Saturday, 12 May 2012

Stakhanovites at the classroom coalface

Gove blathered out a list of famous persons who went to public school, including much of the Cabinet, the shadow cabinet and Gove himself; which certainly goes to show that a public-school education can be a step to success even for persons whose talents would, in a rational society, qualify them mainly for cleaning toilets under reasonable supervision. "More than almost any developed nation, ours is a country in which your parentage dictates your progress," blathered Gove. "For those of us who believe in social justice, this stratification and segregation are morally indefensible"; which, by some leap of higher logic comprehensible only to Michael Gove and Nick Clegg, explains the tuition-fee hike and the farming-out of the state education sector to profiteers and the God squad. 

From a splendid deconstruction of Michael Gove's newly-found social conscience. Kudos for highlighting Gove's uncoordinated brain-fart, which is more revealing and significant that many of the other headline-grabbing own goals the Coalition have been scoring lately.

There's been the granny tax, the pasty tax, the fill-your-shed-with petrol-just-in-case-the-tanker-drivers-go-on-strike wheeze, the squillions wasted on scrapping jump jets, buying jump jets and ending up with aircraft carriers with no aircraft, the failing struggle to keep bomb-making, Daily Mail-terrifying bogeyman Johnny Foreigner out of the country without leaving our big-spending Olympics-visiting, friends from across the water fuming in the passport control queues, the Leveson Inquiry turning over a few rocks and sending swarms of highly-connected amnesiacs from the Chipping Norton Set scuttling for cover from the daylight, just to name a few. But there is a bigger issue than mere competence; namely, questioning what this lot are trying to do, not just how well or otherwise they do it.

If political discussion and comment is limited to arguing about these competence issues, then the political and social elite are effectively dominating the terms of the debate. The unspoken assumption here is that There Is No Alternative, that we've reached the end of history, arrived the best of all possible political and economic settlements and the only thing left up for debate is who is most competent to manage our obviously unimprovable system.

Which is why I'm more interested in the unpicking of Michael Gove's unspoken assumptions than by mere pointing and laughing when our rulers cock something up (tempting though it is, now they've hit such a productive losing streak). It's not particularly  interesting to listen to politicians or politically engaged bloggers asserting that the Party Opposite is a bit useless and a bit dodgy, so vote for the other lot, because they'd do the same things, only better. It is worth listening when somebody digs deeper and reminds us that there's an alternative to just doing the same old thing, but more competently. It's called doing something different, a simple idea, but one that sounds strange, novel and threatening to our current, narrow, allegedly post-ideological, triangulating political class.

I find it profoundly telling that Michael Gove can write this:

More than almost any developed nation, ours is a country in which your parentage dictates your progress... Those who are born poor are more likely to stay poor and those who inherit privilege are more likely to pass on privilege in England than in any comparable country. For those of us who believe in social justice, this stratification and segregation are morally indefensible.

 Yet he doesn't have have anything to say about the roots of this systemic inequality:

They [the independent schools that we Brits confusingly call "public" schools] were originally charities by which poor but able boys could enter into careers, especially, in the days when the most important functions in government, administration and social organisation were held by priests, the Church. As the Church became less central to public life with the spread of literacy, and with the upheavals of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries chiefly associated with the Reformation, these schools lost their charitable functions [but, crucially, not thier charitable status], and were adopted by the rich. In 1868, nine institutions (Charterhouse, Eton, Harrow , Merchant Taylors', Rugby, Shrewsbury, St Paul's School, Westminster and Winchester) were particularly recognized in the Public Schools Act which followed the Report of the Clarendon Commission in 1864.

Or about the roaring educational successes stories of countries that have championed straightforward, publicly financed education systems with widespread equity, easily outperforming the pointlessly complex, fragmented, uncoordinated, semi-contracted-out, test and competition-obsessed system that continues to fail British children (excepting the lucky few who either bag one of the rare-as-hen's teeth token scholarships that exist to allow independent schools keep their charitable status, or have parents rich enough to stump up the massive fees for a gold-plated education out of their own pocket). The only element of a of Scandinavian-style education that seems to be politically thinkable in Britain is the dubiously successful, but ideologically sound Swedish experiment with free schools.

There's something almost Stalinist about a rigid political orthodoxy that will go to any lengths to avoid coming to an ideologically unsound conclusion. We've got an expensively-educated  nomenklatura who insist that their success, (and the success of any other citizen), is down to their own merit and hard graft and has nothing whatsoever to do with the tens of thousands that their parents apparently wasted on having them privately educated, (when these paragons of meritocracy would clearly have risen the top of the heap whether they'd gone to Eton or a sink inner-city comp). The idea that the system is systematically and deliberately weighted in favour of a wealthy elite is, routinely but ironically, derided as politically motivated* class warfare (which is why Gove's unprecedented acknowledgement of this idea interests me, however poor and muddled his analysis is).

This sort of delusional thinking puts me in mind of that famed hero of Socialist Labour, Aleksei Grigoryevich Stakhanov, held up as a shining example to all Soviet citizens for over-fulfilling his coal mining quota many times over and digging huge quantities of coal in a single shift. Impressive, especially because the authorities failed to mention that 'Stakhanov had two co-workers, plus machinery in perfect working order, to help him achieve so much'. Workers without out the back up and the top quality kit were expected to try and emulate Stakhanov's achievements and were derided or punished as slackers or wreckers if they failed to keep up.

Likewise, the vast majority of kids who go into the working world from the comparatively under-resourced, chaotically overseen state schools are urged on to greater efforts by a minority who went to well-staffed, well-resourced independent schools that provided ready-made networking opportunities along with a privileged education. When the vast majority, predictably, fail to do as well as the cossetted elite, they are routinely condemned as lazy, winging, feckless chavs who believe that the world owes them a living (an ironic jibe, when it comes from the mouths of people whose education was carefully honed to instil a massive sense of overconfident entitlement to, not just any old job, but a fulfilling, well-paid living that probably involves ordering the plebs around).

I don't want to overdo the analogy. The less privileged members of society who fail to achieve don't actually end up on labour gangs in an ice-bound gulag, but they get a pretty raw deal, none the less. Worse job prospects, a failure to achieve their full potential, more chance of being unemployed, less chance of getting into higher education, more chance of turning down the chance of higher education for fear of accumulating debt, dead end jobs, worse housing and, worst of all, constantly being told that it's all your own fault. Not quite the Gulag Archipelago, although the some members of the overclass would clearly like to shift the Overton Window in a slightly more Stalinist direction by normalising forced labour for non-productive elements.

Michael Gove is too ideologically blinkered to look at the power structures behind this massive, systematic, deliberate, inefficient, avoidable unfairness, so his "solutions" inevitably avoid tackling the obvious unfair advantage enjoyed by divisive institutions that continue to enjoy charitable status, but haven't been charities in any reasonable sense of the word for centuries. Instead, state schools get endless random, totemic sprinklings of magic private sector fairy dust, along with a lot of pointless and destructive tinkering, accompanied by Stakhanovite injunctions to teachers in the state sector to work harder and dire warnings to those "failing" teachers standing in the way of the inevitable triumph of the glorious educational free market. I'm not actually that fussed about Gove's competence or lack thereof. It's his goals that worry me. It really doesn't matter how fast you run, if you're running in completely the wrong direction.

* Isn't it time interviewers stopped to question politicians who, of all people, love to use that stock phrase "politically motivated" as if it was some sort of an insult?  If political motivation's a bad thing, should we discount the views of those politicians who went into politics to enact ideas intended to change the world for the better and only listen to the ones who are in it purely to fiddle their expenses, go on fact-finding junkets to Barbados at the taxpayer's expense, network themselves onto three well-paid mornings a week on the board of a big corporation, or bag a knighthood? Just asking.