Education: you can’t buy and sell intellectual capital

ELECTION ESSAY: Frank Furedi explains why the mighty mess Labour made of education won’t be fixed by privatisation or parental pressure.

Frank Furedi

Topics Politics

In the run-up to the UK General Election, spiked will publish a series of essays reposing political issues. Tackling everything from education to immigration to capitalism, the aim of the ‘Question Everything’ essays is to encourage people to rethink the past, the present and the future. In this first essay, Frank Furedi argues that treating education as a ‘material good’ rather than a ‘mental good’ has serious implications for schooling and the intellectual capital of our society.

The good news is that everyone is talking about education in the run-up to the UK General Election in May. The bad news is that the discussion is too focused on technical and organisational matters, which means that the real debate that we need – about the substance of education – hasn’t even started.

This failure to address and clarify issues of substance could provide New Labour with a get-out clause in relation to education. And that is dreadful news. The New Labour government’s appalling record on education is in a class of its own, and yet it has not caused the party any serious electoral problems. Indeed, a recent poll for BBC TV’s Newsnight suggested that the Conservative Party has failed to capitalise on the government’s depressing record on education. Yes, the majority of the electorate knows that New Labour has failed to deliver on its educational promises – but it remains unaware of the extent of the damage the government has done in the world of education.

It is worth noting that the Office for National Statistics (ONS) found that, although spending on education has increased by more than £30billion per year under Labour, value for money has fallen steadily. Of course it is almost impossible to measure improvements in school standards, but, if anything, the ONS figures actually underestimate how badly the money was spent. The recent slight improvements in GCSE scores and exam results should not be seen as a reflection of improved educational standards. Over the past 11 years, grade inflation, helped by fiddling the curriculum and the system of examinations, has become the norm. Consequently, educational statistics tend to obscure rather than clarify. Even worse, education has become so politicised and bureaucratised that the intellectual value of the school curriculum has been seriously compromised.

It is not surprising that the government’s massive investment in education has been wasted. Throwing money at education seldom yields positive qualitative outcomes. Investing financial resources can improve teachers’ living standards and the quality of school buildings and equipment. Such improvements are desirable, of course, but they are unlikely to make any significant impact on educational standards. Why? Because although money has a direct impact on the quality of material goods, it can rarely have a positive impact on education, which is a mental good. Public spending can enhance physical infrastructure and improve the material goods available to society. But mental goods – such as knowledge, appreciation of the arts, civic pride, intellectual curiosity – are unlikely to increase and decrease in response to financial stimuli or, for that matter, government policy. That is why, as the experience of the US shows, there is not always a correlation between a nation’s wealth and its standards of educational attainment.

New Labour’s inability to distinguish between material goods and mental goods has led to a form of technocratic policymaking, and to a situation where an increase in quantity (material resources) has coincided with a diminution of quality (mental resources). This disturbing achievement is not simply a consequence of the New Labour government’s habit of ‘throwing money at a problem’ – more fundamentally it reflects New Labour’s tendency to look upon education as a material resource that can be distributed and redistributed in the same way that money is distributed in the sphere of welfare payments and taxation.

Unfortunately, however, it is far easier to target and redistribute financial capital than it is intellectual and cultural capital. That is why the government’s various social-engineering projects in education – such as widening access or discriminating in favour of disadvantaged pupils – yield such meagre results. Building a new, well-equipped school in a disadvantaged community is far easier than providing the children with inspiring teachers and with access to the cultural and intellectual resources necessary for a challenging educational experience.

We should remember the liberal philosopher Bertrand Russell’s warning about what happens when government attempts to redistribute intellectual capital from those who have it to those who don’t. Russell wrote: ‘There is a risk that, in the pursuit of equality, good things which there is difficulty in distributing evenly may not be admitted to be good. Some of the unjust societies of the past gave to a minority opportunities which, if we are not careful, the new society that we seek to build may give to no one.’

Russell’s concern was that, since cultural capital cannot be readily redistributed, governments might respond to this fact of life by calling into question the value of cultural capital altogether. High standards in intellectual and artistic pursuits would be denounced as ‘irrelevant’ and ‘elitist’. His prediction proved to be accurate. There is a real tendency today to devalue subject-based academic learning as elitist and irrelevant. The current trend for eroding the academic content of education is fuelled by a belief that it is far better to distribute something – even if it’s just paper qualifications – than to acknowledge how difficult it is to provide genuine opportunities for all. Instead of engaging with the tough question of how the ‘good things’ that are currently available only to a minority can be made available to all, Labour feels more comfortable creating a society in which such goods are given to no one.

In recent years, a succession of Labour politicians in charge of education – Charles Clarke, Ruth Kelly, Estelle Morris, Ed Balls – have shown that they are far better at criticising the elitism of those who uphold high academic standards than they are at providing greater opportunities for the intellectual development of youngsters whose parents have little access to cultural capital.

If throwing money at schools worked, then the government’s programme of building specialist academies would have proved a major success. Yes, a lot of nice buildings have been built; yes, there are wonderful whiteboards and computers in these new establishments; and yes, children probably prefer to work in these kinds of settings than in old-fashioned schools. But the construction of these academies has done little to improve educational standards. There are two reasons why the academy programme has failed, and will continue to fail, to make any significant difference to young people’s learning.

Firstly, as I argue in my book Wasted: Why Education Is Not Educating, the quality of schooling is shaped by the quality of the relationship between adults and young people. It is also influenced by the value that society accords to ideas and to the pursuit of education for its own sake. And unfortunately, today’s policymakers and pedagogues are reluctant to tackle these wider social and cultural questions, even though they impact enormously on what takes place in classrooms. Instead they opt for technical solutions: change the curriculum, introduce behavioural management techniques, build new kinds of schools.

Secondly, there is the problem of policymakers trying to harness parental anxieties as a way of compensating for the failures of schooling. Parents are now expected to assume primary responsibility for the education of their children. Instead of seeing education as a generational transaction, which is carried out through the joint cooperation of adults and schools, education has become atomised and has been outsourced to the individual parent. Of course, in previous times the ideal of education as a generational transaction was undermined by the tensions brought about by different class and social interests. Today, we have a highly individualised free-for-all where parents are encouraged to fend for themselves and pursue their private interests in relation to their children’s schooling. The promotion of parental self-interest inflates the impact that individual circumstances can have on the educational opportunities available to children. The individualisation of education through direct parental involvement in schooling makes the problem of traditional forms of inequality seem almost benign by comparison, because it directly turns education into a zero-sum scramble for influence. One parent’s success in getting a place for her child in a desirable school comes at the expense of her neighbour’s children.

Nor does parental pressure play any constructive role in relation to what happens in the classroom. Through their interventions into the minutiae of school life, parents cannot help but undermine the professional status of teachers. Yet policymakers are demanding an even greater role for parental pressure. In empowering the so-called ‘pushy parent’, policymakers inadvertently undermine the ideal of education as a generational accomplishment driven by community solidarity.

Of course it is understandable that parents should go to great lengths to help their children and try to make up for the failures of the schooling system. Some have even taken the desperate step of lying about where they live in order to get into a good school. Other parents hire a posse of private tutors to teach their children subjects that they should have learned in their school classroom. Groups of parents have even embarked on setting up their own schools. Many of these initiatives may well be able to provide an inspiring alternative to mainstream education. Yet while such initiatives provide some kind of solution for a small minority of parents and children, they obviously do not address the problem of mainstream education. Worse still, the affirmation of parent power threatens to foster a climate where the traditional disinterested promotion of educational opportunities, in the interests of the community and society, becomes more and more difficult to pursue.

Outsourcing education

New Labour’s education policy has been so bad that it would be very difficult indeed, if not impossible, for the Conservative Party’s education policy not to represent some kind of improvement. Numerous Conservative policymakers have been openly critical of the dumbing down of the school curriculum under New Labour. The Conservatives’ education spokesman, Michael Gove, has spoken eloquently about the problem of the state’s micro-management of schooling and the politicisation of the curriculum. And he has rightly drawn attention to many of the intellectual failings of the curriculum in subjects such as history and the sciences.

The Conservatives have rightly questioned the ability of a highly centralised and bureaucratised education system to provide decent schooling. However, their policy response to the bureaucratisation of education looks unlikely to improve the situation in any real or meaningful way. Instead of elaborating a decentralised, community-oriented system of quality schooling, they have opted to harness parental ambition and concern by promising to provide parents with greater choice. Conservative education policy is built on the flawed assumption that a quasi-market in education is likely to raise standards in classrooms. In this respect, the party falls prey to that confusion between material goods and mental goods. Getting private companies and group of parents to run schools is unlikely to be any more effective than Labour’s academies.

Those who support the Conservative Party’s policy of educational choice point to various successful schools that are run by groups of parents or private educators. There is no doubt that schools freed from centralised control and run by highly motivated parents or educators can achieve impressive results. Over the past century, numerous experimental projects have shown that committed parents and teachers can succeed in outperforming the mainstream school sector. However, their achievements are not testament to the virtues of ‘choice’ or the workings of the educational market, but rather to the enthusiasm and involvement of a self-selected group of concerned individuals. Indeed, the very process of self-selection distinguishes the teachers, parents and children involved in such schools from the norm – if they had stayed in mainstream schooling, these individuals would likely have done better than their peers. Although projects and experimental schools may provide important lessons for society, they are what they are – projects and experiments – and are unlikely to become mainstream.

Conservative policymakers are looking to private schools in Sweden and charter schools in the US as models to pursue in the UK. Yet these initiatives demonstrate the limited impact that an educational market can have on raising educational standards. No doubt some of the privately run Swedish schools and American charter schools have achieved impressive results. But there is compelling evidence to show that these improvements are not easily reproducible and that they last for a relatively short period of time. Moreover, by relying on parental ambition, these initiatives encourage educational polarisation, where opportunity for children becomes dependent on the commitment and energy of their parents.

There is also the danger that charter schools and private initiatives become parasitical on the public education system. There are many compelling arguments for rejecting the idea of having US-style charter schools in Britain. Diane Ravitch, one of America’s leading education historians and a fierce critic of the dumbed-down curriculum promoted by the American equivalents of Estelle Morris and Ed Balls, has come out strongly against using the market to improve schools. Although she once supported having a market-based system of education, the impact wrought by various market-style reforms has led her to change her position. Ravitch now argues that charter schools are, on average, no better than regular mainstream schools. She fears that charter schools are diverting resources from regular schools, and that as a result the whole system of public education has become undermined.

In principle there is nothing wrong with private education. Many of the institutions in the UK’s independent education sector (though not all of them) provide a high standard of education. In part, their achievements are a result of their ability to insulate themselves from the worst impacts of government intervention. But it is not their private status that guarantees their success. Many of these institutions are built on a legacy of significant cultural and intellectual capital. Their achievements are organically linked to a tradition of excellence, which is supported by generations of influential and privileged parents. Such schools cannot be cobbled together through parental ambition or the workings of the market. Market-driven new private schools are likely to be merely a more efficient version of New Labour’s academies. Without the requisite cultural capital, they are likely to prove better at training than at educating.

It is worth noting that one of the most insidious threats to the ‘independence’ of private education is the impact of the ‘pushy parent’. Parents who view themselves as fee-paying customers often have no inhibitions about demanding that teachers accommodate to their demands and those of their children. The pressure they impose on independent education has very little creative content – its principal accomplishment in to undermine the ethos of a school community and force teachers on the defensive.

The antidote to the centralised state control of education is not to privatise education, but to establish a public school system freed from bureaucratic influence. That way we can create the conditions for the emergence of a genuine form of educational pluralism that is based on a common commitment to high standards. It is not enough that politicians should stop interfering in education. They should also avoid confusing the mental good of education with material goods whose quality can be improved through state spending or a cash transaction on the market.

Frank Furedi’s latest book, Wasted: Why Education Isn’t Educating, is published by Continuum Press. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

#1: Frank Furedi on education

#2: Brendan O’Neill on immigration

#3: Mick Hume on left and right

#4: James Woudhuysen on innovation

#5: James Panton on the welfare state

#6: Jennie Bristow on parenting

#7: Brendan O’Neill on freedom

#8: Dr Michael Fitzpatrick on public health

#9: Sean Collins on capitalism

Topics Politics


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