Friday, 18 May 2012

Soylent Green is Teachers: why we need to defend education from the predators of profit

Your new school governors. What?
I am not, nor have I ever been, a communist. I believe in America. I begrudgingly concede  Milton Friedman's point that capitalism (with all its faults) is the least bad system we've devised yet. It remains riddled with anti-life equations; Marx's analysis of its weaknesses was more or less correct, although the alternative he painted remains a sketch.

Some of its central structural flaws: its dependence on desire as the driving force of delivery; the utilitarian obsession with valuing what it can measure, until all else is not only ignored, but becomes forgotten, as if it had never existed. And in its Darwinian quest for advantage, it favours those just vicious enough to maintain a status quo of cooperativeness. It seeks short term goals, it pits all against all, and without regulation, it would return us to an age of robber-barons, and perhaps it soon will.

That's the good news. But to be fair on Adam Smith, it delivers on many levels: as a conduit between perceived need and supply, it approaches cartilage in its connective powers. But there is one circular charge against it which can never be squared: it values profit above all things. Marx called profit theft; more generous commentators call it the fuel of ambition and innovation, the psychological egoist pay-off for competing and striving.

Profit, above all things. Kant claimed that the only true moral motive was the good will- the desire to do good for its own sake. Anything else fetishised the intention, and made good an instrument to an extrinsic goal. For example, if I am an honest shopkeeper because I want my business to prosper, then what I really seek is prosperity, and the minute I can pursue this without honesty, I do so. That is what is so damning about profit: whatever one does in its name, if profit is your sole goal, then all other goals become subservient to it. I believe I'm not conceiving anything controversial when I say that money is an intoxicant that ruins the keenest of hearts.

The future of law enforcement
And profit sits very uneasily with education; not because I cannot conceive of anything educational having a margin, but because of the temptation to see the playground as a marketplace. There are many aspects of state schooling that, like the health of the nation, cannot be amended to the spreadsheet, because they are intrinsically non-profitable- financially. Listening to a kid who's depressed; talking to a parent about ways to get their kid back into school; teaching with passion because you love your subject and you want your kids to do so as well. These, and a million more things, are what education is about. They aren't done because of some loathsome hedonic calculus, or because we quantify experiences that are essentially qualitative. They are done because they are intrinsically valuable, not because they reduce to a bottom line, or a monetary value.

So I watch with horror the vultures circling education as I write, looking to see which part of the school pack looks like the most lucrative place to maul and bleed first. Which part is the most lucrative?

'Would you like fries with your dreams?'
Of course, schools have outsourced for decades; we are far from soviet. Caterers, cleaners, IT supplies, and so on have all been seen as something that could be run far more efficiently by an economy of scale across boroughs. Now this may be practical on many many levels, but I only have to mention Turkey Twizzlers and you start to get my point: when something is done for profit, profit becomes the sole aim, and other aims- feeding children healthy meals- is not. There was a corner shop next to my old school that sold stink bombs and firecrackers. I am NOT kidding you. When I asked him to stop, he just said, 'They'll buy them somewhere else, won't they?' Ah, Heroes of Sparta, we salute you.

Two things reported in this week's Private Eye reminded me of these factors today. One was an article about how private investor forms are 'circling the university sector hungrily.' As you can imagine, their intentions are strictly honourable, looking to move into distance learning- that highly regarded and noble part of the tertiary education sector, as the University of Wales knows.


Coming Soon- The Soylent Green Academy

Then there was this article about  Michael Gove's  long, unedifying history with the now pariah News International Gang, helping them to- almost- set up a News International School in Newnham. Anyone fancy the chances of that now? No. Incidentally, Boris was on the tours to find potential sites too. Eeh, it makes you feel all warm, doesn't it?

'Murdoch told investors he sees schools as a “revolutionary and profitable” area for business expansion. In the US, indeed, he bought Wireless Generation, an education technology company that could digitise classrooms. Given its pisspoor record in New York schools, however, Britain – and Gove – appear to have had a very lucky escape.
According to the New York City comptroller (auditor) John Liu, the “costly tech program” was supposed “to help principals and teachers track progress and thereby improve student learning”. But “$83m later, there is little discernible improvement in learning and many principals and teachers have given up on the system.”'

Schools aren't a 'profitable area' into which businesses can expand. They aren't a line in a P&L sheet. They are not hot dogs.What makes this worse is the emergent (and to my eyes, grossly oversold) IT revolution that has been promising to revolutionise education for decades. It hasn't. It probably won't. It's an enormous con designed to sell white boards, tablets, software, maintenance contracts, etc. These things can all be great, of course, I use them myself. But to suggest that we couldn't learn properly before them is obviously a lie, and a stupid one at that; and the idea that they will make us all learn...what, quicker, better? is also a lie, because it is without foundation. Most tech I have seen in schools is redundant, foisted on an unwitting staff by budget holders who want to be seen to be cutting edge, but are really just flailing about looking for solutions. And there will always be people willing to sell you solutions.

Soylent Green is teachers.


http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soylent_Green

6 comments:

  1. Tom, in 2009–10 UK state schools recorded ICT budgets (excluding curriculum software) of £576.8 million – up by £18.6 million
    on 2006-07 levels of £558.2 million. ICT allocations from school budgets were estimated to be around £556 million in 2010–11 – excluding curriculum software and digital content. Spending on educational ICT in 2008–09 in the UK was £2.5bn, and was expected to reach £2.9bn last year... before a coalition government decided, unlike their gullible predecessors, it maybe wasn't such a sound investment.

    From my research paper for CfBT on this entire question: "It seems an extraordinary position to be in, but the reality for very many schools and teachers today worldwide, is that they are largely the unknowing victims of a concerted and determined coalition of forces made up of policy-makers, government agencies, commercial suppliers and techno-zealots, all seeking to impose a new vision of school education that centres on technology and digital literacy. This has led to the unthinking adoption and routine use by teachers and children of complex, often inappropriate technologies, coerced into use for education from other industries, without sufficient serious, professional or objective evaluation of the benefits or advantages to either the children or the teachers."

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  2. I would like to read this paper VERY MUCH.....

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  3. They said that video would transform education...

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    1. They say that there's a broken heart for every light on Broadway....

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  4. Tom,
    It's downloadable here.
    http://www.cfbt.com/newsandevents/latestnews/ictinschools.aspx
    Joe

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    1. Hi Joe

      Just read your report and the Wellington presentation (I was speaking there, now I'm I'm sorry I missed you). Really enjoyed it, and it chimes uncomfortably with my own perspective; the fetishisation of IT resources has dominated the planning processes of schools for some time now. Great to see some research on this.

      If you don't mind, I'll drop a short blog today linking to your resources.

      Thanks again

      Tom

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