Responding to Teach First’s Social Mobility Report

In many ways I was pleased to see the publication of the Teach First report on social mobility. The publication of this analysis is important in drawing attention to the problems of inequality and social mobility in education.

But it also annoyed me greatly. Because I see that the levels of inequality and lack of social mobility are a result of successive governments’ economic choices. We have, since the 1970s, in the UK and the USA particularly, adopted a system of liberal economics, neoliberalism. The aim has been to reduce the size of the state with controls on public spending and the transfer of public-sector services and nationalised industry to the private sector.

The result of the adoption of neoliberalism has led to an increase in inequality as a result of controls on public spending, regressive taxation and the deregulation of the financial sector  . The barriers to social mobility are attributable to economic inequality . The adoption of neoliberalism creates a system whereby value flows from the less well off to the wealthiest.

As part of reducing the role of the state, public-sector provision has been transferred to private ownership, in the case of Academy schools, or new private-sector not-for-profit provision has been created, as in the case of Teach First. Teach First, like other forms of outsourced public provision, is a product of neoliberal thinking. Teach First’s proposition is that through the deployment of high-achieving individuals in schools, the effects of disadvantage can be mitigated.

I believe this to be wrong, since it is only through economic policy that inequality and poor social mobility can be addressed. That is not to say we don’t need good schools for all and in them skilled professionals, but it is important that we address society’s problems with appropriate policy making as a priority.

Neoliberalism can’t solve the problems created by neoliberalism. It is a paradox. It is with this in mind I was reminded of a great literary paradox and, as you will see, the striking similarities this has with outsourcing the solutions to neoliberal inequality.

Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (1962) is a dark satirical comedy set in an American airbase in Italy at the end of the Second World War. The story follows the main character Captain John Yossarian and his associates, as they participate in a seemingly endless number of bombing missions over Germany. The ‘Catch-22’, the novel’s leitmotiv, and a term subsequently absorbed into the English language, is a paradox. It is first expressed in the novel thus:

There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane, he had to fly them. If he flew them, he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to, he was sane and had to.

World War II, although often seen as a geopolitical war, was the consequence of the economic conditions in the preceding period. Liberal economics had prevailed, with substantial deregulation of the financial sector. Speculation and credit ran rife. The bubble burst in 1929, this plunged the US into a deep recession and took much of Europe with it. The instability created by a crisis of capitalism led to the Second World War.

These conditions are not unlike those that led up to the Global Financial Crisis in 2008 and also the inequality we have in the UK now.

Milo Minderbinder, a comrade of Yossarian, is an entrepreneur, a war profiteer. Heller presents him as a symbol of the American capitalist Dream. Initially, Minderbinder’s syndicate, M & M Enterprises appears small and benign. It involves selling and buying eggs in a complex series of profitable transactions. While flying a mission, Yossarian asks Milo why he buys eggs from Malta for seven cents and sells them to the mess hall for five cents. Milo explains that he does it to make a profit. Perplexed, Yossarian asks if he then loses two cents on each egg. Milo explains:

But I make a profit of three and a quarter cents an egg by selling them for four and a quarter cents an egg to the people in Malta I buy them from them for seven cents an egg. Of course, I don’t make the profit. The syndicate makes the profit. And everybody has a share (Milo Minderbinder, p. 265).

Yossarian thinks he is beginning to understand, he asks if the people Milo sells to are making a profit of two and three quarter cents when they sell them back to him for seven cents. He asks: “Why don’t you sell the eggs directly to you and eliminate the people you sell them to?” Milo responds: “Because I am the people I buy them from.” Milo further explains that he initially buys the eggs in Sicily for a cent each. He makes profit of six cents on each egg overall, except when he sells to the mess hall where he makes four cents. The convoluted process is simply to expand the reach of his business activity.

Arguably this is not dissimilar to the complex contractual arrangements we have with outsourced service providers and academy chains. None of which, like Milo, make a personal profit. There is a contract in which Milo’s syndicate benefits from the activity of the enterprise. Similarly, with outsourced business, through its not-for-profit activity, society supposedly benefits.

“Really?” You ask.

“Yes, really.” I say. “Well, make your own mind up.”

However, Milo like all capitalists expands his business. M & M Enterprises are contracted by the Germans to carry out bombing raids for them. The enemy outsources their combat to the enemy. The Americans then end up fighting on both sides in the battle at Orvieto, and bombing their own squadron at Pianosa. At one point Minderbinder orders his fleet of aircraft to attack his own base, killing many American officers and enlisted men.

I did not realise, when I first read Catch-22 as a teenager, how Heller captured the deep irony of capitalism and liberal economics. That the suffering and damage it creates also provides opportunity for profit and capital accumulation.

The mechanisms by which we employ outsourced providers, like Teach First, to address inequality is a business scheme that capitalises on economic failure. If we address the economic issues, we would not need an enterprise to provide the service, the resources could be absorbed into the public sector to contribute to quality education for all.

I  do not wish to denigrate the many good people who work for and have trained with Teach First. No doubt, their motives are good. They want to do the best for the students they teach. My criticisms here, are at the level of political economy and policy, where I challenge the assumption that within neoliberalism it is possible to create educational programmes that promote social mobility and mitigate for inequality that is, itself, a consequence of neoliberalism.

Neoliberalism can’t solve neoliberalism. It’s a catch-22, we have to change the economic system.

References

Stiglitz, J. (2012). The price of inequality. Penguin Books.
Wilkinson, R. G., & Pickett, K. (2010). The spirit level: why equality is better for everyone. Penguin Books.

The learning styles debate: a triumph of rationality over criticality

A number of well-meaning and well-intentioned neuroscientists and psychologists signed a letter in today’s Guardian saying that the concept of Learning Styles has no evidential base. Learning styles are well and truly debunked.

https://www.theguardian.com/education/2017/mar/12/no-evidence-to-back-idea-of-learning-styles

I don’t disagree.

What alarms me is the prioritisation and politicisation of this issue. Learning styles have been attributed, as a bête noire, by neoconservative educators, as dangerous and foolish – a symbol of the maleficence of progressive education.

For the neoconservative educator, the destruction of learning styles represents a victorious battle in a war against progressive education. The fiction is that a progressive cabal has imposed such monstrous practices on teachers, for example: learning styles, group work and discovery learning. And science, when done properly and rigorously leads to the destruction of these myths, one-by-one. Science will destroy progressivism in death by randomised control trial.

Educational neoconservativism is a broad coalition. It includes the teacher who simply wants authority in their own classroom, who is apolitical. The egoistic demagogic rationalist, who sees opportunity in elevating themselves amongst traditionally-oriented teachers. The knowledge evangelicals, who claim to be apolitical, and it is simply about truth and giving (disadvantaged) children access to powerful knowledge through a conservative canon. There is an unholy alliance – whether it be inadvertent or by volition –  with the libertarian freemarket right wing, intent on the commidification of knowledge and the privatisation of state education.

Because, for the freemarketeer, there is nothing that suits economic rationalism more than procedural rationalism, i.e. the rationality of neoconservative education.

Learning styles were introduced into schools in the UK in the 1990s and 2000s. Their introduction was part of an attempt to develop personalisation, the identification of sensory preferences for the formulation of learning experience. Learning style identification was streamlined into an easily implemented questionnaire and data was kept and used by teachers to inform the planning of their lessons. To make them aurally, kinaesthetically or visually oriented for learners’ various preference.

The context of the introduction of learning styles in England was against a backdrop of  a cross-party consensus on neoliberal reforms. Marketisation through competition, commodification of knowledge and pedagogy and per-pupil funding, creating a quasi-voucher scheme. Learning styles under New Labour in the 2000s were typical of Michael Barber’s deliverology, where policy could be turned into prescribed action and monitored in the extent to which it was implemented. A way of showing, to the electorate, that a policy such as personalisation, could be implemented through a system of rationality and accountability. There was little concern about the efficacy of the process.

Neoliberal reforms, as result of financial liberalisation, have resulted in increased wealth inequality within nations like the UK and US. Unfettered state-subsidised capitalism permit the rich to get richer, while the rest become poorer. Neoliberal reforms in education have preserved the inequality that has developed in the wider political economy. We are now in a situation where large private-sector multi-academy trusts are in receipt of public money to expand their education businesses and develop regional monopolistic control on the education of middle class pupils. Schools in more challenging areas suffer as a result of an unequal and unfair education system.

When academic colleagues launch a public attack on learning styles, I wonder why they do not take a more critical stance on what is happening in our education systems. Are learning styles – while they have many limitations – really the major issue that we have to address in education at present? Should we not be attacking the privatisation of education and the growing inequalities of society? Should we not be attacking the reduction in funding given to schools?

I fear that these scientists have been hoodwinked into a debate by neoconservatives as party to a false battle against progressivism. They may be acting in good faith and in absolute belief that science provides us with truth. I don’t know. But I do see that science can be used as an anti-intellectual force, the search for evidence and validity becomes a parochial exercise and denies the context of political and economic forces that drive things.

It is necessary that we approach evidence, causality and context with a critical eye. Otherwise we can end up focussing our energies on the relatively inconsequential, as we have done in the endless debates about learning styles. I implore all to focus on what is really damaging our education system.