Tom Bennett

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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

The Power Behind the Throne: Joel Klein, News Corp and the Education Revolution

Wormtongue and Saruman; Klein behind. Not in the pink jacket. Probably.
Joel Klein sat behind the Murdochs throughout their media crucible today. Why is he important? Because he’s one of the inner circle that Murdoch summoned to handle the crisis facing News International- and may I just say, what a brilliant job you’ve done so far. Really kept a lid on things.
He’s a man with a past, and a big interest in education, and he’s coming to a school near you. If that doesn’t chill your blood, I suggest that ice water already pumps through your veins. Last year he stepped down as head of New York’s schools so that he could take a position as head of News Corps Education Division (after turning down an offer to run the Security Wing of Omni Consumer Products in Detroit, after Dick Jones’s misjudged Robocop venture).
In the US he also ran the Antitrust department of the US Department of Justice; antitrust, as you probably know, is a legal field concerned with breaking up and preventing monopolies, something that Murdoch is, let’s be honest, pretty interested in. And by ‘pretty interested’ I mean ‘up to his armpits, obsessively, consumed by,’ given his desire to see the BBC split into teams of three people or less, running through the High Street interviewing shoppers about the weather on phone cameras (as trialled by The One Show).
And now he’s got his sights and heart, were he to possess such a thing, on education. Not that he actually has any experience in such a thing- trained as a lawyer- but that didn’t stop NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg appointing him to run one of the nation’s biggest systems. See? Education’s easy. He wasn’t popular there, focussing on performance targets for teachers, data driven programs, closed schools and, some say, favoured charter schools (think: free) over state schools (think: poor). But he is frighteningly qualified, having worked for Clinton’s legal team during the impeachment, and graduating Magna cum Laude from both Columbia and Harvard Universities. Stupid he is not. 
But that’s the past. Today, Joel Klein is very interested in Digital Education start ups, or as Reuters puts it, ‘offering individualized, technology-based content and learning opportunities for to support students and teachers’, which is one of those phrases that makes you want to kill yourself before you even get to halfway.
Dreaming of digital e-learning platforms.
Let me give you a flavour of what Klein’s mission statement is in education, and you can judge for yourself if you should quake or cheer  that he’s in charge of Rupert Murdoch’s bid for educational marketspace. He recently appeared at the Sunday Times Festival of Education; here’s what he had to say in relation to that:

‘And unless we’re prepared to do three difficult, but essential, things, we will never achieve real results: rebuild our entire…system on a platform of accountability; attract more top-flight recruits into teaching; and use technology very differently to improve instruction.’

So let me just clarify, based on what we know his favorite educational policies are:

1. Accountability. Setting targets for students and their teachers. Nothing wrong with teacher led, aspirational targets, but that’s not what he means. He means statistical targets, inevitably generated by computer modelling, which is as individually predictive as typing your likes/ dislikes into a career program to work out what job you should take. Teachers, presumably, will be promoted, graded and granted access to unlock higher pay scales through such means. You can see why the Unions in the US didn’t invite him over for Thanksgiving.

2. Attracting top-flight recruits. Again, this sounds great, who could possibly object? But who? Troops to teachers? The Stockbroker diaspora? People with first class degrees? None of these teachers offer a character and skill set that guarantees, or even increases the likeliness of someone being a great teacher. Great teacher training makes great teachers, as long as they’ve got certain basic qualities. As the Fast Track, and its successor program Teach First shows, the problem isn’t that our current teachers are rubbish. The problem is that there’s an international deficit of fairly traditional, authoritative and compassionate teaching/ schools with clear boundaries and consequences, and high expectations.

3. The Digital Classroom revolution. I am all for new technology in the classroom, used in new and interesting ways. But I have been waiting for this revolution since they introduced BBC Micros into my school, to transform and improve the paradigm of how we learn. And it still hasn’t, because people (and their brains and their minds) are still substantially the same as we’ve been for thousands of years. IT offers wonderful opportunities, and I embrace them. But information on a screen is still information; getting children to work, to focus, to avoid misbehaviour, to think for themselves…all of these teacher challenges are ancient, and unresolved by the format upon which the learning is provided.

But there’s another reason to be wary of a lot of what Klein might represent for education in the US or closer to home: education isn’t a commodity. And any time someone tries to sell you something, you’re right to exercise caution. The market and human welfare aren’t easy bedfellows; sometimes it’s closer to a not-for-profit than a business. So what can they sell to schools?

Answer: IT packages; hardware; software; lucrative support; spurious claims to revolutionary systems that improve learning by 150%. And that’s the hidden danger of the revolution: it isn’t a revolution at all.

It’s a hustle. It’s a corporate take over.

And right now, does anyone want News Corp getting involved in their school?