Walking with our eyes shut

3rd December 2004 at 00:00
The Education Gospel: the economic power of schooling

By W Norton Grubb and Marvin Lazerson

Harvard University Press pound;29.95

The Challenges of Educational Leadership

By Mike Bottery

Paul Chapman Publishing pound;19.99

Our faith in education is almost global. In an increasingly uncertain age, we see education - provided it is done properly - as the key to personal prosperity and national survival. It is at the heart of our capacity to respond to change. More and better education is the answer to every social and economic challenge. Unsurprisingly, educators go along with this.

"Education, education, education" is the creed of our times.

Like any creed, though, it deserves analysis. The Education Gospel, a book from the United States, subjects it to careful, detailed, but by no means always hostile, criticism. It was after all, the American belief in education as a means of personal betterment that created the century-old tradition of vocational education in US high schools and colleges, and the authors' clear account of the evolution of these institutions makes interesting reading.

But the authors say vocational education has been a victim of its internal contradictions. The "shopping mall" curriculum of options distanced students from work itself, depreciated their diplomas, and devalued "general" courses. Nor, they argue, did it justify itself in national economic terms. It was not more education that created US economic supremacy, and it is not more education that is needed to sustain it.

One-third of Americans are over-qualified for their jobs; employers, who hold the greatest responsibility for work-training, deliver it the least; there is no evidence to support the argument put in A Nation at Risk (the National Commission on Excellence in Education's "open letter to the American people" of 1983) that only radical school reform can save US pre-eminence. And that, they say, is the heart of their concern.

Uncritical believers in The Education Gospel not only demand more of schools than schools can possibly deliver; they also blind themselves to the realisation that it is the responsibility of governments, not of teachers, to secure the nation's well-being. The authors point to "shamefully high levels" of income inequality and poverty. "In our country," they conclude, "the inadequacies of a broad range of social and economic policies undermines the capacity of the education system to achieve its goals - including its vocational goals."

So too, they argue, does the highly prescriptive, competency-based curriculum that is increasingly demanded at every level of the system. Too often, it is narrow, inequitable and small-minded; it squeezes out the vision of the common good on which US society and schools were founded.

This is a major work that is balanced, analytical, accessible - and relevant to British educators. On both sides of the Atlantic we fall too easily for slogans and catchphrases; here too, perhaps, The Education Gospel needs some rethinking.

That is certainly the argument advanced in The Challenges of Educational Leadership by Mike Bottery, part of a series called Leading Teachers, Leading Schools. Bottery's thesis is that the current orthodoxies of school leadership reflect too closely the market-oriented, top-down prescriptiveness of educational fashion. Just as The Education Gospel simultaneously demands too much and too little of our schools, so we expect too much and too little of our school leaders. They have to deliver what is required and work miracles of transformation too. There are disturbing indications that fewer and fewer of our potential leaders are willing to take this on.

More worrying than this, Bottery says, is the narrowness of our educational vision. Essentially it is framed in economic terms: it is about individual or corporate advancement rather than social harmony; about private self-interest and not the common good. Even our concept of citizenship reflects this, he argues: citizenship is seen as being about consumption, not entitlement.

But (and this is the core of his case) school leaders are expected to ignore the implications: the impact on our society of globalisation, standardisation, commodification and control; the loss of identity, the loss of trust.

This is the context of our children's lives, he says: the real challenge to school leaders is to help them understand it and, by implication, change it. His book is a passionate re-statement of moral principles and public values - avowedly political, even heretical. Given that his first requirement for a new kind of leadership is "ecological and political awareness", it could hardly be otherwise.

The book is also stronger on diagnosis than treatment. It is a powerful challenge, though, to the gospel of our times; at the very least, it should be essential reading at the National College for School Leadership

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