Tuesday, 21 July 2009

What you know...not who you know!

Unleashing Aspiration - The Cabinet Office's paper on social mobility was published today. It's a slightly aggressive title for what, on first reading, seems a noble, but timid set of eighty recommendations. Behind it is the absolutely correct assumption that the class system prevails in a fairly fixed state and that, with a few brave and remarkable exceptions, the accident of your birth is still the singularly most important factor in determining what you end up doing professionally.

My issue with the document, welcome though it is, is that its frame of reference hits the same old debate of saying more resources need to go into schools, more initiatives, more extra-curricular activities... more, more more! The report continually makes a comparison depicting state schools as poor relations to the private sector, where a disproportionate percentage of our lawyers, doctors, cultural leaders, academics and chief executives begin their journey. That this is true and indefensible is basic stuff, but the state system can never compete. A fresh approach is needed. Of course resources are important but the real reason why the private sector produces so many 'leaders' is because it sets less value on 'socialisation' and more on nurturing individual talent and ability than the bureaucratised state sector. The unifying component of all successful leaders, regardless of political persuasion is that they are independent thinkers. Despite occasional revolution, cavaliers and libertines nearly always possess the charisma to lead puritans and roundheads.

For me, the key component of the discrepancy is not class (which seems a lazy descriptor for this kind of debate) but the relatively small number of students in each private institution and the amount of 'space' those students have to think, play and explore in. In supportive circumstances learning becomes a stimulating job and surveillance (interpersonal in the private sector) can be used to support each individual's development rather than to protect property or control crowds. All this leads to a different and ennobling attitude towards the young, and it's this that needs cultivating rather than trying to bridge the commodity or even opportunity gap. The investment in the over crowded state sector needs to be made here, providing the intellectual architecture for a change in mentality - which would eventually make private education, if not obsolete, then unnecessary. An after school club is a stop gap in comparison.

For arts educators the report makes a welcome acknowledgement of the importance of soft skills and there is an interesting idea that all 5 -11 year olds should have an entitlement to visits and training under a scheme called 'Arts Explorers' but alongside these fine proposals run oppositional terms such as 'cost effective' and 'well evidenced.' Again a sign that 'aspiration' needs to be imposed rather than discovered. This teaches students to over-respect authority rather than to see, question or, dare I say it, set agendas. It doesn't take too much logic to see how a hierarchy like this, paradoxically, develops notions of inferiority and hinders social mobility. What is lost if you prescribe more, is the space and time for young people to reflect, choose and occasionally reject.

For us the problem is manifest in the number of students arriving at University needing to be 'de-schooled.'

Symptoms include a fear of failure, of risk taking, of engaging in even the mildest form of debate and seeking permission for every thought. Too many are sure right and wrong exist and spend far too long playing a percentage game of working out what lecturers want, a wasted effort, counter to the true spirit of enquiry.

I hope the broad ambition of the report leads to positive changes, and I think it could make a real difference to some of our most disadvantaged communities; but you can't truly 'unleash' anything if you're only looking at structure.

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