Kick politics out of education

It is only when our leaders are in trouble that they start marching into schools.

Michele Ledda

Topics Politics

‘Since I became leader of the Labour Party, I have emphasised that education will be a priority for me in government…. Our economic success and our social cohesion depend on it. An age of achievement is within our grasp – but it depends on an ethic of education.’ (Twentieth-anniversary Ruskin College lecture given by UK prime minister Tony Blair on 16 December 1996.)

Nothing better illustrates modern politicians’ retreat from politics than the images of US president George W Bush sitting in a primary school classroom, absorbed in the children’s story My Pet Goat, on 11 September 2001, after he was informed that the country was under terrorist attack. For a few minutes he looked completely lost, as if he had suddenly been reminded that there was a big bad world outside.

Many have commented on Bush’s lack of leadership on that occasion, but the problem is not so much that he was not ready when the terrorists struck. The real problem is that modern heads of government seem to be spending more and more of their time in classrooms. Governments are devoting time and energy to determining the minute details of children’s educational experience.

There would be nothing wrong with improving standards in education if this had not replaced the more important task of improving society through politics. Annual school examination results, together with other public sector performance measures, have all but replaced ideology and political principles as a measure of government performance.

Public examinations’ main aim now is not so much to measure student learning but rather to measure teachers, schools and government performance. This became obvious during the A-level scandal of summer 2002 that led to education secretary Estelle Morris’ resignation. Government agencies and examination boards were clearly more worried about the political repercussions of a sudden rise in A-level marks, with the inevitable accusation of grade inflation, than they were in assessing the actual performance of students in England and Wales.

It is now common for government ministers to celebrate examination results as if they themselves, and not the students, had passed the exams. The Guardian website, for instance, informs us that ‘Ministers celebrated hitting an education target a year earlier today’ (1). The target the government had set for itself was 69.8 per cent of 19-year-olds obtaining at least five good GCSEs. The government had originally set the target at 70 per cent by 2006, but hit it a year earlier after it had revised it downwards by 0.2 percentage points, following its realisation that the 2004 results had been overestimated.

It is only 30 years ago but it seems like a different geological age
when chief inspector of schools Sheila Browne could tell Labour prime
minister James Callaghan: ‘What are you doing interfering in education?
This is none of your business.’ (2)

Callaghan’s famous speech at Ruskin College, Oxford, on 18 October 1976, is widely credited with having started government meddling in education. Before Callaghan, ‘the principle remained that government did not interfere in how, what or how well schools taught – it was enough to ensure that education was provided’ (3). As Callaghan explained 20 years later: ‘It was not normal for prime ministers to interfere openly in such questions. Obviously I must have ulterior motives.’ (4)

Obviously he did. Callaghan argued that education should be at the centre of political discussion: ‘Everyone is allowed to put his oar in on how to overcome our economic problems.… Very important too…but not as important in the long run as preparing future generations for life.’ For Callaghan, education was the main means to economic and social prosperity: ‘the endowment of our children is the most precious of the
natural resources of this community. So I do not hesitate to discuss how
these endowments should be nurtured.’ (5)

It is not surprising that Callaghan, with his dire economic record, should have wanted to deflect public attention away from economics and on to education as a means of planning the country’s future. What is extraordinary is that 20 years later New Labour should have embraced these same principles, elaborated in a moment of great crisis by a leader who has since told the press that he expected to be considered ‘the worst prime minister since Sir Robert Walpole [1721-1742]’ (6).

Today Blair proudly proclaims from the Downing Street website that ‘education is now the centre of economic policymaking for the future’ (7). He explains that education is ‘central to everything we stand for – making our nation strong and competitive, enlarging opportunity, building successful families and responsible citizens, and eliminating social exclusion’ (8).

Free universal education is certainly the mark of a civilised society, so perhaps we should welcome the fact that the government devotes so much interest, time and effort to it. Unfortunately, the use of education for political ends corrupts both education and politics.

It corrupts education by twisting its purpose – from the intellectual emancipation of the child through the transmission of knowledge, to the attempt to create responsible citizens and workers, with the correct skills, attitudes and opinions. By using knowledge in an instrumental way, it devalues its importance.

Schools now consider knowledge as virtually useless unless it leads to an official outcome or objective, both within each lesson and at the end of the educational process, usually in the form of a state qualification, a job skill, or an awareness of some pet government issue such as teenage pregnancy or obesity.

Even universities are finding it increasingly difficult to justify knowledge as an end in itself. Higher education minister Bill Rammell’s response in February 2006 to the news that university applications are down on subjects such as history, philosophy and classics, is typical. ‘If students are making a calculation about which degree is going to get them the best job and the best opportunity in life, I see that as being no bad thing’, he told the Press Association (9). One would have thought that it was the job of the minister for higher education at the very least to pretend to take an interest in the value of philosophical, historical and classical knowledge.

Rammell’s philistine attitude, however, is not too surprising if one considers that his critics in the universities were also unable to defend the intrinsic value of their disciplines. ‘I think the minister is just out of date’, said Professor Douglas Cairns, who is honorary secretary of the Classical Association and head of history and classics at Edinburgh University. ‘Like every other arts subject, we provide the full range of transferable skills that have been expected of us for the last 10 to 15 years. A degree in any humanities subject is an excellent training for the world of work.’

Jonathan Wolff, philosophy professor at University College London and honorary secretary of the British Philosophical Association, stated: ‘It is a bad mistake to think that subjects like philosophy, history and classics do not prepare students for the workplace. In the modern world, detailed factual information goes out of date so quickly that employees need the skills to conduct research, and the flexibility of mind and imagination to see problems and possible solutions from many points of views. This is what philosophy and similar subjects provide so well.’ And talking of skills, whoever said that university professors are not good salesmen?

The use of education for political ends also corrupts politics, by treating adult citizens as ‘lifelong learners’ in constant need of education. The call for education, education and education to be the first three priorities of a New Labour government represents a recognition of the limits of political debate to influence the economy and the direction of the country – and it therefore represents a change in the relationship between the government and its citizens. Where politics is based on argument and persuasion, education as a political tool is a form of behaviour modification.

Through political debate, citizens make important decisions about their country’s future. The purpose of education is not to arrive at political decisions, but only to make children think so they can arrive at the conclusion that the educator already has in mind. The uneducated citizen by definition cannot have a valid opinion.

As the political theorist Hannah Arendt has explained: ‘Education can play no part in politics, because in politics we have to deal with those who are already educated. Whoever wants to educate adults really wants to act as their guardian and prevent them from political activity…. The word “education” has an evil sound in politics; there is a pretence of education, when the real purpose is coercion without the use of force.’ (10)

It is perhaps not a coincidence, then, that Callaghan at the start of his speech addressed the trade unionists in the audience as incompetent adults in need of education: ‘The work of a trade union official becomes ever more onerous, because he has to master continuing new legislation on health and safety at work, employment protection and industrial change. This lays obligations on trade unionists which can only be met by a greatly expanded programme of education and understanding. Higher standards than ever before are required in the trade union field.’

Unfortunately, the frenzied political debate on education has little to do with improving children’s access to knowledge. Rather, it is an expression of anti-politics. It is our society’s disillusionment with politics and democracy that makes us look to the education system as the only hope for a better society and a better future for the individual.

(1) Ministers celebrate hitting lower GCSE target, Press Association, 23 February 2006

(2) Will Woodward, Landscape Architect, Guardian, 5 April 2005

(3) Charles Clarke, Five Years Strategy, DfES, July 2004

(4) Making education Britain’s top priority, The Ruskin Speech 20th anniversary lecture given by Rt Hon Lord Callaghan of Cardiff KG on October 15 1996, Guardian, Friday 19 October 2001

(5) Towards a national debate, the speech by Prime Minister James Callaghan, at a foundation stone-laying ceremony at Ruskin College, Oxford, on 18 October 1976, Guardian, 15 October 2001

(6) Callaghan expects ‘worst PM’ tag, BBC News, Friday, 8 October 1999

(7) PM ‘restless for change’ in education, 18 November 2005

(8) Speech by the Prime Minister Tony Blair about Education Action Zones, 15 January 1999

(9) Trend to drop philosophy no bad thing, says Rammell, Guardian, Wednesday February 15, 2006

(10) Hannah Arendt, Between Past and Future, London: Penguin, 1993. Originally published in 1961 as an essay, ‘The Crisis in Education’, Partisan Review, Fall 1958, pp.493-513

(11) Continuing the education debate, Guardian, 16 October 2001

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Topics Politics


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