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policy, politics - and show-biz

what education can do with sharper arguments, about big ideas for small starts, in more cities

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Bill Law
29 January 2014

This is an extract from a call for urgent action on the politics of education.  It says that it's shock that stokes the energy needed to reclaim curriculum.  Shock can live dangerously enough to step outside the shallow and narrow manipulation of opinion.  It's small-mindedness that puts the future of education at greatest risk.  And its big thinking that will bang on the doors of show-biz politicians.

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? 

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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Dr Bill Law FRSA
the career-learning café


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