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what government can do for education - part two

much of politics is about getting elected, some of it is about doing something worthwhile - and then there’s the show-biz

Cloud created by:

Bill Law
15 January 2014

Bill Law
the career-learning café

on causes-and-effects

Political influences have been famously characterised by a UK prime minister as ‘events, dear boy, events’.  He also confessed that politics are ‘the art of the possible’.  His remarks display a genteel modesty about power.  It was long ago. 

The political management of events and possibilities has since been seriously weakened.  This account shows how increasingly powerful and globally-situated commercial interests besiege domestic politics.  Part of the political response is to concede to those interests, and some of these concessions relate to education.  But there are conflicts of interest and frustrations of intention embedded in all of this.  The politics of all colours sometimes seem to call less on genteel modesty than on futile desperation. 

Yet government needs to be able plausibly to declare that it can make a difference to people’s lives.  And so where it finds itself a global loser, it looks for domestic wins.  The bigger reality is that issues for contemporary society reach from the personal to the planetary.  But plausible politics contains attention, keeping it close to home.  And education is close to everybody’s home. 

But the evidence here is that education is close to home in a sense that central governments are in no position to manage.  The dynamics found here of how people learn are precarious, complex and local.  Their causes and effects play out differently in different neighbourhoods.  Central claims to educational solutions can be made to sound plausible, but this evidence shows them rarely to be credible.

Central directives cannot accommodate local variability.  Claims to be acting in everybody's interest do not stand up.  This section includes evidence that what is proposed for education-for-all actually works well in some localities, but is demonstrably damaging in others.

Government needs a narrative for education.  But it's the backstories, reaching wider and probing deeper, that point to hope.  They lift education above government press releases of the narrow, the shallow and the easier to take on board.  

The politically neglected particularly need the backstory if their needs are to be understood.  And there are out-of-power and opportunistic politicians claiming to understand those neglected interest.  The political landscape is being reshaped.

It would be understandable were preoccupied educators to overlook it.  But it would be a mistake.  Prevailing political narratives shape the future of education in the interest of the constituencies they serve.  The backstories are essential to an understanding of how any of those futures will play out.  

This section revisits the art of the possible and its events, searching among backstories for leads on progressive action.  There's no shortage of troublesome news here.  The challenge is to make good use of bad news.  The section searches for what educators need to understand in order to set up credible causes of needed effects which ignite realisable hope.

  •             11.      causes

Freedom for Sale - think-tank based analysis, illustrating how world-wide global corporations gain control of national governments - it describes how weakened governments pump up domestic anxieties, notably concerning health and education - their promises of liberation camouflage the realities of a global capture of governments, and the services they commission

educators working with students and stakeholders need a voice speaking deeply and widely enough to tell of global pressure in terms of local needs

Restating the State - collection of articles by politically-sophisticated authors, showing that repeated attempts to reduce the size of the state have failed - this is a failure of both the political right and left - the failure includes various attempts to reduce the costs of education - the collection examines the state’s weak relationship with market forces, but concedes the relationship as necessary - however it also argues that a sustainable future needs a clear idea of what makes a public good - that means reconciling public ownership with individual rights, a renewed sense of citizenship, and a commitment to personal-and-social well being - the articles assume that solutions will be found in the generalised processes of national politics, it therefore speaks in largely abstract terms

education stakeholder groups are not political abstractions but organisers of informed action that is concrete, operational and locally-recognisable

Is PISA flawed? - education journalist’s report on doubts about the international politics of education - the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) has world-wide influence on the politics of education - but statisticians claim that its methodology is misleading - its host, the Organisation for Economic and Cultural development (OECD), shows more interest in setting out clear results for besieged politicians than in disentangling the complexities of education’s causes and effects

stakeholders can work on research data in conversation with the people in all education institutions who understand research methods

Why Nations Fail - journalist’s review of a world-wide academic explanation of why national survival depends on what kind of political institutions they set up - it characterises some political institutions as ‘extractive’ because they exclude from benefit all but the few, that is themselves and their closest supporters - the explanation contrasts these with ‘inclusive’ institutions, which distribute the benefits of action to the many, that is most or all of their citizens - the explanation also shows how history documents the prevalence of these competing orientations - and it shows how, over time, control of technology and science have change the balance of power in favour of exclusion - that trend is discrediting politics, undermining governments and causing political collapse

stakeholders groups need to include both reliable expertise and authentic experience in education if they are to neutralise politicised exclusion 

Beware this populism sweeping across Europe - journalist’s review of professor of politics’ account of populism in politics - following the explanation of ‘Why Nations Fail’, it argues that institutions once set up for informed debate are being invaded by the political stoking of emotional heat - the resulting intentions are contained inside a narrow scope, where easy conclusions can be reached from short statements - the tactic often invites anxiety, provocation and blame - a consequences is that the extent and complexity of conflicted political realities are overlooked - the overall argument points to the dangers to democracy in seeking only for political advantage - such politics lacks the courage of leadership which brings people to where they can claim citizenship, grasp realities, find social membership, and value education

stakeholders are at the crossroad between popular-and-plausible and informed-and-authentic but will readily recognise which way is forward

‘...where does political vitality come from?...’ - collection of short articles each outlining an unresolved issue for the future of education - it examines the shifting relationships between what is happening in welfare, identity, immigration, human rights, liberty, economy and ecology - each brings changing, complicated, uncomfortable and yet vital consequences into people’s lives - dealing with such big issues must therefore be thought of not as a destination but as a journey - and education must be a part of learning to navigate that journey

students with their educators and other stakeholders need a shared conversation to get big issues ready for local action

  •             12.      effects

Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy - scholarly definition of the neo-lib theory which is increasingly embraced by national governments - it argues for ‘creative destruction’ which allows businesses that are not growing to collapse, so that they can be replaced by enterprises seeking growth - but neo-lib thinking ignores the many ways in which a settled business can be valued by its community - and so its thinking demands that effective local education must be scaled up, so it become more generally and commercially marketable - but this the right-wing hijacking of a left-wing theory - creative destruction was first designed to reinvigorate useful local businesses - and that is what neo-lib economics fails to do

local education means by definition not to be scaled-up and its stakeholders are there to invigorate what is at its best scaled-down 

‘...Unions aren’t influential enough...’ - economic commentator’s argument that the voice of working people has been suppressed by a closed circle of corporate power and political establishment - the argument is that experience of work-life, and the agencies that support it, are not represented in the UK parliament - nor in any other fairly-reported part of public life

progressive educators are close to worker representation organisations where both are committed to people’s fulfillment and well-being 

‘...we’ve got five years left...’ - journalist’s report of think-tank research into the future viability of ‘third-sector’ charities and volunteering - the research is illustrated by anecdotal reports on what active members of society think of government appeals to ‘the big society’ - those appeals are for the third sector to meet the demands that first-sector policy and second-sector commerce cannot or will not supply - this is neo-lib thinking, supportive of private-sector commerce and committed to reducing public-sector spending - but community-based educators are part of the third-sector and, as charitable or voluntary outfits, they are not commercially motivated - neither do they see themselves as agencies of the state - the title of the report reflects widespread pessimism concerning the future of genuinely charitable and voluntary helping agencies

educators and their stakeholders need to be able to call on locally-rooted third-sector outfits for their hands-on understanding of local needs 

‘...We need to rediscover the need for each other...’ - professorial account of how governments can reconcile the uses of capital with the dignity of labour - it sets out thinking successfully applied in post-war Germany and originated with the help of a left-of-centre UK government - it asserts the mutual dependence of management and labour - their shared institutions continuously review and creatively replace how things are done - the account shows how management acts in agreement with labour - neo-lib economics, which is concerned only with what can be monetised, has no way of understanding such solidarity - Germany’s difference from the UK is said to be its unwillingness to value everything only in terms of profit, whether in firms, in banks and even (by some accounts) in football clubs - that unwillingness can also be found among its educators

there can be no unthinking importation of culture but local stakeholders can outflank shallow and narrow thinking by finding like-minded thinking abroad

‘...the stewardship doctrine...’ - legal account, well-linked to its sources, of the different ways that citizenship can be framed - it sets out a disagreement, deeply rooted in UK history, and having consequences for how a society educates its people - the questions are 'do we prioritise the rights of the living individual?', as does radical left-wing support for revolution - or 'have we wider commitments embraced by right-wing politics?', where membership of society is a contract with those who have gone before, those who are living now, and those who are yet to be born?

educators and their stakeholder need no cut-and-dried politics of left or right but a left-right conversation can map scope for imaginative learning

  •             13.      voices

‘...servant leadership...’ - long-overdue business-world acknowledgement that leadership is to improve the lot of ‘followers’, not the status of ‘leaders’ - it is fashionable to attribute outstanding qualities to leaders, though there is little evidence in education to support that claim – this is plea for others to be heard and heeded

stakeholder voice means that useful, valued and often informal leadership can be found at all hierarchical levels in education

‘...a union for school students...’ - education journalist’s account of how students are engaging with the politics of education - there are proposals to catch up with an international trend to unionise UK secondary school students - it will form a partnership with higher education’s National Union of Students - worker representation is a third-sector activity and part of civil society - this is a proposal for solidarity

students are educators’ prime stakeholders and links with their unions strengthens a shared voice for well-being and fulfillment 

‘...curriculum concerns contact...’ - website, run by a teachers’ union, carrying a day-by-day social commentary for educators - visitors share information, voice concerns, compare perspectives, canvass for improvements and petition for change - the teachers’ union hosting means that the commentaries refer to professional interests - but the internet has other links drawing on research, notably the Local Schools Network

stakeholder groups gain from links to on-line education commentaries which are important channels for educator voice 

‘...bringing the left in from the cold...' - journalist’s report of how a social-democrat movement is working with trade unions and employers - the group also has links to left-of-centre politics - the initiative is characterised as part of an international trend to restore working people’s voice in the pursuit of human rights - these concerns link work rights with rights to education

stakeholder voices are stronger where they are in concert with assonant voices from elsewhere

‘...workers role in “middle-class” revolutions...’ - journalist’s survey of growing international resistance to political and commercial exploitation of working people - it describes the way working people are taking initiatives which would formerly have been pursued by middle-class people trying to act in their interests - claiming the right to education is part of the process

comparing one culture’s stakeholding with another's is useful because ‘who knows England who only England knows’


on results

Why are arguments about politics, once started, so hard to stop?   It's not hard to see why some people get started - they're looking for the point.  But it's not always easy to find.  And even harder to agree what it should be.

Much depends on what sort of results people want to see.  Are they a return on investment?  Is that the tax we pay?  Should we be getting at least as much out as we put in?  Suppose it's more like a fee?  Would that be like an admission charge for membership of society?  Suppose some people can't afford it?  Could the payoff be held in common ownership?  Would we then let people draw on it just because they need it?  How would we know? 

And why would anyone see it one way and dismiss all others?  Is it because, as a species, we each protect our own's best chances to survive and flourish?  Do we extend that protection to people we like?  And who are like us?  They and their children?  People we've never met.  Other people’s children?  Is this getting out of hand?

And where do we find these people?  Citizens on the street?  Workers in the economy ?  Claimants on benefits?  Grandparents in care.  Immigrants at the airport?  Subjects of the queen?  Should different roles have different rules?

Such talk is full of contradiction, complexity and confusion.  Never let anybody tell you ‘it’s as simple as that!’ - they don’t know that they don’t know.  I suppose that's why it’s hard to bring a political argument to an end - there’s too much to disentangle, much of it irreconcilable.  

This material finds why it is that claim the political high ground.  It also finds what kind of evidence points to that claim being a fact, or an opinion, or a lie.  The argument here is that there is no more important task for educators than enabling that critical thinking. 

The evidence stems from three question to be put to any education programme: 

      1.      what interests does it serve? 
      2.      what voices should it heed?   
      3.      what can stakeholders do about it?

The questions locate education policy where it can be done with or without the support of party politics.  Education policy has no need to be tied to a party, but it does need to be established as a movement.  That means taking a stand on pressures and priorities.  Which means looking wider and deeper than where party politics is prepared to go.   

  •             14.      outcomes

‘Humans are the real threat’ - statistical mathematician’s estimates of what he takes to be the most pressing priorities for government action - he calculates the probabilities that what any organisation can do about anything will be curtailed most by its damaging impact on the biosphere and the diminishing availability of resources - in a range of issues for education, stretching from the personal to the planetary, there is no more basic voice for policy than that - it makes the neo-lib pursuit of unlimited growth non-viable - educators, acting independently of the interests of commerce and government, can develop informed, authentic and constructive ways of enabling students to work on these base-line realities

educators and their stakeholders can see unrestrained growth as an issue for the well-being of students’ and for the children they have and will have 

‘...Rescuing the enlightenment...’ - review of a free-thinking publication, arguing that there can be no idea more significant for education than ‘enlightenment’ - it originates in the politics of resisting control by crown and mitre - it values well-being and fulfillment above obedience and salvation - it is contentious, arguing that the right to independence can be curtailed by the powerful - and also that control is as much asserted by background and culture as by nation and state - wherever it focuses, the thinking is rejected by some who see it as an instrument of western intellectual imperialism - but enlightenment offers no guarantee of either truth or progress, it thrives on argument - and similar stands have, in both medieval North Africa and in modern Europe, made educational progress possible - the enlightenment’s part in education would be to engage students in the value of critical thinking concerning control by political power, by religious belief or by monetary wealth - and it would enable students to act on that independence

there’s no escape from competing claims on education so its stakeholders need to know where to take a stand

Justice - What’s the Right Thing to Do - commentator’s review of an ethics publication arguing that values are what a society says they are - this may be because they are convenient to some dominant interest - but it may also be because they accord with what most people can recognise as, in some sense, ‘good’ - goodness can attach to a handed-down belief about what is honorable, virtuous or safe - it can move into the protection of a person’s right to act on behalf of self and those close to self, the self responsibly accepting the consequences of the resulting action - but values can move farther into the justice of protecting people’s well-being, not because they are thought of as deserving or responsible but because they belong to a shared humanity - an outcome of education is, then, the enablement of students to take a defensible position, while offering the same respect for others as they would argue for themselves - there is no greater demand on imagination than picturing what you would wish from a society if you did not yet know where, with what, and to whom you will be born - and there are few issues which call more widely or deeply on what a good education should promise

educators and their stakeholders are part of a civil society independently voicing the values and interests of people engaging with living together

Virtue and Reward - journalist’s review of a scholarly reappraisal of ‘The Uses of Literacy’ - it is a book setting out learning as enabling ‘working-class’ people usefully to examine critical issues - the learning does not lead to ready-made answers, nor is it materialistic, and it is worked out with others in a community, sharing a culture - the re-appraisal contrasts then with now - in contemporary cultures literacy is found to be for asserting opinion, urging ‘have your say’, ‘get your message across’ and ‘win attention’ - there is less interest in what ‘The Uses of Literacy’ takes to be ‘respectable’ or ‘responsible’ thinking - and, it’s true, such old-fashioned talk is now unlikely to impress - it should, however, be possible to ask that learning is ‘informed’ and ‘thought-through’, and to hope that learning can enable people for reflective as well as assertive conversations - such a society would then be equipped to undermine what is shallow and narrow - and learning would enable people to change their minds - the review raises political issues, including the effects of close links between the US and UK - but the reappraisal doubts that the politics of education can do much about any of this - yet government needs to know how lost reflectiveness and contemporary assertiveness is reshaping what’s left of progressive policy - the reflective uses of literacy were never more needed - and, if government can’t see that, education’s stakeholders can

a society relies for its survival on educators enabling people to deal with issues in ways that are informed and thought through

Politics - the Central Texts - annotated link to publications on progressive politics - the focus is on the neglected needs and lost potential of the excluded - the publications are broad-based, drawing on philosophy, social theory, economics, law and politics - they set out what needs to be done to raise hopes for establishing a full and democratic life - this is argued to require developing a pragmatic and comprehensive alternative to neo-liberalism - the starting point is a diagnosis of limited political imagination - it makes politics arbitrary and haphazard - but the reality need not be chaotic where members of a society can reconceive, reform and rebuild it - and nothing is inevitable concerning property, democracy and wages - but what influential interests institutionalise curtails all such possibilities, and much of human potential is being lost - these documents argue that things will remain like this until members of each society are surprised by events which provoke the imagining and realising of new possibilities - the breadth and depth of the intellectual sources informing this argument call for big thinking, developing a broader and deeper understanding of what's going on than is commonly understood

education thinking needs to be wide enough to connect and open enough to explain so that purposes are imaginative enough to make a difference


policy, politics - and show-biz    

This final section is allowing itself to be surprised by events that 'provoke the imagining and realisation of new possibilities'.  That shock lives dangerously, by stepping outside the shallow and narrow.  The assumption here is that it's small-mindedness which poses the bigger risk.

The starting point is that the UK electorate mistrusts politicians - some hold them in contempt.  Politicians may not deserve this; but surveys vary only on the extent to which they show it.  And it’s easy enough to find politicos doing nothing more impressive than angling for power.  But I’d be surprised if you’ve not also noticed some trying to get something worthwhile done.  And then we have the razzle-dazzle-‘em performers. 

So maybe we should be thinking of politicos in three groups: politicians, policy makers and performers?:

>          electioneering politicians

>          serious policy makers

>          show-biz performers.

But is every politico only one these?  Surely they move there-and-back across a range of standpoints?  That movement would make each position an episode in a story, rather than a category on a list.  Mind you, some politicos don’t move their standpoints very much.

Much of politics deserves to be dismissed.  But the serious stuff is where policy makers genuinely try to do something worthwhile with education.  And they deserve respect.  They also deserve to be interrogated. 

Take, for example, policies to ‘raise aspiration’.  And who could be against that?  But, before the cheering starts, let's ask the questions.  Are we rooting for aspirations to be a good out-of-work dad?   Do we favour aspirations to quit work and end that stress?  Suppose it were an aspiration to oppose the economic growth that damages the planet and ruins the neighbourhood?  And, even if any of these get a political cheer, who would make sure that the neglected poor are in on this aspiration thing?  A politican can win applause for a claim to ‘justice available to all’.  But there’s enough argy-bargy among the sources cited here to show that ‘justice’ doesn’t necessarily mean what you think it means.  Neither does ‘available‘.  Nor does ‘all’.

Policy for aspiration is about people’s chances in life - far too important to be left to politics, and certainly not to show-bizz.  It's not a lot of laughs, not in Sunderland, anyway.  So, if anything can help Alice in Sunderland it will be policy interrogation - acting in whose interests? - heeding which voices? - driven by what stakeholders? 

A Prospect Magazine monograph, Poverty in the UK, makes a good start on policy.  And I don’t know how its seventy pages could have packed in more disagreement about what it should be.  Never a dull moment.

And, of course, things changed before Prospect’s ink had dried.  It’s out-of-date on bishops, popes and action in the name of religion.  It hasn’t caught up with what’s happening on wages, debt, predators, and economic myths.  And it’s behind the curve on the philosophy of ‘what's fact?’, ‘what's knowledge?’, and ‘what's valuable?’.  So it’s longer on opinion than on evidence.

But it bumps into all the influences on Alice’s life chances.  And it surprised and provoked me into trying to get the argument for progressive education into something like a narrative form.  A narrative needs a starting point leading to a turning point.  Does this?

…   fast-growing technologies mean that unfettered growth is damaging the planet

…   those technologies are also strengthening commerce and weakening government 

…   and they’re bringing both help and harm to people’s personal and social well-being

…   so people can think for themselves about what they believe, value and expect

…   but the thinking is located in communities that become strangers to each other

...    which means that each community makes a different demand on education

...    no resolution of this is inevitable it persists with consent and withdrawn consent changes everything 

This is a narrative if it sets out one thing leading to another.  It's like a journey, moving on from the starting point and coming across the turning points.  A turning point often surprises and sometimes shocks.  And either can lead to unanticipated change.  

There are surprises coming to educational professionals - especially if they are so convinced of their righteousness that they've waited for politicians to ride to their rescue.  But they've been stood up, so should they withdraw consent?  The planet has enough examples of withdrawn consent for people to wonder whether the days of national politics are numbered.  Some of the people are brits.  And some of those are students

Could it be a turning point for 'provoking the imagination and realising new possibilities'?  And how crazy is it to wonder that, if educationist can't rely on national government, wouldn’t it be a good idea to look around for what might be more reliable?

This blog’s evidence show that a national government stability depends on inclusive and responsive institutions.  It documents policy which excludes open institutions.  It quotes global commerce's unresponsive scripts for education.  There are, of course, denials; but the evidence is that commerce is moving in on education and policy is not obstructing it.

And so the Royal Society of Arts (RSA) is sticking its neck out.  It wants national governments to back off.  National governments are too big to grasp locally variable experience, and too small to protect that experience from globally-generated damage. 

The RSA looks instead to The Power of Cities  (journal #3).  For a start, it requires us to rise above the show-biz clowns in charge of some of our cities.  The more important reality is that around half the world’s population is living in metropolitan areas.  Sunderland is among them.  And the numbers are increasing. 

In cities people need to learn to live with all kinds of others.  They are close enough to the action for people to know what’s going on.  And cities are big enough for them to find more than one way of dealing with things.  That’s why RSA-chief Matthew Taylor (p.5) recognises cities as a promising new setting for designing education policy. 

There are significant advantages.  A city can develop a network of local stakeholder organisations, reaching to all its neighbourhoods, outlying villages and other settlements.  Few locations are entirely out of urban reach.  Those that are choose to be.

Political scientists (pp.20ff) find four upsides.  Cities have: (1) a wide-enough range of sources to draw upon; (2) a great-enough range of ideas to engage with; (3) a willingness to let go of what no longer works; and (4) an ability to re-integrate the insights that large-scale clumsiness has fragmented.  They see cities as thriving on that scope and complexity rather than relying on the bogus persuasiveness of the narrow and shallow.

There are exceptions but, world-wide, cities are gathering approving coverage.  The records show that they can act quickly on dealing with the consequences of global warming.  They are well placed to undermine trafficking in flesh and drugs.  They are moving into locally-relevant crime-control measures, traffic-management schemes and health-and-safety programmes.  And no policy needs this combination of local responsiveness and wide-ranging scope than a policy for education.

And cities do not need to be dependent on commercial and government funding; indeed, they really need to be looking elsewhere.  Economists (pp.10ff) have tracked city-based capacity for gaining alternative funding with fewer strings attached. 

There are also business-world voices (pp.32ff) that can see how such trends are usefully getting organised independently of commerce and state.  They are seen to be fostering change that is owned by communities and is developed on a human scale.  

Metropolitan smarts seem to hold out a hope of dumping national politicking and outflanking global power.  But Matthew Taylor advises the hopeful not to hold their breath: it’s going to take time.  He’s right: there are logistical issues for anchoring civil society to metropolitan areas; market players try to eliminate competition not encourage it; and transatlantic trade agreements already protect them.  Matthew Taylor is talking about policy, and policy takes time to be realised.  It will need persistent stakeholder action to neutralise shareholder guile.  It’s a long haul.  It won’t be completed in a parliament - I doubt in my lifetime.  But I’m betting it will happen. 

There is a narrative that is relatively easy to talk about.  And a backstory that is not.  Education needs the bigger story...

>          civil society is bigger than the big society 
because it gets organised for coordinated action

>          stakeholder’s interests are wider than shareholder’s 
because they work with the people whose lives are affected

>          citizen voice is bigger that consumer demand 
because it knows how a local past, present and future belongs to local people

>          conversation is bigger than commissioned consultancy 
because it voices both expertise and experience 

>          learning for action is bigger than winning an argument 
because it understands the narrative in order to change it

That’s the backstory.  It makes the promise possible.  The evidence is that without informed resistance to the hegemonic power that it reveals there can be no progressive education.  It shows that the resulting promise can be kept with or without national government support.  It believes that nothing is inevitable and that withdrawn consent can change everything.  It holds to the stakeholder interests and voice that can make change happen.  And it insists that education is community property and must be returned to its owners.

Alice will believe none of this unless her educators do.


   thanks to the Compass Conference participants

for their usefully sceptical questioning and feedback 
                 on city-based stakeholding

this work is in four parts...

1.            issues

2.            change

3.            education

4.            policy

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contribute to the on-line discussion below, or by e-mailing Bill...


Dr Bill Law FRSA
the career-learning café


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