Saturday, 4 May 2013

Education – an essentially political act

First published in the Backbencher April 28 2013

Education – an essentially political act

The two most obvious reasons why education is such a political football are firstly, that everybody is an expert on education – one way or another we have all had one. Secondly, schools are one of the few places where significant numbers of human beings regularly do something together that really matters. Add public funding, the needs of the economy and the fact that wealth reproduces wealth largely by means an unequal education system, and you can see why the education card is played again and again by those in power.

Education and more specifically schooling, is a constant and very hot potato. There is rarely a day goes by when media reports don’t reveal a new policy or concern that British values are going to the dogs because of irresponsible teaching or lack of discipline. In government back room planning meetings educational policy is one of the keys to obtaining and keeping power. The current gang of politico top dogs, most of whom had a highly privileged education, use the card repeatedly and brutally. Their most common sports are ‘Teacher Bashing’ – there is nothing like having an ‘enemy within’, and the fear inducing balloney of ‘falling standards’ – which of course justifies their next education policy ‘reform’.

The political dimensions of education are many layered and hold immense but subtle power over us largely because for most of us the words politics and education don’t sit well together. We feel that our children shouldn’t be subject to whatever political chess play is going on in Whitehall. But ironically and perhaps paradoxically, it is precisely our will to protect education from politics that plays into the hands of the political tricksters.

The core uncomfortable tension comes from the fact that education is itself an intrinsically political business. It nurtures careful thinking and insight – thinking which necessarily exposes received assumptions and thereby challenges dogma and the authority of our political masters. Learning is a political act because its aspiration is towards freedom – freedom to think and act. As such it draws defensive responses from those in power - seen most vividly in the innumerable instances of teachers and scholars in nearly all cultures becoming the target of punitive measures – measures specifically directed to stifle that aspiration to freedom.

At a more practical level of politics, education serves to structure our society. It maintains the social order by instilling the values of decency, competition and what counts as success and it distributes life chances accordingly. Education exists in the social world and necessarily reflects the way the world is. Here is the dilemma: in fact our world is an unequal place, but the advertised mission of education is an egalitarian one – it aspires to something it cannot deliver.

Given its political sensitivity it’s no surprise that education is such an ideological arena and that the political agendas that drive those ideologies are kept hidden. Performance management, target setting and ridiculous levels of assessment ensure a thick layer of apolitical discourse throughout the whole educational system. As a result political understanding and the will to political action is trained out of our young people. The egalitarian and democratic mission statements posted in school entrances function as sanitized glossy sound bites rather than producing real distributive equality. Abstract political understanding is entertained only within strictly defined syllabi and students arrive at University tutored to believe that learning is exclusively about hoop jumping the system and hard wired against anything political..

I exaggerate to make the point – there are lots very bright, politically astute and motivated young people around but the general level of political awareness is subdued and especially so in respect of the deeper functioning of schooling.

All the educators I know see their work in terms of offering genuine benefit to those they teach. In the broadest terms, their motivation is to help students develop, acquire skills, and contribute to society. The educational project is a politically good one – its target is a good life for everyone and is delivered under the authority of ‘equal opportunities’. But it is because education is such a social good and so central to our lives and our aspirations, that it is so politically important and why Gove and the boys have it constantly in their sights.


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