Neglecting the true wealth of a nation

29th November 1996 at 00:00
At recent conferences of both the British and Scottish Educational Research Associations, it was evident that numerous teams of researchers who were once concerned with school effectiveness broadly defined to include the development of all of the talents of all the pupils had redefined "effectiveness" purely in terms of examination grades.

The effect of this is to deny pupils who possess any of the hugely important talents that do not show up in traditional examinations opportunity to develop or receive recognition. It is to deprive those teachers and schools who are concerned with the wider goals of education of ways of getting recognition for their efforts. It is to deprive society of the most important talents which could be available to it.

At the Scottish conference it was clear that schools which only a few years ago were concerned with the wider outcomes of education had been induced to concentrate solely on examination performance. Those same schools would recently have gone out of their way to emphasise to post-compulsory age pupils that their performance was their own responsibility with the corollary that their attendance was a matter for their own discretion. Now they were issuing heavy-handed and demeaning notices indicating that even minor transgressions would result in expulsion and thus denial of future access to a decent income and way of life.

I recoiled from the Scottish Council for Research in Education's stand because it was dominated by publications aiming to reduce truancy. Yet all the evidence I have accumulated over the years points to the conclusion that truancy is for most pupils an entirely appropriate response to a personally demeaning and destructive environment and more generally to a society operating in a way which will, in the end, lead to the destruction of us all. What was displayed could reasonably be regarded as evidence of an abuse of research for political purposes.

These changes in school education are linked to a worldwide move in the occupational selection and training area towards specifying what is to be known and how that knowledge is to be assessed in great detail and in a way that will deprive those who want to decide for themselves what they will learn and to take control of their own development.

By simultaneously tripling the number of students and halving the number of staff, the universities have been compelled to dramatically reduce their efforts to nurture such qualities as initiative and an enquiring mind. Requiring their staff to get out more peer-reviewed publications in less time has had the effect of preventing them from thinking and engaging in self-directed and free-ranging enquiry. Requiring those same staff to obtain Government contracts to buy the time needed for their research has had the effect of focusing all attention on the Government's agenda to the exclusion of more important matters.

What we would seem to have, then, is a situation in which a particular perspective has been able to take hold of people's minds on a worldwide basis. Protest or suggesting alternatives is futile because those in authority have been sifted and selected to retain only those who echo the new conventional wisdom. It is time to call a halt. The situation merits direct action by every concerned pupil, teacher, researcher, educational administrator, parent and employer.

The ballot box offers no solution. To see this, it is only necessary to consider the way in which it has been possible for a Government which has the support of but a small fraction of the electorate to stifle genuine enquiry and public debate, gain control over the generation and flow of information and dramatically erode civil liberties. And, on the other, to note the agenda behind Labour's recent educational proposals and the paucity of fresh thinking in the policies of the Liberal Democrats.

The pervasive direct action that is required needs to be guided by some kind of vision of the developments that are required and the steps needed to introduce them. Driven by a feeling that I ought at least to do what I could to stem the tide and discern a way forward, I have attempted to enumerate the deficiencies of both market and current forms of public management and clarify the way forwards in a book entitled The New Wealth of Nations, published by Bloomfield Books.

John Raven is an educational consultant and researcher.

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