one of our most precious public services?

References:

  1. Playfair, Eddie (2015) Market madness: condition critical, Forum 57 (2) p.213
  2. Labour Party (2015) Towards a National Education Service https://labour.org.uk/manifesto/education/
  3. Jones, Ken (2016) Education in Britain 1944 to the present (2nd edition) Polity.
  4. Sahlberg, Pasi (2011) Finnish lessons: what can the world learn from educational change in Finland? Teacher’s College Press, New York.
  5. Unger, Roberto, (2009) The Left Alternative, Verso.

This post is adapted from an article written in a personal capacity and published in Forum – available here: http://doi.org/10.15730/forum.2018.60.2.159

Eddie Playfair (2018) The Promise of a National Education Service, FORUM, 60(2), 159-170.

See also:

Education is a human right (December 2017)

Reconstruction in an age of demolition (July 2017)

Education 2022: market or system? (June 2017)

Education: what’s it all for? (January 2016)

Market madness: condition critical (June 2015)

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My NewVIc story: Nathan Coulson

My NewVIc story: Nathan Coulson

When I started at NewVIc , I was sixteen and I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. This was probably obvious from my A-level choices: Philosophy, English Literature, Classical Civilisations, Maths and Further Maths.

At a stage in my life when I didn’t want to close any doors, NewVIc was the perfect place for me. To a prospective student this was apparent from the unrivalled array of qualifications and extra-curricular activities on offer.

Once I started my studies it became obvious that this was just an aspect of a wider culture of offering students every possible opportunity, whether it be in form of abundant advice, resources, activities (tennis, chess and debating took up much of my spare time), or college trips (visiting Athens to study Greek Democracy and Philosophy was a highlight for me).

The importance of such a fountain of opportunity in an economically deprived place like Newham cannot be overstated.

My time at NewVIc paved the path for me to study Economics & Politics at SOAS, start a social enterprise, live and work abroad, and forge a career for myself in the tech industry.

Studying at NewVIc encouraged me to explore new things and develop the confidence necessary to take risks.

Straight out of college I signed up to teach in rural India for 10 weeks, that was an unforgettable experience that inspired me to return to India but this time to help social entrepreneurs as a volunteer for UnLtd Tamil Nadu. While I was there I ended up running a successful crowd funding campaign for a livelihoods charity and showcasing UK tech start-ups with UK Trade & Investment.

Currently I work for an innovative tech start-up called Squared Up – they provide cutting edge application monitoring and IT data visualisation solutions for organisations like the Bank of England, Ford and Deloitte.

For anyone who is interested in Social Entrepreneurship I would highly recommend checking out UnLtd (www.unltd.org.uk). They provide support, funding and connections to aspiring social entrepreneurs of all ages. They have a particular focus on solving the issue of unemployment and employability, if you have an idea for a Social Enterprise let them know!

I’ll always be grateful to NewVIc for the leg up it gave me and, more generally, for the positive impact it continues to have in the place I call home.

Nathan Coulson, NewVIc class of 2008

More NewVIc stories:

My NewVIc story: Joseph Adelakun

My NewVIc story: Kabir Jagwani

My NewVIc story: Raymond Fernandez.

My NewVIc Story: Amritpal Gill.

My NewVIc story: Nazia Sultana

My NewVIc Story: Supreet Kaur

My NewVIc story: Joseph Toonga

My NewVIc story: Rumana Ali

My NewVIc story: Zakiyah Qureshi

My NewVIc story: Husnain Nasim

My NewVIc story: Airey Grant

 

Posted in Education, Guest blogs, NewVIc, Students | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment