Previously in this blog I reflected on the thorny issue of ‘what works?’ in public service and the contribution research makes to informing such judgements. A good deal of this came back to me last week, given a series of experiences. The first was my participation in the annual conference of BERA, the British Educational Research Association. There I heard a good deal of ‘evidence’ about what works, and what doesn’t, and, indeed, the things that appear to be positively harmful in ‘education’. Therein the crux of the matter: all hangs on what we take the concept of education to mean, and what we consider its aims to be. Thankfully, there were philosophers in the audience able to point this out. One wonders how we will fare if their practice is extinguished in train with that of others working in the humanities and social sciences.
On Monday, some apparent, answers, from our dear Prime Minister, who in a speech on education confidently asserted: “These debates are over – because it’s clear what works. Discipline works. Rigour works. Freedom for schools works. Having high expectations works. Now we’ve got to get on with it – and we don’t have any time to lose.”
I was reminded of Francis Fukuyama’s seminal ‘The End of History and the Last Man’: “What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” In this he argued free market-based liberal democracy was an end game in the development process, and all states would ultimately take on these characteristics. And yet, in the light of 9/11 and subsequent wars, Fukuyama appeared to review his presumption – suggesting, in the light of events, he had been misplaced in making such a bold statement.
Fukuyama has returned to the stage again recently to suggest that, in the fullness of time, Osama bin Laden, al-Qaida, 9/11 and the war on terror will be seen as “a mere blip or diversion”. In an historical context, he doubts whether anyone will remember. I guess now he doubts his earlier doubts on the end of history.
So back to Cameron, might there be any doubts in his conclusion, now or in the future? Somehow, it seems unlikely, given the history of ‘not for turning’ sentiments he shares with one of his notable predecessors. Which is instructive as, for all claims to be a new kind of caring conservativism, these guys have reverted to type very quickly. Rather, as Alvin Hall powerfully illustrates, they have taken this project, initiated by Thatcher and continued by Blair, even further forward. Let us name it for what it is: neo liberalism, which, should you be in any doubt as to its definition, let Robert McChesney, in his introduction to Noam Chomsky’s ‘Profit Over People’ enlighten you: “Neoliberal initiatives are characterized as free market policies that encourage private enterprise and consumer choice, reward personal responsibility and entrepreneurial initiative, and undermine the dead hand of the incompetent, bureaucratic and parasitic government, that can never do good even if well intended, which it rarely is.”
This only leaves the many hundreds of educational researchers who attended the conference, and the countless thousands elsewhere, seemingly stranded in a profession for which parliamentarians have no future need. So a few thoughts from a couple of them might be a fitting epitaph. One, having considered the rise in obligation of educators to work in ‘flexible and adaptable ways’ (another hallmark of neo liberalism) demonstrated a correlation between this and the emergence of new classes of untrained or poorly trained educators. The recent House of Commons Education Committee report on Services for young people illustrates this well: “we are not aware of any research that shows definitively that higher levels of qualifications in youth work lead to better outcomes for young people”. Said researcher, Stephen Ball, makes the point that such practitioners become “unencumbered by reflection”, which is, of course, something that the few ‘critical pedagogues’ in the audience have long since promoted. Which only leaves the last word to a visiting colleague from Austria, who asked me why we used the rider ‘critical’ in the first place. “Isn’t all pedagogy, all education, supposed to be critical?’ Well, apparently not, and especially with neo liberals running the country.
This said, my own thesis on ‘pragmatic Romanticism’ suggests they haven’t quite got control over the educational project just yet; and won’t if I, and a good deal of other folk, have anything to do with it – especially if we socialise (namely, democratise) our practice.
It might be crass to suggest it, but, in considering something of the magnitude as the future of education we might all need to decide which side we stand on. A luta continua.