Nice pupils come last in new economy;Profile;Briefing

1st October 1999 at 01:00
Management guru Charles Handy tells Francis Beckett why he wants more naughtiness, and fewer lessons, in school.

CHARLES HANDY claims not to be influential in New Labour circles. But he does share platforms and ideas with Tony Blair's favourite thinker Charles Leadbeater - and Blair is thought to read all his books. He also thinks New Labour is getting most things right.

Professor Handy is a management guru, which means, as he puts it with disarming frankness, that "I give five or six lectures a year and get paid huge sums of money for them."

But having told businesses how to maximise their profits, he then explains to another set of equally respectful audiences that there is much more to life than just making money. His avuncular, reassuring voice is even heard on the Today programme's Thought for the Day, a slot normally reserved for men and women of the cloth, and he writes books with titles like The Hungry Spirit (Hutchinson, 1997).

The son of an Anglican archdeacon in Ireland, Handy no longer counts himself as a Christian , but thinks churches are splendid places for contemplation. "Holy, spiritual, luminous - these words mean something to me. Most religious stories are myths with great meaning."

He studied Greats at Oriel, Oxford, in the 1950s, then went to work for Shell.

Then, in 1968, he began his long association with the London Business School, where he is still a fellow, and where he wrote books with titles like Understanding Organisations (1976). Around the late 1980s he started to write books with titles like The Age of Unreason (1989) and to call himself a social philosopher instead of a management professor.

Now, at 67, his views are sought on everything, including education. Last year he caused a storm by telling a press conference that many great entrepreneurs were naughty at school.

"I said, perhaps we should allow naughtiness in schools," he told me. "This got some very angry headlines. But the truth is that if we run totally disciplined schools, then we are telling our children: if you want to succeed in life you should do what you are told. And that isn't true."

Inner-city teachers might wonder if Professor Handy would care to try out his theory in their classrooms, but would find him unrepentant. "Education is too important to be left to teachers."

He wants to divide the school-day in half. In the first half, teachers would teach the basics, like literacy and numeracy. But the second half would be given over to "an associate faculty" of people in the community for extra curricular activities like drama and music.

And yes, he would allow schools to select their pupils.

Handy wants to make pupils responsible for their own learning, and give every four-year-old an e-mail address, so as to produce the people whom the next millennium will require.

What sort of people are they? Handy is the prophet of so-called "portfolio" careers, a term that describes the shifting, flexible working patterns that will emerge in the new knowledge-based economy as traditional, steady employment becomes extinct. So he wants schools to "create a culture where life is about creating your own work". He rejects "the implicit message schools are giving out which is: if you pass your tests you will be OK".

Handy's new book, published this week, The New Alchemists (Random House) consists of profiles of 29 people who have "created something from nothing".

Those are the people we need, according to Handy, not the dreary souls who slave away in dim offices and factories. People who will, in Charles Leadbeater's words, "make their livings through their creativity, ingenuity and imagination".

For Handy, our children are going to have to be "very good at talking to people" because they will need to look after themselves,organise their own pensions, see to their own medical treatment without the help of doctors, and run their own businesses. (His own son is an actor, his daughter an osteopath.) But if our children don't do the dirty work, who will? Handy's answer is to turn the dirty jobs into business. If someone is collecting refuse for a pittance, they are unhappy and exploited. If they run a small but profitable refuse-collecting business, they become model, happy citizens of the new entrepreneurial utopia.

Handy advocates the know ledge-based society with comforting certainty. But you also sense he fears that such a society could be built on quicksand. A world that consisted entirely of people who understood computers and knew how to sell things to each other would not produce a morsel of food, or bury a single corpse. And yes, he admits, he does worry about that.

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