The Labour Party’s radical vision for education: the opportunity of a lifetime

Judging by the polls, as UK Prime Minister Theresa May announced a snap General Election on the 18 April, you would be forgiven for thinking that the result is a foregone conclusion. And, for that matter, with a resounding Tory victory. But this election is anything but a foregone conclusion. It is set to be closer than commentators predict. People must now make a serious choice, a serious decision — rather than simply express a preference.

And already, after a week of campaigning, the polls have narrowed. Even though the Tories continue to retain a commanding lead over Labour Party, it is evident that the Labour Party have gathered some momentum. Compared with the Tories, the Labour Party have campaigned very effectively in this first week.

The following is the standing ovation Jeremy Corbyn received from the headteachers at the National Association of Headteachers (NAHT) conference in Telford 30 April 2017. While I expected him to be given a polite reception, I was surprised by this. There is clearly something in the air.


And so, there is everything to play for.

An end to austerity, neoliberalism and privatisation in education

There probably never has been a more important election for education. The choice between the two main political parties has never be starker. The Tories will continue with academisation, free schools, privatisation, marketisation, a return to selective schools and a school choice agenda. While the Labour Party plans to restore Local Education Authorities and create a National Education Service. The Labour Party plans to bring education back into the public sector.

This general election could mark the end of an education policy consensus that has existed since the 1970s. Since then, education policy has been moving toward marketisation and privatisation. Schools have increasingly come to compete with one another; with an emphasis on centralised accountability (which is frequently punitive); high-stakes assessment and progress measurement; surveillance and performativity; managerialism and hierarchical management structures; intensification of teachers work; and the undermining of teachers’ pay and conditions.

Some argue that these reforms have improved the educational outcomes of many children. They also argue that closer the scrutiny of schools ensures that students make progress and achieve in final examinations. And that this, they claim, has improved the quality of teaching and learning.

These are exaggerated claims, educational reforms have led to more heat than light. There has been lots of noise and increasing demands placed on schools and teachers, yet with very little real insight into the implications of policy. Furthermore, claims made by successive governments are too often based on a selective reading of data. They ignore the complexity of education and identify simple—and frequently overly reductive—measurements to try and determine the impact of policy.

While I don’t personally have a particular passion for international comparisons, the following data visualisation for reading performance in the OECD PISA tests shows negligible change in students’ reading performance in England. There is a similar picture for mathematics and science.

That is not to say that the general level of teachers’ knowledge and skill has not improved over the last 40 years. Education research, theory and practice has developed in that time, comprehensive schools have matured and developed. But this is in spite of policy rather than because of it. I would go as far as to say that marketisation has hindered the progress that teachers, themselves, have tried to make through this time.

A new economics for a post-Keynesian age

It is important to recognise that the Labour Party’s education policy, like its other public sector policies, is based on a different kind of economic approach. All governments in the UK since the latter half of the 1970s have adopted a similar economic approach. An approach that prioritises and privileges the freemarket. The privatisation and marketisation of education is a consequence of this economic thinking. The electorate are encouraged to accept freemarket policy in education because it will supposedly give them more choice. Furthermore, choice and competition will motivate schools and teachers to deliver higher standards. However, there is little evidence to support this conclusion.

Privatisation and marketisation in state education is justified with claims of increased efficiency, higher standards and the advantages of parental choice. These disguise the economic thinking and political choices that drives policy in this direction. The real reason is a response to the problems faced by capitalism more generally. Capitalism is a system of political economy which involves using resources, money and labour to return profits. For 200 years it has been the dominant political economy in the UK.

In the 1960s, capitalism was undergoing one of its periodic crises. Capitalists were finding it increasingly difficult to sustain profit levels. Over the next decade governments used economic policy to make it possible for capitalists to preserve their profits. A key part of which involves reducing the role of the state and the control of state spending. Subsequently, all governments have been preoccupied with reducing public sector deficits. In other words, reducing the amount of public spending and reducing the size of the state. Additionally, and increasingly, governments have privatised and outsourced public services. The argument has been, of course, for efficiency and choice. When in fact the aim has been to preserve profits in the private sector.

A smaller state provides opportunities for private-sector providers to move into providing public-sector services. We have observed this trajectory in the UK, in health, education and even with prisons. While some private providers claim to be not-for-profit organisations, for all intents and purposes, they are capitalist organisations. And necessarily they must accumulate capital. This may not be through generating surpluses or profits, as we might imagine. But it is also achieved through the expansion of their organisation.

In 1988, with the introduction of the Education Reform Act, the process of the privatisation of education was enacted in legislation. City Technology Colleges under Conservative governments in the late 1980s and 1990s were the initiates of privatisation. The New Labour government refined this idea and introduced their Academies programme. The process was further accelerated under the Coalition government where Multi-Academy Trusts were established as private limited companies and billions of pounds of a publicly owned assets were transferred to the private sector. The history of this has been one of cross-party consensus in the privatisation of education by stealth.

This is what is referred to as neoliberalism. It goes under many names: liberal economics, deficit reduction, living within our means and austerity. All these mean the same thing, the preservation of the profitability of capitalism. While I do not intend to go into it in detail here, the reduction in public sector spending leads to increasing levels of private sector debt. In addition, the power of individuals to organise at work and protect pay and conditions is undermined by limiting the powers of Trades Unions. Neoliberalism leads to growing inequalities in society, the rich get richer the poor get poorer and in turn this leads to social unrest . It gives an opportunity for the far right to promote simple divisive answers, attractive to those that have not benefited from neoliberalism.

The following illustrates the trend in wealth inequality in the UK. Notice the upward trend after long period of decreasing inequality in the first part of the twentieth century.

Wealth inequality in the UK


The following shows the growth in wealth inequality (The Gini coefficient ranges from 0 for perfect equality to 1 where one person has the majority of income). Note how this rises in the mid 1970s to the 1990s where it has remained constant subsequently.

The following shows UK inequality compared with other nations based on the Gini coefficient.

This video illustrates the extent of inequality in the UK.

Teachers and schools must cope with the challenges of high-stakes inspection and accountability. Furthermore, they must respond to the social problems created by neoliberalism. The managerial and hierarchical system combined with accountability results in a bureaucratic system. The bureaucracy places further demand on teachers since it undermines their capacity and power to use their judgement in their job. While efficiently run schools are often characterised by systems, rules and procedures, these often become a dominating rather than supporting structure. This limits teacher agency within this environment.

We are in a period of economic change. The Global Financial Crisis of 2008, was the clearest of indicators of the failure of neoliberal economics. Mounting private debt and an unregulated financial sector in the USA led to a truly global financial collapse. Governments, in leading nations worldwide, have subsequently failed to heed the warnings and reform their economies. Instead they have continued with neoliberalism and austerity.

It really doesn’t have to be this way. Governments, like the UK government, can increase public spending with economic justification and keep education within the public sector. The preoccupation with deficit reduction is disingenuous. It is a matter of simple accounting, that as part of the normal operating condition of an economy, where the government has its own sovereign currency, the country will run a public-sector deficit. This ensures that the private sector, that is, people, households and businesses, can hold a surplus. In other words, they can save for a rainy day. The government with its power to create currency does not have to save in the same way, because it has the power to spend when needed.

John Maynard Keynes recognised that when the economy has excess capacity, it is a necessary for the government to inflate the economy through public spending. Currently we have excess demand for health, social care, education and training. By increasing spending, we can fulfil more of this demand, and improve the quality of our education system. This is a necessary and valuable investment in our education system.

Increasing public spending, making taxation progressive (fairer), regulating the financial sector and controlling the movement of capital will reduce the level of wealth and income inequality in the UK.

While the Labour Party has not published its General Election manifesto yet, this has been the essence of the economic policy put forward by Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell since they assumed the leadership of the Labour Party in September 2015. It is for this reason, they have been vilified by mainstream media and establishment. This proposal for wealth redistribution is an attack on the 1 per cent, the same people who have controlling interest in the media and in establishment institutions. It is little wonder that Corbyn has been subject to ferocious attacks in the media.

Labour’s education manifesto: the National Education Service

There have been several policy announcements. The most important, and the most overarching policy proposal is the National Education Service. This is analogous to the National Health Service, a cradle-to-grave national service which provides education for all and free at the point of use. This provision is from early years right through to higher education. This provides a complete and complementary collaborative service for the provision of education.
It will not be a fragmented system of providers competing for resources or competing to educate pupils and students who require least investment. The National Education Service restores collaboration. It would put knowledge, skills and experience at the heart of its mission. This is because, under a different economic model, organisations would not be preoccupied with narrowly defined outcomes as they are in the current neoliberal system.

There would be less emphasis on bureaucracy, hierarchy and managerialism. The focus of organisational leadership would be on collectives, comprising stakeholders, practitioners and experts. All with diverse views and experience, but with a commitment to developing education through participation and democratic approaches. Leadership becomes important in a different way. No longer will it be presidential or in the style of a chief executive officer. It will be a role in which the leader must convene and ensure effective participation, deliberation and decision making.

The current neoliberal system tends toward bureaucratic processes, which undermine the power of practitioners to use their judgement. The reality teachers’ day-to-day practice involves moral judgement much more than it does logical or scientific reasoning. Practitioners, teachers and education workers need to be empowered to use their judgement. They also need opportunities to develop and test their judgement, they need sophisticated understanding of their professional learning and development. They also need to contribute to the overall philosophy, rationale and principle of the National Education Service.

To support a National Education Service requires first-class research and development. Currently there are calls to make educational research a science. It isn’t a science. But it can draw on scientific principles. But central to the development of educational policy and practice is the relationship between theory and practice. This means that human judgement must intervene in logically derived conclusions. That is not to say that scientific research is not an important part of educational research. Although, it is a mistake to believe that by simply undertaking a randomised-control trial education research becomes scientific. Merely following scientific procedures does not mean that we have been scientific. The process of educational research has much in common with science in that we scrutinise our knowledge of the world, elaborate on existing theory and attempt to make predictions. The key difference with educational research is that it is in the field of complex human relationships, cultures and practice. It is necessary to recognise that a refutation or a new theory does not by itself change behaviour. Advanced educational research acknowledges the humanity of thinking and behaviour.

One of Jeremy Corbyn’s aspirations is to transfer more power to the people. The participatory nature of the National Education Service allows for greater democratic participation of practitioners and stakeholders. It would also see the restoration of the Local Education Authority. This would also restore education to the ownership of local communities, with local democratic accountability.

Jeremy Corbyn speech to the NAHT can be found at the following:

Further details about education policy have been announced. The Labour Party will reverse the £3 billion worth of cuts that the Tory government have planned for schools. They will also abolish tuition fees for undergraduates. They have announced £160 million worth of funding for arts education. There will be universal free school meals for primary children and the introduction of VAT on independent school fees. They will reintroduce Educational Maintenance Allowance for young people still in education. I also expect to hear further support for Further Education, adult learning and part time courses such as those with the Open University. Similarly, I expect proposals for the funding of higher degrees and research degrees at masters and PhD level. I would also expect to see the recent Higher Education and Research Bill, which legislates further marketisation and privatisation of higher education, to be repealed by a Labour government.

Jeremy Corbyn speech to the NAHT can be found at the following:

While the Labour Party’s proposals are still taking shape, an understanding of the underlying economic vision that is driving policy proposals, means it is possible to give a sense of what a future education system could be like. It would be an inclusive system for the many and not the few. It would promote social mobility, and help young people in becoming educated and informed participants in democracy.

Though there will be cynics who will say this is not possible, who will say that it cannot be done and who do not trust the inherent good nature of humanity. It is this cynicism and apathy that is the barrier to an ambitious future of something fairer and better.

For the first time in my life, we are closer than ever to something truly transformative. And it is through working together, and a belief in something better, that this vision can be realised. It is not dependent on a single leader to deliver it, like in the past, but it is dependent on a political leader to facilitate and empower the many to turn a collective vision into reality. As Corbyn recently described his own leadership style:

For many years, I couldn’t see much beyond how so many political leaders manipulated us while giving in again and again to vested interests. I didn’t want to be like that. And it wasn’t clear to me there could be another way. But I’ve learned there is. Whereas insecure leaders want to feel stronger by asking you to give them more power. I recognise strong leadership as equipping you with more power…Because there’s no doubt that these are anxious times. Individually, more of us face uncertainty at work. Nationally, we wonder how we will make the transition out of the EU in a way that protects jobs and living standards. And globally, we wonder how safe we are as extreme right wing movements and violent conflicts spread. I hope you can see now that there is more than one way to respond. We could seek a fragile calm. And hope someone in power knows what they’re doing and will guide us through. That means looking to whoever’s in charge and welcoming their reassurance. We don’t look further, we don’t ask questions. It’s the response the few have bet on the many settling for. I’m in this job because I believe there is a better way to respond. It’s about rejecting fake reassurances or simple slogans from government. It’s about sharing ideas and deciding upon real and lasting answers. We are not going to have free thinking shut down by a hostile media or an elite that scoffs at anyone who dares to step out line. No, each of us has a contribution to make. We have ideas for a better tomorrow and we are going to respond together. Jeremy Corbyn, Leader of the UK Labour Party, April 2017

Let us not miss this opportunity.

The real opposition

It is the first time in my life that the UK Labour Party has been a genuine opposition party and prepared to govern to bring about reforms to the economy and to society.

Against the backdrop of troubles across the world, it is cause for hope.

Since the 1960s, we have been living under increasing financial deregulation. Banks, financial institutions and large corporations have been given greater freedoms in how they behave and in the influence they have over governments. At the same time, ordinary people’s democratic rights have been eroded. The elite have been freed to accumulate extreme levels of wealth. And in so doing, they have expanded their power base and influence through government, through political parties, through institutions and through society. They can continually remind us that there is no other way: that a market economy is good. Their economists tell us that resources are distributed fairly through society only through the freemarket. They try and make us believe that the economy works like a business or a household; where, if the country spends too much, we go into debt. This debt, if not dealt with through austerity, will expand and be passed on to subsequent generations. So they say.

These are lies simply to justify the excesses of those with immense wealth and power.

Very few of the so-called 1 per cent are inherently bad or greedy people. It is but a natural response to defend your interests, your capital and wealth. We do it all the time. Except, when an individual or a group of individuals, say Rupert Murdoch or private financial institutions, set in motion actions to defend and protect their interests, with billions of pounds of resources, well-developed organisational infrastructure and media reach, it has a profound and powerful effect. Their message continually gets into our homes, our workplaces, it pervades and lingers in our thinking. Many of us know what is going on, but the pervasiveness of their message sows doubt and uncertainty, it undermines our power to resist.

And we concede, we submit to what Margaret Thatcher said, “there is no alternative. We submit to neoliberalism as an inevitability. Maybe we can gain a few concessions, but we accept the overall scheme of things.

Much as New Labour did under Blair and Brown.

But then we go to war in Iraq to perpetuate the industrial-military complex, to create an enemy and to further promote doubt and fear. Then the banks are exposed to have been too greedy, they have given out too much credit and it has limited value. Our subservient politicians submit to their city masters and create public money to save these institutions. At the same time they allow industry to fail and jobs to go, because that is, as they say, the nature of the freemarket.

Politicians then deepen austerity, not because it will improve the economy, but because it allows more state services to be transferred to big business. Public services that are not profitable are scrapped.

The Labour Party, having been in the grip of the interests of finance and big business since the 1970s, abandoned the ordinary people of the UK in order to play the politics that was dictated by banks, corporations and the obscenely wealthy. New Labour threw a few crumbs to the people in return for votes, but did not have the courage to do what was necessary. Blair betrayed the people of Britain for his own personal wealth and aggrandizement. Between 1997 and 2010, the Labour Party lost just shy of five million votes.

It is no surprise then, when a large proportion of the Labour Party membership vote a left-wing MP into the leadership position. Jeremy Corbyn has spent his entire political career opposing neoliberalism. He is elected to lead a real opposition. It leads to a shite storm of such fury that it makes you lose sleep at night and it rattles your nerves. You feel the full force of Murdoch, J P Morgan, Branson etc., the rest of the establishment’s contempt and their intent to destroy.

Oddly, commentators talk about there being no opposition. What they mean is they want a Labour leader who will play the old game. One who knows the rules. One who will play politics within the parameters set by the elite. They want a spectacle, a good gladiator who will fight in the empire’s Colosseum. Put on a good show. But, they  must not say what needs to be said. They must not challenge the democratic deficit, obscene inequality and the unfairness that has grown out of all proportion since our politicians handed society to the bankers.

But the commentators are stupid. Their uncritical subservience to economic liberalism has been the incubator for the far right. And if they persist they will have been complicit in re-creating totalitarianism. We are already seeing it happen.

This is why I give my full support to Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell and their small group of loyal MPs. It is this group that are prepared to take it on. It’s hackneyed, but they are prepared to speak truth to power. They have limitations. They have no infrastructure save a party machinery that is hostile to them. They are in a weak position. But they have demonstrated courage, conviction and determination in weathering the storm that has come from both within the party and from the establishment. Overall, they have remained steadfast in their opposition to the status quo.

If society is to have any hope in these difficult times, then we must support our real opposition. We must oppose the fake and false politics of the politicians and commentators who have become the lackeys of finance and big business.



The barriers to radical politics amongst the progressive middle classes

I began this post prompted by what appeared to be the indifference of the progressive middle class. Oh and I had a scrap on Twitter about economics.

The argument went round in circles.

“Oh yes it is!”

“Oh no it isn’t!”

We went on.

I  consider myself a humble person. I aspire to be humble. But in this argument, I was right. I was frustrated by my progressive co-discussant’s unwillingness to engage with radical economic ideas. It puzzled me.Continue reading “The barriers to radical politics amongst the progressive middle classes”

Arendt’s crisis in education

On the Michaela Community School (UK) website, Hannah Arendt’s 1954 essay on education, The Crisis in Education, is used to justify their approach to strict discipline policy and a curriculum based on knowledge.

They defend their approach against criticism, that their approach is authoritarian, they say authoritarianism applies only to violent totalitarian states and make a clear distinction between their own strict behaviour policy and state-level violent authoritarianism:

To brand Michaela Community School as authoritarian, especially without even visiting, is astonishing. Authoritarian regimes have blood on their hands. They have imprisoned, tortured, executed and assassinated millions of people in illegal killings around the world. Frankly, to compare Michaela to these states is an insult to all those who have died resisting these brutal regimes (Michaeala Blog post).

My purpose here is not a critique of Michaela Community School, I have my reservations about it, I have not visited, we’ll leave it there. But Michaela did lead me to Hannah Arendt’s essay at a time when I have been reading her work more generally. However, her essay is misrepresented on the Michaela blog, that was my first impression at least. So, this blog post (essay) is something of an investigation from that starting point. To be fair Arendt’s essay is a complex piece, wrestling with her own self-acknowledged ignorance about public education in the USA and drawing on her own ideas about authority and ideas of past and future. Her philosophy is so entwined with totalitarianism in Nazi Germany and Stalin’s communist Russia that these themes weave through the essay as barely seen threads.

Arendt’s essay on education features in her book Between Past and Future first published in 1961 in the US. Jerome Kohn’s introduction in the later Penguin Edition (Arendt, 2006) explains that the underlying theme in each essay in Between Past and Future is the rupture in the Western philosophic-political tradition. In the first essay, “Tradition and the Modern Age”, Arendt presents a view that the tradition of political philosophy culminates and ends in the thought of Karl Marx. The philosophical ‘tradition’ was of that of the authority of the philosopher and it was the function of ordinary people to enact such ‘truths’. Marx turns this on its head; thought and political ideas were more pragmatic and dialectic. The philosophical authoritative tradition was broken with a new conceptual assemblage, one of tensions, peoples, society, class and struggle. This is at the heart of what Arendt refers to as a crisis in authority, not necessarily in a deprecative way, but as an observer, as a political philosopher.

Before looking at Arendt’s essay in detail, I want to set out the context – the context of public education in the USA in the 1950s at the time when she penned her image of educational crisis. Arendt arrived in the USA in 1941, a Jewish exile from Nazi Germany. Public education in the USA had been undergoing reforms for a many years. Cremin (1961) traces changes in American education back to the 1890s . Cremin[1] cites the influences of William James, Francis W. Parker, Edward L Thorndike and John Dewey which all stem from Herbert Spencer. These influences led to the espousal of child-centred or progressive education. Egan (2003) characterises progressivism as based on a belief that in order to educate a child effectively “…it is vital to attend to [their] nature, and particularly to their modes of learning and stages of development, and to accommodate educational practice to what we can discover about these” (Egan, 2003, p. 5).

Cuban (1993) describes how in the decades after 1890 there was increased efforts to introduce student-centred teaching practices in schools. “By 1940, the vocabulary of pedagogical progressives had rapidly turned into the mainstream talk of both teachers and administrators” (p. 45). However, in spite of the discourse, the reality in schools between 1920 and 1940 was that teachers constructed hybrid practices based on traditional teacher-centred practice and progressive child-centred practice. Cuban considers that teachers faced a fundamental dilemma as they attempted to reconcile the influence of progressives with the day-to-day realities of schools, which more naturally calls for austere teacher-centred approaches. There was something in the process of implementation of progressivism that contorted it and led it away from the advocates’ vision [2].

Dewey’s vision for an education based on the needs of individual children was, according to Cremin (1964), misinterpreted and misunderstood. It had been Dewey’s intention to develop a curriculum that started with the child’s experience and culminate in more traditional disciplines. However, this was lost in a wave of national anti-intellectualism (Toch, 1991 cited in Kinsler & Gamble, 2001). Anti-intellectualism appears a defining feature of public life in the USA, at times, like the present, it becomes fervent, at other times it abates. Hofstadter (1963), in a Pulitzer Prize winning work of non-fiction on the subject, attributed American anti-intellectualism to religion, politics and business. Through this, it is likely that progressivism was led to abandon the teaching of knowledge in the traditional sense, but this was not a Deweyian vision.

The American mind was shaped in the mold of early modern Protestantism. Religion was the first arena for American intellectual life, and thus the first arena for an anti-intellectual impulse. Anything that seriously diminished the role of rationality and learning in early American religion would later diminish its role in secular culture. The feeling that ideas should above all be made to work, the disdain for doctrine and for refinement in ideas, the subordination of men of ideas to men of emotional power or manipulative skill are hardly innovations of the twentieth century; they are inheritances from American Protestantism (Hofstadter, 1963, p. 55).

McCarthyism in the 1950s was something of a past zenith in American political anti-intellectualism where critical thought was treated with at best disdain at worst as treasonable. It is important to note that at the time Joseph McCarthy was leading political repression, Arendt was contemplating authority and crisis in education.

For education, there is something of a perfect storm for progressivism, the misinterpretation of the educational philosophy of progressive child-centred education, the challenges and twists as reform ideas are implemented in the classroom against an anti-intellectual backdrop with derision for knowledge and ideas. It is not my intention in this essay to defend progressive or child-centred education, but I am in accord with some of its philosophy, although I am opposed to approaches that rely on children (re)discovering knowledge. John Dewey was undoubtedly a progressive educator but with a strong sense of scholarship and intellectualism. Hofstadter is critical of Dewey’s progressivism, but there appears to be a misunderstanding of Dewey’s educational philosophy, which an aspect of is as follows:

…education is neither a process of unfolding from within nor is it a training of faculties resident in mind itself. It is rather the formation of mind by setting up certain associations or connections of content by means of subject matter presented from without. Education proceeds by instruction taken in a strictly literal sense, a building into the mind from without (Dewey, 1916, chapter 6).

There is little sense here and in other work, that Dewey was an anti-intellectual progressive, his education ideas were progressive and child-centred but not in the absence of knowledge.

In the context of Arendt writing her essay on the crisis in education, there are particular circumstances that must be considered:

  • There is a progressive child-centred reform agenda in public education in the 1950s.
  • Practically many teachers speak the talk of progressivism but classrooms still have the character of traditional teaching with, for example, the traditional classroom formatting, tables in rows and teacher-directed learning.
  • There is a cultural context of anti intellectualism further exacerbated by McCarthyism from 1947 to 1956.

It is reasonable to conclude, as Arendt did, that the crisis of education was a result of anti-intellectual progressivism. Let us now look at the particulars and contexts of her direct criticism of progressive education. She summarises these “ruinous measures” as three assumptions as follows:

The first is that there exist a child’s world and a society formed among children that are autonomous and must insofar be left to govern… [The adult] can only tell him to do what he likes and then prevent the worst from happening (Arendt, 2006, p. 177).

In this, Arendt characterises progressivism in terms of children’s discovery, where children live in a separate and distinct world from adults and this, as a tenet of child-centred teaching, must be respected and supported. She is deeply critical of the formation of what she sees as a separate child and adult world, with children characterised as an oppressed minority. She then goes on to address the relationship between knowledge and pedagogy.

The second basic assumption which has come into question in the present crisis has to do with teaching. Under the influences of of modern psychology and the tenets of pragmatism, pedagogy has developed in such a way as to be wholly emancipated from the actual material to be taught…This in turn means not only that the students are actually left to their own resources but the most legitimate source of the teacher’s authority as the person who, turn it whatever way one will, still knows more and can do more than oneself is no longer effective (p. 178 – 179).
Arendt’s third assumption is aimed at the notion that “you can know and understand only what you have done yourself….”(p. 179), the teacher’s role is to not to pass on ‘dead knowledge’ but to “…constantly demonstrate how it’s produced” (p. 179). This seems, on the face of it, the dichotomy of knowledge and skill that are regularly barked over on social media today.

Arendt’s three progressive assumptions are: a) the existence of an autonomous child world, b) that pedagogy does not involve the teaching of knowledge or teacher authority and c) learning is doing rather than the acquisition of knowledge. But this is not the main point of Arendt’s essay as I will show, and indeed, having launched what appears to be an assault on progressivism she draws back. Vis-à-vis the third progressive assumption, she says, ” this description is at fault … because it obviously exaggerates in order to drive home a point” (Arendt, 2006, p. 180). This is the point about her criticism of progressivism, she is making a point. Yet reflecting and echoing the media coverage “reported daily in newspapers” (p. 170), she recognises that while newspapers are reporting declining standards, and that while she restates the above well-rehearsed criticisms of progressive education, she acknowledges that “Certainly more is involved here than the puzzling question of why Johnny can’t read” (p. 171). In other words, there is something more than an assault on progressivism. But there is a legitimate criticism to be made about the implementation of an anti-intellectual progressivism.

Arendt goes on to state a critical question and what is the crux of the essay:

Which aspects of the modern world and its crisis have actually revealed themselves…And, second, what can we learn from this crisis for the essence of education…? (p. 180).

Arendt’s criticism of progressivism is largely built around the idea of authority. While the author of the piece for Michaela Community School site has taken that to mean that children need strict discipline, the point Arendt is making is wholly more subtle. You see for Arendt authority demands obedience, but what she means by this can easily be misunderstood.

Since authority always demands obedience, it is commonly mistaken for some form of power or violence. Yet authority precludes the use of external means of coercion; where force is used, authority itself has failed. Authority, on the other hand, is incompatible with persuasion, which presupposes equality and works through a process of argumentation. Where arguments are used, authority is left in abeyance (Arendt, 2006, p. 92).

For Arendt, the essence of authority is hierarchy and this comes from the tradition of intellectual hierarchy as part of the western philosophical political tradition. But, as she observes, this authority of tradition, based on and in the past is contemporarily in crisis. This is the backdrop for the compilation of essays in which The Crisis of Education appears.

This leaves us with something of an unresolved problem, having dispatched the progressive educational model in which children are treated as a distinct society, in which they have to form their own authority and politic, we cannot then turn to the traditional authority as an escape. What Arendt drives at is the superiority of adult over child, but this is temporary as the child develops. Arendt’s sense of authority in education is based on a fluid dynamic of adult superiority which evolves as the child develops. It is what I might describe as ‘professional relationships’ to trainees on an initial teacher education programme. It is the idea that the teacher has adult authority and can communicate a set of rules or principles, but at the same time the child is growing to adulthood and must ultimately be respected as an equal. There is in no sense the espousal of a zero-tolerance or no-excuses approach to education as a resolution of the crisis in education.

Arendt’s criticism of progressive education, as she believed to be existent in American schools, is reminiscent of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies:

…by being emancipated from the authority of adults the child has not been freed but has been subjected to a much more terrifying and truly tyrannical authority, the tyranny of the majority[…]the tyranny of their own group against which they cannot rebel, with which, because they are children, they cannot reason, and out of which they cannot flee because the world of adults is barred to them (Arendt, 2006, p. 178).

Overall, Arendt raises some valid criticisms about education, criticism that continue to be relevant. In the essay, she does not propose a particular solution. This is understandable since, as she acknowledges, she is not a professional educator. She suggests that necessarily education must be conservative, in the sense of ‘conservation’.

[Conservatism] is the essence of educational activity, whose task is to cherish and protect something—the child against the world, the world against the child, the new against the old, the old against the new (Arendt, 2006, p. 188).

But she is happy to recognise that this is a paradox, because, she says, if the world strives to retain the status quo, then this can only lead to destruction. It follows that what vexes educators is the paradox of educational conservatism in a changing world. She observes:

Exactly for the sake of what is new and revolutionary in every child, education must be conservative; it must preserve the newness and introduce it as a new thing in an old world, which, however revolutionary its actions may be, is from the standpoint of the next generation, superannuated and close to destruction (p. 189).

In spite of this paradoxical and impossible demand on the educator, Arendt makes a clear statement of what schools should do, “…the function of a school is to teach children what the world is like and not to instruct them in the art of living” (p. 192).

To conclude, Arendt identifies the problems with 1950s American educational progressivism, the criticisms are justified in the historical context.  What she develops from this is what schools should do, though this is paradoxical. Can we, therefore, derive anything from Arendt’s critique? Yes, I think she sets educators a considerable challenge to deliver a critical progressivism, not dissimilar to the approach put forward by Dewey. In that the educator, the teacher that is, must manage tensions of conservatism and progress, and past and future, in a developmentally appropriate way. What is clear is that Arendt is not arguing for a strict and exclusively knowledge-based education as proposed by the Michaela Community School.


[1] I have cited Cremin’s historical analysis from:

Egan, K. (2003). Getting it wrong from the beginning: Our progressivist inheritance from Herbert Spencer, John Dewey, and Jean Piaget. New Haven: Yale University Press.

[2] I imagine something similar to Black and Wiliam’s ideas of formative assessment being implemented, or Dweck’s mindset theory. The implementation of which takes little account of cultural practices and the result is kind of superficial enactment rather than principled implementation. This diminishes the power of the original idea.


Arendt, H. (2006). Between past and future: eight exercises in political thought. New York: Penguin Books.
Cremin, L. A. (1961). The transformation of the school; progressivism in American education, 1876-1957 (1st ed). New York: Knopf.
Cuban, L. (1993). How teachers taught: Constancy and change in American classrooms, 1890-1990 (2nd ed.). New York: Teachers College Press.
Dewey, J (1916). Democracy and education: an introduction to the philosophy of education. The Macmillan Co.
Egan, K. (2003). Getting it wrong from the beginning: Our progressivist inheritance from Herbert Spencer, John Dewey, and Jean Piaget. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Hofstadter, R. (1963). Anti-intellectualism in American life (1st ed). New York: Knopf.
Kinsler, K., & Gamble, M. (2001). Reforming schools. London ; New York: Continuum.

Why I think we should leave the EU

I voted to remain in the EU on 23 June 2016. If there was another referendum I would vote to leave. I have two main reasons for this. The first is that I understand more about macroeconomics. This is through reading in the period subsequent to the referendum. Classical economics has failed to make accurate predictions about the national, regional and global economics. While heterodox economics, like Modern Money Theory or Modern Monetary Theory (MMT), post-Keynesian post-Marxist has been much more effective in predicting the 2008 crisis. Part of the reason for this is that it does not assume that people’s decisions are rational, it considers the role of power and hegemonous groups.

Central to MMT is idea that a nation state, with its own sovereign currency, cannot become insolvent, it is solely responsible for creating its own currency and for spending that currency. There are other provisos, like for instance, a nation’s currency must not be pegged to another nation’s currency. This is the problem with the Euro and for those countries that have this currency. None of which are able to use fiscal policy to ensure that their economy works for their own people. In fact the European Central Bank (ECB) imposes austerity, it limits the extent to which each country can invest, through deficit spending. This is why Modern Money Theorists like Steve Keen and Bill Mitchell are eurosceptic. They predict that at some stage the eurozone will come apart, with considerable political and potential social upheaval. In the end, the UK is best out of this close economic union, even though it is not part of the Eurozone. According to Bill Mitchell, it is not brexit that is the problem it is austerity. That’s why those of the left should stop rerunning debates about the legitimacy of the referendum and focus  attention on exposing  the Tory government on its horrendous record on managing the economy. It’s not just their record on managing the economy, its the corruption also, they have abused their power by lining the pockets of their backers by giving them access to running state services for profit and through favourable taxation

My second main issue with the EU is its response the fascist coup in the US. The Donald Trump administration decieved the US voting poblic and persuaded them to put it into power. The US now has a dangerous far-right authoritarian and racist government. There are many who see the EU as an allience to counter the rise of fascism. I have little faith they will do this. The EU has failed to address the rise of the far right within its own borders, it is institutionally powerless. The reason for this is that inspite of being formed to ensure peace between European nations, its development as an economic block has turned neoliberal. The EU, by having the Euro, runs an economic system that minimises state intervention, encourages outsourcing and deregulation. It forces other nations to do the same. The EU will primarily protect its favoured form of political economy. And what we have seen with neoliberalism of the last 30 years, is rising inequality, unemployment or underemployement and stagnating wages, except for the wealthy. This is fodder for the far right, the same conditions that led to Trump in the US. The EU is wedded to neoliberalism, it will defend this and the Euro ahead of anything else, there are too many vested interests to counter any demise. And while the EU is a neoliberal institution, it is part of the problem and not a solution.

Two illustrations: A Labour MEP holds up a sign ‘He is lying’ while British fascist Nigel Farage speaks in the European Parliament. The EU leaders gather in Malta and issue a joint criticism of Trump. Both of these are platitudinous. The antidote to fascism (based roughly on Arendt) is through the public sphere. In Europe this would translate to radical economic and democratic changes, an end to neoliberalism; universal basic income and/or job guarantees; improvements in civic, institutional and workplace democracy; and progressive taxation. Fascism is overcome by empowering people to overcome it. I do not see any of this happening in the UK or Europe. Platitudes and indifference will have dangerous consequences.

The politics of mental illness: from R D Laing, The Frankfurt School to Mark Fisher and Capitalist Realism

I recall reading R D Laing’s The Politics of Experience and The Bird of Paradise almost 25 years ago. Laing was a radical psychiatrist, part of the anti-psychiatry movement of the 1960s. Anti-psychiatry viewed a patient’s illness not just as the patient’s but as part of sick society. His was a bold attempt to get inside the minds of those with a mental illness and to recognise the politics of the experience of mental illness.

There is no such ‘condition’ as ‘schizophrenia’, but the label is a social fact and the social fact a political event. The political event, occurring in the civic order of society, imposes definitions and consequences on the labelled person. (Laing, 1967, p. 100)

Much more recently  I read The Grand Hotel Abyss: The Lives of the Frankfurt School by Stuart Jeffries. The Frankfurt School, from shortly after the beginning of the twentieth century until the latter part of the century, fused Marx’s political economy with Freud’s psychoanalysis. Their critical theory offered an analysis of the development of popular culture and its impact on individual psyche. The twentieth century was the century of mass communication, broadcasting and consumerism. What Theodor Adorno, a key thinker in the Frankfurt School, recognised was that the potent combination of mass communication and consumerism was used to not only suppress any revolutionary zeal of the proletariat, but also to enhance capitalism by creating consumers, pandering to base needs and creating superficial and relocated desires leading to consumerism. Adam Curtis’s, The Century of the Self, presents a stunning visual representation of the effects of the acquisition of psychoanalysis by advertisers and their capacity to use this to control our behaviour. It translates human alienation that arises from subjugation and subordination to capitalism to a desire for consumption of unnecessary products. Capitalism becomes an imperial power in the mind of the individual.

The Grand Hotel Abyss is a fine read, it takes you through the lives of individuals involved in the Frankfurt School as they navigate through the latter parts of the First World War, the Wiemar republic, the Third Reich, exile to California and the liberation movements in the US and Europe in the 1960s.

I was just finishing reading it, when I heard about the death of Mark Fisher. Mark Fisher was a critic, theorist and activist. I was alerted to his short book (90 or so pages) Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? by people I follow on Twitter. Intrigued, I downloaded it to my e-reader. It was within the first few pages that I found that Capitalist Realism is both extension and critique of ideas of the Frankfurt School. I can probably best explain what I mean by saying that the Frankfurt School is located in modernity, while Fisher takes something of a postmodern turn. Modernity was a dominant identifiable cultural philosophical movement emerging in con text of mass production and mass consumption. It is concerned with structures, overarching theory and in many ways mechanistic explanations of the relationships between phenomena and experiences.

Postmodernity is the paradigm shift. As society becomes fragmented, communications and broadcasts fragment to provide individualised experience, as liberalism becomes a dominant political ideal, as communities become diverse and heterogeneous. Thought and experience become fragmented. Philosophy cannot rely on the more monolithic modernistic structures. Lyotard, in the The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, heralded the end of grand narratives.

What Fisher does in such a concise and powerful way is weave together Marxist political economy and psychoanalysis while acknowledging the postmodern fragmentation, contradictions and ironies. This provides a powerful critique of mental health as a deeply political and politicised experience. In modernity our desires were controlled and manipulated. The postmodern condition is so much more insidious, sure our desires are controlled, but by images and narratives that we create for ourselves, that we construct from the narratives that are presented to us through the media and reinforced by neoliberal structures and organisations which discipline and normalise our actions through performativity and targets.

We are never away from these personalised constructs, it is our own thinking that disciplines and punishes and keeps us alienated from direct and real experience. We persistently live in a fictive world created by capitalist media. When our mental and physical health is under threat the external narratives that we internalise start to unravel. We become politically active. But more often than not we punish and discipline ourselves because we no longer think or behave ‘normally’. More often than not our mental health conditions are medicalised, we are subdued by chemicals and our senses and reactions are dulled until we submit to the reformation of a personal fiction that is within the limits of normality. That we are restored to being an individualised component in a self-governing capitalist system.

An important point Fisher makes is that the postmodern mental control and self-disciplining experience is with us 24/7. In modernity, we would go to work do as we were told and then go home. For Fisher we are constantly self-regulating and self-directed. Work and production continue because we are under the impression that we are autonomous. We are not.

Currently we are seeing an adjustment to world orders and authority. It is as if this shake up of old truths, a crisis of capitalism and a collapse of postmodern fragmentary narratives, open things up so we can see what Lacan called the Real. There are great dangers as well as great possibilities in the future. R D Laing, The Frankfurt School and Mark Fisher have left us with some important insights from which we can proceed. Importantly we should recognise the politics of mental health.

I understand that Mark Fisher died with little money and intestate. There is a campaign by Mark’s friends to raise some money so that Mark’s wife and child can have a little time to grieve and come to terms with his tragic death.

Privatising the universities: the real agenda of the Higher Education and Research Bill

Much like the privatisation of state schools, which I have written about previously, the Coalition Government between 2010 and 2015, and the Conservative Government from 2015, have accelerated the marketisation of Higher Education. A process that began under the previous Conservative Governments under John Major and Margaret Thatcher and continued by New Labour between 1997 and 2010.

You see, neoliberalism has been a dominant political economy since the 1970s. Neoliberalism is a special kind of freemarket capitalism, that extends beyond the traditional domains of capitalism, the factory for example, to what were previously nationalised or public services, the Post Office and Royal Mail, British Rail and domestic energy supply. The expressed benefits of privatising and marketising these services was that competition would lead to greater efficiency, better value and a smaller state.

Neoliberalism has been such a successful manifestation of capitalism (for some), effectively a state subsidised private sector businesses with, by-and-large, something of a monopoly, the private sector has been creeping into to many other public services. The Multi Academy Trusts that run schools are private companies, prisons too are outsourced to private companies like G4S. There was even an attempt to sell off Land Registry lately. Now we are starting to see similar happen with universities.

It is not obvious, because it is not always easy to see the emergence of private from the public. That is, it is not always clear when an organisation is based on private or public capital. The Multi Academy Trusts are private limited companies with a charitable status, and do not make a profit in theory, though many of them generate surpluses. They do not exist in a genuine freemarket, they often have a local monopoly and they are regulated by the state. But for all intents and purposes their quasi-private market status works in the same way as any corporation underpinned by private capital. They are largely autonomous from the state, and state and local democracy, they have customers (parents and children) who have a certain amount of market choice and they provide a service that is codified and quantified by public assessment.

One of Karl Marx’s most important observations was that capitalists, or those that have access to private capital, are obliged to accumulate more capital. By capital he means money, goods or means of production that are engaged in the process of production and sale of goods and services. Accumulation is not simply down to the vice of greed, it is due to the existence of the market, if the capitalist does not accumulate capital at the same rate as the competition they will fail. Capital obliges capital accumulation. Capital, is not just about accumulating money it is more often than not the expansion and replication of existing means of production.

Now, we have observed this in schools over the last few years, large academy chains have grown very quickly and in some cases (see for example Ark Schools) have expanded into overseas projects and spin-offs in this country.

In universities the marketisation and privatisation process began in the 1990s. Ron Dearing was commissioned by the Secretary of State for Education, Gillian Shephard, in the Major government in 1996, to report on Higher Education and consider how it might develop in the subsequent 20 years. It was hear that Dearing proposed that students should pay 25 per cent of their tuition fees. In 1998, Secretary of State for Education, David Blunkett, in Tony Blair’s New Labour Government, introduced student loans with means-tested tuition fees. Student grants of £1710 was replaced by income-contingent student loans.

This is ground zero on the march toward privatisaton and marketisation of universities. Blunkett effectively created a market by making students customers. This changes the dynamic, subtly, students are buyers and have choice where they spend their money.

This was strengthened in 2005 when New Labour gave universities the right to charge tuition fees of up to £3000 per year. When the coalition government came to power in 2010 this was increased to £9000 per year. Where Higher Education had been paid for through government spending it was now being paid for through private debt. It was argued this promoted widening participation in universites, while minimising public spending. This argument is disingenuous in my opinion, it disguises the forces of neoliberalism that underpin the marketisation of Higher Education (you can see the economic argument for this in a previous blog).

This brings me to the Higher Education and Research Bill which, if it passes through parliament, will further cement privatisation in Higher Education. If public and private is considered as a continuum, this is turning the dial up. Firstly, the introduction of private challenger universities will introduce greater competition into the Higher Education ‘market’. Some argue this is a good thing: shake things up a bit, put complacent universities on their toes. Fine, but Higher Education is so much more than simply purchasing knowledge and skills. It is a time for young people to explore and innovate, for students to question themselves and the world. If it is reduced to buying a ‘commodity’, it undermines so much of this. Furthermore, the introduction of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) serves to commidify this experience, the metrics will lead to a race to optimise on narrow outcomes. Worse still, universities will be competing on the outcomes of parochial measures. It will contort Higher Education from providing rich, stimulating and provoking experiences to the acquisition of defined knowledge and skills. Within the TEF metrics courses will score more positively if they are linked to employment. This has the potential to undermine subjects that do not have a direct link with the world of work. These course may disappear, or be reconfigured for employability. This is at a time when we need graduates to develop creative and divergent thinking informed by the broadest study of diverse disciplines.

Of course, I have to admit, this is likely to have little impact on so-called elite universities such as the one I work in. Certainly not to the extent that it will have in many of the newer universities, where it is going to be a much tougher competitive environment. My previous university committed itself  to neoliberalism, it became observably more managerial and hierarchical, as well as expanding by opening campuses in other countries.

I concede that there are things that could be done to improve Higher Education and the quality of teaching and learning in it. But privatisation is the wrong answer.


A National Education Service is exactly what we need

Jeremy Corbyn has been floating the idea of a National Education Service since his Labour leadership campaign last year. The idea is breathtakingly simple and, in fact, blindingly obvious. The formation of a fully-funded, cradle-to-grave education service is the antithesis of the outsourced fragmented and anti-democratic reforms that have been creeping in since the 1970s. These are a few of my initial thoughts on the idea.

The National Education Service would provide a coordinated high-quality education service that supports learning from early years, through schools, sixth form, further education, undergraduate, postgraduate to adult and lifelong learning.

Schools would no longer be in a position where they are artificially competing with each other, but they would coordinate their strategies and maximise the use of their resources to better serve local communities and regions. It would mean a change from the current fetishisation of leadership to promote mutual and cooperatively run services, where teachers, parents, pupils and communities are recognised as stakeholders and have a greater say in how schools function.

At present there is a recruitment and retention crisis in teaching, a National Education Service would address this. Teachers would have more professional esteem and have greater control over their work, pay and conditions. The intensity of their work would be reduced by shifting the emphasis from centralised accountability to local democratic accountability.

While some examinations would continue to be important, this would not be at the expense of developing broader skills and more holistic school contributions such as the education of the community and emphasizing inclusivity, collaboration and partnership. Certainly it would move away from excessive compulsory testing for the purpose of accountability. It would mean a departure from a narrowly defined curriculum to one which reflects the needs of the community in which the school is located. The overall aim would be to equip students with the skills and capacities to contribute to society and help them develop as individuals. An overarching aim would be to put education at the heart of making society a more effective, fairer and more inclusive functioning democracy.

In further education, it would mean an end to degenerate privatisation, but provide a service that supports post-16 education, both academic and vocational – without necessarily drawing strong distinctions between the two. It would offer adult learning, whether it be developing skills, allowing people to develop their interests or in helping them prepare for advanced studies. University education would be freely available to all and include opportunity to blend academic and vocational studies. The Open University would be restored to a position where it can offer low-cost and flexible approaches to university-level education.

This is ambitious and the main objection is, simply, that we cannot afford it. My argument is that we cannot afford not to do this. Education is not having the impact on society that it should be, it can do more to improve the quality of outcomes for communities; developing skills and knowledge and helping people make a difference in their lives and to the people around them. While all society’s problems cannot be solved by schools, education can be at the heart of improvement, by equipping the next generation to be more active and effective participants in democracy.

In terms of cost, it has been estimated that the bank bail-out, with all things considered was as much as £1.2 trillion1. Much of this investment went toward the preservation of these institutions and the preservation of the wealth of their key stakeholders. The National Education Service would be fraction of this investment. Of the order of tens of billions each year. Investment that would go directly into the economy but at the same time would result in considerable growth. If it were done carefully this kind of investment would have little impact on the deficit but would have considerable economic and social benefits2.

1.  Episode 5, The End of History. Economist James Meadway citing IMF estimates

2.  I discuss the economics of school spending in the following blog post:

I published this post on the Cambridge Area Momentum site previously

Concerns about the Prevent Strategy from the perspective of the teacher educator

The following I wrote for a discussion at the University of Cambridge, Senate House 9 May 2016. It sets out my concerns about the Prevent Strategy.

A good proportion of my teaching in the Faculty of Education involves lecturing on the Post Graduate Certificate of Education (PGCE). This is a one-year masters-level programme for trainee school teachers working in the state sector. It leads to Qualified Teacher Status. The programme is run as a partnership involving the Faculty of Education and local partner schools.

This year I have had involvement in the Prevent Strategy training for the first time. A specialist police officer presented to the 200 trainee secondary teachers in the auditorium at Homerton College. They explained how Prevent was part of the government’s counter terrorism strategy and its importance in reducing radicalisation and terrorism. Case studies were used to illustrate how vulnerable young people may be attracted to extremist groups such as those associated with the Islamic faith and those right wing extremists who apparently go to football matches to recruit dissatisfied and dislocated youth.

The narrative presented (and there was no indication whether the case studies were real or illustrative) is that early intervention can combat extremist associations, can encourage young people to realign extremist thoughts and lead to them having a much happier life. The presentation went on to show how intervention had saved these youngsters and encouraged them to a better life without extremists or extremist views. The police officer explained that she believed absolutely in the efficacy of the Prevent Strategy.

After the police officer’s presentation, I spoke with a group of twenty trainee teachers. Many of them accepted the strategy uncritically. The general view was that it was a good idea in order to reduce the risk of terrorism. They accepted that extreme views held by young people might lead to them becoming violent terrorists. The widely held view among this group of twenty was that it was worth intervening and notifying the appropriate authorities if it reduced radicalisation that led to terrorism.

I spent time with them deconstructing the Prevent strategy, while reminding them that they have a legal duty to implement it in schools. First we considered the risks associated with terrorism in the UK, we used data to show that more deaths occur annually in the UK as a result of encounters with items of furniture in the home than they do as a result of terrorism [1]. Why is it we do not have a furniture safety strategy? We then considered what motives the government might have in bringing in legislation that raises anxiety and fear about particular groups? We also considered research about extremism, radicalisation and terrorism, in particular the unsubstantiated claim that there is a conveyor belt from extremist thought to terrorist act. We spent almost an hour discussing the issues.

In spite of this critique, I reminded them of their legal duty to implement the Prevent strategy.

Even though we spent time discussing and thinking about the implications of this strategy and the importance of freedom of expression, these teachers will go on to work in state secondary schools.

State schools have, over the last twenty years, become increasingly subject to centralised control through the reporting of progress data and through punitive inspection by the Office for Standards in Education. Foucault would have described this in terms of surveillance and discipline. As such our state schools have become socially conservative. Teachers can find they have limited autonomy to act critically in implementing policy and legislation.

What I fear then most of all is that through implementing the Prevent strategy in the context of initial teacher education, not only are we in danger of undermining free speech within the university, but also we help perpetuate and promote socially divisive behaviours and action through our complicity. We will be sending young teachers in the profession who will be obliged to single out any child who they suspect might have extremist views. We have to be aware of the University’s role in this.

I therefore ask that we think very carefully about how we implement the Prevent strategy, because if we simply comply with it, not only do we undermine a fundamental academic right to freedom of expression, but, like in the example of initial teacher education, we can end up contributing to divisive behaviours in schools and perpetuating fear and mistrust in society. Ideally I would like to see the University and Colleges robustly challenge the Prevent Strategy.

[1] Estimates of risk of death from terrorism come from as 1 in 15.8 million compared with accidental deaths in the home (around 6000 per year) as 1 in 10200. If say 5 of those deaths involve furniture in the home, the risk is approximately 1 in 12.2 million (see in support of this estimate). It is crude but it illustrates the risk order of magnitude.

Political activism and the educator

The Labour Party leadership campaign this summer motivated me to become more politically active. Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign represented a chance for greater democracy and fairness. I felt that for the first time in my life there was a chance that things could change. Importantly, I believed I had the power to contribute to change. Within a short time I became a political activist. I joined the Labour Party, and after Corbyn was elected got involved with the Cambridge Area Momentum group. A national group which was established to carry forward the grassroots enthusiasm generated during Corbyn’s leadership campaign. Overall I felt a greater sense of political motive.

I decided, like my colleague and friend at the University of Nottingham, Peter Gates, to integrate my activism with my personal and professional life. I have never been comfortable with compartmentalising my life. I like it simple. But it comes with its challenges. The following are my reflections on being an educator, a researcher and on being politically active.

The thing is about people on benefits: talking with a taxi driver

I was leading some professional development at a Cambridgeshire school in December 2015. I had to get a taxi. The driver asked me what I did. I told him. We got onto the subject of welfare and benefits. He said he thought too many people had too little incentive to work. I disagreed. I explained that I thought people on benefits had been unfairly represented on television and in some newspapers. I also explained that I believed the way to help people who find themselves trapped on benefits is through education and through supporting communities. Things do not change for these people through punitive measures, they change by having opportunities, having the skills, knowledge and confidence to take those opportunities.

We talked about whether the nation could afford this. He said we had overspent and the country was in debt. I explained that this had been misrepresented. Debt as a percentage of GDP was at a reasonable level, cutting public investment in poorer communities would add to the national debt because communities in decline cost more in the long term in terms of health, crime and welfare.

Our conversation was robust but good natured. But in the end he had some advice for me. He told me that someone like me in education should not be political. That I had a responsibility not to impose my political views.

Advice from a political philosopher

A mathematics educator colleague and friend from Loughborough University had, it seemed, been thinking about being a researcher and being politically active. He Tweeted the following.

It made me think.

Bas van der Vossen, a political philosopher, carefully and thoroughly examines whether political philosophers should also be politically active. Marx said it was a necessity. That the point of philosophy is to change the world. But van der Vossen argues that in order to conduct effective philosophy, it is important not be drawn into activism; to maintain impartiality and objectivity. Matthew agrees and that by analogy, educational researchers must also stay out of political debate.

I disagree.

Imposing my political views and biasing my research: a defence

So as a teacher – the argument goes – it is important not to influence the views and politics of those for whom you have responsibility for teaching. A teacher holds a position of trust and therefore must not use that power to coerce and unduly influence.

As a researcher, engaging in campaigns and activism makes it difficult to detach those aims from research. The researcher will inadvertently push an agenda through their research.

Yet, I feel strongly about the level of  inequality in our society. It is a political choice not to provide adequate services to support communities, particularly those that are disadvantaged. I do not believe the freemarket is the answer. But I am not opposed to business either.

The political educator and researcher

When I trained to be mathematics teacher, I soon became concerned with New Labour’s education policy. It oversimplified the learning process and undermined teachers’ professionalism. I became involved in the NASUWT and regularly attended the annual conference. The current education policy under the Conservative government is concerned with further privatisation and an even greater oversimplification of teaching and learning. I could not imagine that was even possible. As a teacher I have a duty to campaign for education on behalf of other teachers and on behalf of students and communities.

Even when I was less politically active, I was keen to encourage students to be aware of the politics of mathematics. In the classroom, I showed students how mathematics and statistics are used to influence opinion and beliefs. We looked at and discussed news items that used statistics. I explained how mathematics has and continues to be used to exploit those without mathematical knowledge. I was keen to develop mathematical literacy as citizenship.

Now as a teacher educator, I believe that trainee teachers, in order to become professionals and future leaders in education, should be in a position to critique education policy. They should understand how mathematics pedagogy might be effective with different groups of learners, especially those from low socioeconomic backgrounds and those who do not find the learning of mathematics straightforward. I also want trainees to be aware of their own working conditions and pay, and that professionals need, at times, to act with solidarity to campaign for improvements. Improvements that allow them to be better professionals.

As an educator I encourage students to be critical and examine the bigger questions about the politics of mathematics and the politics of education. I draw the line at trying to impose a particular viewpoint or recruit students to political organisations.

As a researcher and academic, my work is applied social science. It is concerned with how to understand and improve educational practice and structures: to improve learning and consequently to improve society. My research is within a political context. I am not researching as a disinterested observer or as non-participant, I am part of that process. My beliefs drive my actions as much as logic and reason.

If I am politically active how can my research be valid?

The philosophy underpinning my approach to research is pragmatism. The philosophy proposed by Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914) and William James (1842-1910), and developed further by John Dewey (1859-1952) in and around education. Pragmatism presents truth not as determined through abstract reasoning,  i.e. through rationalism. Neither can it be determined through experience, i.e. through empiricism. For James, truth could only really be determined by what actually works in practice. Pragmatism is a practical kind of truth.

In my research this means carefully observing classrooms, theorising practice, developing approaches and assessing their impact using qualitative and quantitative approaches. My starting point is exploring existing practice, identifying and explaining patterns of behaviour using social science theory. The next stage involves formulating questions about how learning is taking place. This is followed by propositions about how practice might be changed or developed. Finally the change is examined and its usefulness is considered. The test of validity is the extent to which developments are implemented and that implementation is sustained. The approach is further explained and exemplified here.

The way in which I integrate my political activism with my teaching and research is by giving students the opportunity to be politically aware of the subject being taught but not imposing a particular view. In my research, validity is sought through pragmatism, it allows decisions to be guided by what works rather than by a political position.

I believe that being political is not really a choice. You can try and ignore political inclinations or you can try and integrate them into your practice in a critical and ethical way.