Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Some disconnected (?) thoughts on education

The Fat Man links to a scathing article by John Holford about the British government's utilitarian approach to higher education, evidenced in their appointment of an HE 'user consultation group' dominated by employers and with no representation from either academia or the trade unions. As Holford says, the attitude of the current administration is a betrayal of the 'generous, human and liberal' vision of education advanced by Labour luminary R.H.Tawney. Key quote from Holford:

No 'user' will speak for local communities; none for schools or hospitals; none for the old; none for charities or the voluntary sector; none for social movements; none for ethnic minorities; none for ordinary working people; none even for local authorities.

All this is, I regret, in keeping with recent government approaches to the role of higher education. Universities must not just play a part in 'driving up' skills: serving the economy is now their raison d'etre.

Yesterday's You and Yours on Radio 4 had a phone-in discussion on access to higher education. There was much talk about the 'value' of a degree, in which the general assumption seemed to be that going to university was solely about improving your job prospects. Many of the calls were from parents, who (partly as a result of changed funding arrangements) seem increasingly to view themselves as the consumers of higher education. Along with this new consumerism goes a growing demand for value for money: many of the callers were irate about the (low) number of hours of direct tuition received by their offspring, and no amount of fine talk about education being as much about learning as teaching, or about the autonomous learner, was going to satisfy them.

Finally, last week I attended a briefing about the government's new Children's Plan. There seemed to be a shift towards viewing the task of the school as promoting children's 'wellbeing', and a general downplaying of the emphasis on standards and attainment. I felt a bit conflicted about this. While I agree that schools should be concerned with the welfare of the whole person, I worry about any dilution of their primary focus on learning. There was also a lot of emphasis on learning having to be 'fun', which is all very well, but students also need to discover that understanding often comes about as the result of hard work and struggle. As with the 'happiness' agenda, to which it's linked, I tend to think that a sense of 'wellbeing' is one of the by-products of the insight, understanding and skills that education brings, not its direct aim.

There's probably a connection between these thoughts, but I don't have the time or energy to join the dots right now...

I've just come across this piece on the politics of 'wellbeing' by Pat Kane, from back in February 2007, in which he joins up the dots between the Gradgrindian 'appplied Presbyterianism' of Gordon Brown, evidenced in the government's vision of work as the solution to all social ills, and the paternalism of the 'happiness' agenda pushed by 'bureaucrat of bliss' Lord Layard. Couple of nice slogans from Kane: 'support our autonomy, don't prescribe our happiness', and 'get your hands off my soul'.

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