Taking a line for a walk

On 7 May 2015 the UK electorate voted in a majority government on a platform of more austerity and increased hardship for the most disadvantaged and vulnerable in society, precipitating, among other things, Labour’s almost immediate resignation as a true party of opposition – convinced, seemingly, that it is only by endorsing the Tory fiction of its fiscal irresponsibility in office that Labour can restore the country’s faith in it as a party of, erm, fiscal responsibility. Like many other left-leaning voters, I feel trapped in a bad dream in which it is always 10pm on election night and that exit poll in replayed, over and over again, forever, to a soundtrack of Michael Gove endlessly congratulating himself.

Two things particularly struck me during the general election campaign. First, the narrow and impoverished nature of the debate and the utter failure of the mainstream media to do anything to dispel the statistical fog of claim and counterclaim or to take a step beyond the confining narrative established by the coalition in its first few months in office and enthusiastically taken up by its friends in the press. And second, the way fear – whether of economic ‘chaos’, a disgruntled business community or a minority Labour government controlled from Edinburgh – was endlessly and very effectively stoked, in the end trumping any sense of hope or solidarity. In politics, as in life, it is fear that prevents us taking creative chances, whether that is a leap of imagination or a leap of empathy and understanding.

Labour’s subsequent capitulation in the myth that it overspent in office and caused or (in a more nuanced spin for the economically better-informed) exacerbated the economic crisis (a capitulation with qualifications, I know, but who has time to read the qualifications?) could be said to make a very effective case for more political education. But it also, it seems to me, represents an implicit concession that the language of empathy, informed compassion and solidarity have little place in modern politics, and that only tough-guy posturing, usually in the face of imagined or invented demons (‘uncontrolled’ immigration, benefit cheats and Greek-style economic collapse are three of the most popular phantoms), can win over the electorate.

Politics, of course, is not the only area of life where empathy is in short supply. The hostile and at time callous language used by the media (and, indeed, by politicians) to describe asylum seekers, refugees and immigrants is another case in point, stereotyping and scapegoating migrants while overlooking their positive contribution and over-reporting the problems they create (it is telling that while people’s perceptions of the extent of these problems diverge ridiculously from reality, they are broadly in line with the priority given them by the parts of the media). Social media too, for all its virtues and possibilities, seems at times almost a test lab for every kind of meanness, closed-mindedness and spite, often in the guise of some sort of moral crusade; usually one fatally detached from any sense of human sympathy or fellow-feeling. As Adam Smith argued long ago, it is this sympathetic imaginative effort to put ourselves in other people’s shoes that is at the heart of morality and virtuous behaviour.

If, as Smith believed, the imagination is the faculty responsible not only for populating our moral world but also for the entire creative sphere of commerce and the arts and sciences, it is surely something we should cultivate. This was something strongly hinted at by the Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, in an interesting interview on the Today programme in May. Productivity, Carney said, was the way forward for the UK economy, yet it was faltering because of under-investment and the disproportionate number of low-paid, low-productivity jobs created by the economy, prompting the Bank of England to downgrade its growth forecasts. Productivity, he went on, could be improved through investment in skills and innovation, empowering people at work, and more creativity. This reiterated points he was able to make at greater length in a speech about pay and productivity at the TUC congress last year. ‘Skills levels need to be raised continually,’ he said. ‘That is, of course, first and foremost about education. But crucially it also means access to lifelong learning, both on and off the job, available to all.’

What I particularly like about these comments is the link Carney makes between creativity, education, skills and productivity. We need a school curriculum that is geared to delivering the skills and resources young people need to thrive in the modern world, and that includes, critically, creativity, resilience and imagination, and, perhaps just as importantly, a willingness to think of themselves as learners throughout their lives. We also need a system of lifelong learning that unlocks people’s creativity later in life, when and where they need it. As John Dewey wrote, ‘the object and reward of learning is continued capacity for growth’. The alternative is a continued decline in productivity relative to our competitors and an economy characterised by poorly paid, low-skilled jobs and calcified patterns of inequality.

Carney’s remarks point to a great deal that is wrong about the government’s approach to education. This is in some ways typified by education secretary Nicky Morgan’s comment that studying an arts subject ‘holds pupils back for the rest of their lives’, but it is also evidenced in the government’s more general denigration of arts and culture in the curriculum, prompting the Warwick Commission last year to wonder why it is that ‘the English educational system is not focusing on the future needs of the cultural and creative industries and the broader needs for innovation and growth in the UK?’ Not only is the curriculum narrowing, with arts subjects steadily downgraded and excluded, but the pressures brought to bear on teachers and school leaders are making it increasingly difficult for schools to bring a creative ethos to teaching and learning. Morgan used her first public appearances following the general election to warn that ‘failing or coasting’ schools would have their head teachers removed and be forced to join an academy chain (though she failed to specify why this would help – for the very good reason that there is no evidence that it would). It is doubtful whether the threat of this kind of punitive intervention is the best way to improve teaching and learning outcomes for pupils, particularly in a context of declining funding and rising costs, where teachers and school leaders already struggle with excessive workload, driven by an inspection system that encourages them to value looking good above doing good. Little wonder schools are struggling to recruit and retain teaching staff.

But perhaps the most vivid example of the short-sightedness of the government’s approach is in adult further education, which has seen the deepest cuts of any part of the education sector. Further education as a whole is having a tough time. The coalition’s near-obsessive focus on apprenticeships, combined with a willingness to put the interests of other sectors ahead of those of FE, has seen courses cut, staff made redundant and sector morale plummet. As a result, options for students are narrowing. Further education appears to have few friends in parliament – and has one supporter less with the significant loss of Vince Cable. Adult further education has seen the most devastating cuts of all, reduced by 25 per cent between 2009-10 and 2014-15, with a further 24 per cent cut to non-apprenticeship adult learning planned for 2015-16. The Association of Colleges is warning that adult further education could be a thing of the past by 2020.

As Mark Carney suggests, the loss of these opportunities is nothing short of disastrous. It represents the continued prevalence of a narrowly conceived economism in education, an approach which is a failure, even on its own terms. Opportunities to learn should be available to all, at every age, on and off the job, with funding following the learner rather than the prejudices of ministers. Instead, we are moving towards a two-tier, one-chance education system in which most children are trained for employment, with a fully rounded creative and cultural education available only to those following the gilded path to an elite university – overwhelmingly those who start out privileged – and few opportunities to return should things not work out first time around. Education should not be about joining the dots of a picture someone else has already sketched. It should be about (to borrow Paul Klee’s phrase) ‘taking a line for a walk’, gaining the resources we need to learn and develop in our own way – and that, above all, demands a wide curriculum and a creative one, as well as opportunities for second, third and even fourth chances. To quote Dewey again, it is ‘illiberal and immoral to train children to work not freely and intelligently but for the sake of the work earned, in which case their activity is not free because it is not freely participated in.’

Sadly, our schools and colleges increasingly resemble factories churning out young people with the requisite qualifications to gain employment and not much more (and often failing to do even that). The economic pay-off at the end is everything, the consequences of failure enormous and second chances are increasingly squeezed. As the OECD reported recently, the skills gap between young people not in employment, education or training and those in work is significantly wider in England and Northern Ireland than in other developed countries. The scale of social inequality makes the consequences of slipping down the ladder still graver, as every good middle-class parent knows. And we make sure our children feel the pressure as early as possible through a regime of testing that begins ludicrously early. As they get older, study further, and take on the huge debts now associated with a decent education, the pressure to remain on the treadmill, to work not reflect, to accept not criticise, grows greater. We are a society increasingly governed by our private and public fears, unwilling to take risks or think creatively, unable, seemingly, to expand our moral horizons, even to include people in mortal peril. It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that we are stuck with the education system we have rather than the one we need.