Monthly Archives: January 2017

‘The truth’, alternative facts and remembrance

I recently finished Svetlana Alexievich’s Chernobyl Prayer, one of a few books I’ve read that I would say deserve to be termed ‘essential’ – certainly none I’ve read deserves the title more. It collects a large number of remarkably powerful testimonies from people witness to the appalling tragedy of Chernobyl and its dreadful and ongoing aftermath. It is a harrowing read – some passages almost unbearably so – but it is also compelling. The witnesses are, by turns, moving, sentimental, desperate, appalled, angry, philosophical and funny. But what stands out, above all, is the utter determination of Chernobyl’s damaged and grieving survivors to tell their story, in the face of lies, distortion and indifference. It is an important read for any politician who believes the facts do not matter or that they have a right to ‘control’ the reality in which their citizens live.

I was reminded as I read of a passage in one of Primo Levi’s books where he describes how camp guards at Auschwitz would taunt prisoners by telling them that even if they survived to tell their stories no-one would ever believe them (I can’t, I’m afraid, recall which book). A recurring nightmare of many who did survive the Holocaust was of relating what had happened and not being believed. Their suffering was appalling, but it was made immeasurably worse by the prospect of the reality of their suffering being denied or excised from history. That is why the annual UN International Day of Commemoration in Memory of the Victims of the Holocaust, marked today (on the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz), is so important. It is an affirmation of a commitment both to remembering one of history’s most dreadful crimes and to the value of education in overcoming divisions, combating racism and defending the truth against those who choose to distort it. In the era of post-truth politics, ‘alternative facts’, ‘fake news’ and fake politicians, this commitment has never been more important.

When Rupert Murdoch’s Sun newspaper published its now notorious frontpage headlined ‘The truth’ in the immediate aftermath of the Hillsborough disaster it, the impact on survivors and the families of the victims was enormous. I refuse to believe that the decision of the newspaper’s odious editor was anything other than a calculated act of distortion. The headline must have had, for him, a delicious irony, as he personally insisted on presenting a litany of inhuman crimes, alleged to have been committed by the victims, without a shred of evidence, in contradiction of almost all eye-witness testimony. This man’s actions added significantly to the burden of guilt carried by survivors for more than a quarter of a century, while the families of the victims, locked in a seemingly endless fight for justice, were driven by the fear that their truth, the real story of what happened to their loved ones that day, would be erased from history. When justice campaigner and mother of one of the victims Margaret Aspinall stood on the steps of Liverpool’s St George’s Hall shortly after the report of the Hillsborough Independent Panel was published, she told the survivors, finally, to ‘forgive yourselves’. People in the crowd wept.

One of the witnesses in Svetlana Alexievich’s book wonders ‘whether it’s better to remember or forget’. The struggle to tell the truth can be exhausting and demoralising when you feel yourselves to be so small, and the forces of distortion are so very great and all-pervasive. And there are other personal costs too, not least the uncomprehending contempt of those who saw the victims as scroungers in search of ‘Chernobyl benefits’. I think we owe the author a huge debt of gratitude for collecting these untold stories and for ensuring that these forgotten people have a voice. Her book should be on every politician’s reading list. It is important that they understand the consequences of what Orwell termed ‘reality control’. When politicians offer their citizens an ‘alternative’ truth, the ‘truth’ they want them to invest in for own reasons (and there can be no good reasons here), it is a first step on a very dark road, along which people are dehumanised, victims blamed, rights overlooked and dignity overridden. History shows us where this road leads. This is why it is so important that we continue to remember, to recognise that telling the truth can be a powerfully defiant and profoundly political act. It is also a reminder, as one Holocaust survivor said this week, that civilization is ‘veneer-thin’. It needs constant care and reinvestment. By committing to truth, justice and remembrance we not only assert the value of human dignity and civilisation, we make a statement of confidence in people and the future as well.

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Lifelong learning and the Sustainable Development Goals

On 15 September 2015, member states attending the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit in New York adopted a new set of goals to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure prosperity for all as part of a new sustainable development agenda. They were the result of an extensive consultation which involved not only governments, but public and private sectors and non-governmental organisations. The 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and 169 associated targets commit signatory countries to making specific progress on issues such as climate change, gender equality and education by 2030. The SDGs came into force a year ago this month.

The UK is one of 193 nation states to have signed up to the agreement, and was initially one of the leading national players, taking a key role in the formulation of some of the goals. However, by the end of negotiations, it was one of the least enthusiastic with former Prime Minister David Cameron keen to reduce the number of commitments. The UK’s interpretation of the goals has been largely focused on support for less developed countries, with responsibility for implementation falling on the shoulders of the Secretary of State for International Development. The International Development Committee last year described the government’s response to the SDGs as ‘insufficient for a country which led on their development as being universal and applicable to all’, highlighting ‘a worrying lack of engagement in, or ownership of, the SDGs by departments across Government’.

While the government, in its response to the committee’s report, undertook to ensure all secretaries of state and senior officials engage with the SDGs, the lack of progress to date is concerning since achievement of the goals depends very largely on active engagement and commitment across government departments. One of the most useful aspects of the SDGs, to my mind, is their insistence on cross-sectoral solutions and their recognition that progress against one cannot be made without due consideration of the rest.

Sustainable Development Goal 4 is of particular importance to adult educators and other advocates of lifelong learning since in enjoins UN member states to: ‘Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all’. It commits participating countries to ‘promoting quality lifelong learning opportunities for all, in all settings and at all levels of education’. These, of course, are crucial ambitions in their own right. As the Framework for Action for the implementation of Goal 4 recognizes, there is an urgent need for a new vision for education that is ‘holistic, ambitious and aspirational, leaving no one behind’. The urgency stems from a cocktail of factors, including demographic and environmental change, skills shortages in many countries, increasing automation and rapidly advancing technology. No-one, wherever they live in the world, can anymore expect to flourish in the world by relying simply on the skills they acquired at school.

But education, and lifelong learning in particular, have a special, wider role, too, in virtue of their contribution to a range of other sustainable development agendas, such as poverty, gender equality, health and wellbeing, and the environment. The Framework for Action acknowledges this, noting that education is ‘a main driver of development and in achieving the other proposed SDGs’. Promoting lifelong learning within the framework of the 2030 agenda implies a cross-sectoral effort which recognizes the interdependence of learning and key concerns around environmental protection, economic growth and social and cultural development. I would argue that the inter-sectoral relevance of lifelong learning makes it the key factor in delivering the sustainable development agenda. No government serious about these ambitions can afford to ignore it.

The 2030 agenda represents an important advocacy opportunity – the chance to demonstrate the wider, inter-sectoral, relevance of lifelong learning, its crucial contribution to a range of agendas, and its essential role in accelerating progress towards all the UN Sustainable Development Goals. For these goals to be reached, a concerted effort must be made to promote good-quality lifelong learning opportunities for all, wherever they learn and at whatever level, and to highlight the wider relevance of lifelong learning. As ever, we must find new, relevant and imaginative ways in which to make our case. In doing so, we also contribute to the wider task of communicating the Sustainable Development Goals more widely and encouraging governments to take greater ownership of them.

It shouldn’t need saying that this is not just a concern for developing countries. The UK is a case in point. Where other developed countries, such as China, have increased investment in lifelong learning, recognizing its importance in giving citizens the skills and attributes they need to flourish in work environments characterized by constant change and upheaval, the UK government had dramatically reduced investment. Since 2010 it has overseen the collapse of part-time higher education (which for the most part engages adults already in work), the almost complete destruction of university lifelong learning, the disappearance of much local authority adult learning provision (as well as of supporting infrastructure such as public libraries), and dramatic cuts to the adult skills budget in further education. Many now predict that the adult skills budget will disappear altogether by the end of the next parliament. MP David Lammy last week told the UK parliament that this budget had been cut by 40 per cent in real terms between 2010 and 2015, with a 10.8 per cent reduction in 2014-15 alone. By any measure, we are some way from the provision of ‘quality lifelong learning opportunities for all, in all settings and at all levels of education’.

The UK, of course, has led the way in research on the wider benefits of learning, notably through the groundbreaking work of the Centre for Research on the Wider Benefits of Learning, at the University of London, and the numerous outputs of NIACE’s 2009 inquiry into lifelong learning, including the influential Learning Through Life, written by Tom Schuller and David Watson. There is much material out there to support efforts to demonstrate the wider relevance and benefits of lifelong learning, and to support advocacy efforts to highlight this wider value and move the provision of quality lifelong learning opportunities for all up the policy agenda. All departments of government in the UK should understand that they have a responsibility with respect to the SDGs. They should also be encouraged to appreciate the inter-sectoral role and reach of lifelong learning in helping deliver them. There is a strong lifelong learning tradition in the UK, even if cuts to public investment have greatly weakened the infrastructure.

Understanding these connections can help us develop a cohesive approach to tackling these issues. Nothing less than a comprehensive strategy for implementation of the goals – with lifelong learning, I would suggest, at its heart – will be necessary in ensuring their success. To date, however, there is little evidence that the goals are being taken seriously in the highest levels of government in the UK, still less that there is an appreciation among ministers and senior civil servants of the potential of lifelong learning. As the year progresses, I hope to use this blog to highlight some of the ways in which lifelong learning can contribute to wider agendas related to the 17 SDGs and to contribute to the ongoing conversation about its wider role and value. I hope also to demonstrate the potential of the goals as a tool in national-level advocacy. Ultimately, it is only the engagement and activism of citizens that will prompt politicians to take ownership of this agenda.

The 17 Sustainable Development Goals are:

1) End poverty in all its forms everywhere

2) End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture

3) Ensure healthy lives and promote wellbeing for all at all ages

4) Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all

5) Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls

6) Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all

7) Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all

8) Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment, and decent work for all

9) Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialisation, and foster innovation

10) Reduce inequality within and among countries

11) Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable

12) Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns

13) Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts

14) Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development

15) Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification and halt and reverse land degradation, and halt biodiversity loss

16) Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels

17) Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalise the global partnership for sustainable development

 

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The shared society and the myth of meritocracy

Theresa May made a revealing foray into the world of ‘blue-skies’ policy thinking at the weekend with the publication of a Sunday Telegraph article in which she described her mission to tackle ‘some of the burning injustices’ that ‘undermine the solidarity of our society’ through the creation of ‘the shared society’. The article is worth reading in full not because the notion of a ‘shared society’ is likely to prove particularly useful or long-lived – the fate of its predecessor, the ‘big society’, suggests otherwise – but because it tells us rather a lot about the kind of society the Prime Minister would like to create. It is, perhaps unsurprisingly, not so very different to the one we already inhabit.

Taking last June’s referendum vote, rather oddly, as a mandate ‘to seize the opportunity of building a stronger, fairer Britain that works for everyone, not just the privileged few’, May promises to address the ‘everyday injustices that ordinary working class families feel are too often overlooked’. More ‘obvious’ injustices – things like child poverty and social inequality, I assume – have enjoyed the spotlight for too long and, while they are no closer to being solved, it seems it is time to move on. Perhaps the problem is that progress against those issues it just too straightforward to evaluate. Instead, May’s focus will be on less tangible and harder-to-measure problems such as job insecurity, the cost of living and ‘getting your children into a good school’. Despite protestations that ‘there is more to life than individualism and self-interest’, she is not prepared to attribute any nobler sentiments to the working-class people she writes about. May’s view of working people’s day-to-day worries is one of unrelenting self-interest. This makes sense, since the appeal May makes is not to lofty ambitions for a better society but to a mean-spirited concern that someone might be getting something they aren’t entitled to. It’s socialism for the small of heart.

May’s vision, she goes on to explain, is of a ‘shared’ society that ‘doesn’t just value our individual rights but focuses rather more on the responsibilities we have to one another’, where the ‘social and cultural unions represented by families, communities, towns, cities, countries and nations are the things that define us and make us strong’. She promises to ‘move beyond the narrow focus on social justice – where we help the poorest – and social mobility – where we help the brightest among the poor’. Instead, her government will engage in ‘wide-ranging’ social reform to give ‘those who feel that the system is stacked against them’ the ‘support they need’. So far, so vague. What specific policies does May have in mind? These will be policies that ‘give a fair chance to those who are just getting by, as well as those who are most disadvantaged’. And more specifically still? ‘From tackling the increasing lack of affordability in housing, fixing broken markets to help with the cost of living, and building a great meritocracy where every child has the opportunity of a good school place, we will act across every layer of society to restore the fairness that is the bedrock of the social solidarity that makes our nation strong.’

There is little content here with which to engage but the use of the term ‘meritocracy’ is particularly revealing. It is an unintentional indicator of where the government’s real values and intentions lie and of the hollowness of May’s rhetoric about social solidarity. The term ‘meritocracy’ was, of course, coined by the social entrepreneur Michael Young for satirical purposes. He applied it to an imagined future society (again, not so very different to our own) in which elites devise a system whereby ‘merit’ becomes associated with the attributes they possess and, by grading all children against their notion of ‘merit’, create a ‘new social class without room in it for others’. Class and racial inequalities are thus ignored, while those in power, overlooking their huge advantages and the overwhelming odds stacked in their favour, come to believe in the myth of natural superiority they have created. As Young put it in a 2001 Guardian article criticising Tony Blair’s misuse of the term:

With an amazing battery of certificates and degrees at its disposal, education has put its seal of approval on a minority, and its seal of disapproval on the many who fail to shine from the time they are relegated to the bottom streams at the age of seven or before. The new class has the means at hand, and largely under its control, by which it reproduces itself.

As Theresa May has made clear in a number of speeches and articles, fairness, for her, is interchangeable with the idea of meritocracy. That is why the first concrete example given by a cabinet minister (Justine Greening) of what policy under a shared society might look like was the government’s planned expansion of grammar schools. This policy, which might be described as the flagship policy of May’s government and which May has personally forced through in spite of the opposition of many senior members of her own party, is regularly cited by the Prime Minster and her education secretary as a policy with fairness at its heart. Yet all the evidence tells us that in areas where selection takes place poorer pupils fare less well. In fact, grammar schools are not about social mobility at all, nor have they ever been. They make it much harder for poorer children to get on; ensuring those who can afford to pay can coach their children into passing the 11-plus. The vast majority of grammar schools admit only a tiny proportion of children from the poorest families. This is the very stuff of Michael Young’s dystopian nightmare, with the testing of children and young people fetishised and educational selection rife.

This, it seems, is what Theresa May understands by meritocracy – a system rigged in favour of those who already hold all the cards, where warm words are offered instead of concrete measures to address the real and entrenched inequalities that do inestimable harm to our society, and where interventions introduced in full knowledge of the harm they will do the poorest are justified in terms of social mobility. May’s latest speech on mental health was a case in point. She promised training for teachers to better identify mental health problems among students but offered no new money or any meaningful measures to address the causes of mental health problems among children and young people: reducing class sizes and moving away from the culture of relentless testing could be two useful measures, just for starters. In fact, May’s meritocracy is precisely what Michael Young satirized so brilliantly when he coined the term: a society organized to perpetuate and validate privilege; one in which the privileged are convinced they deserve whatever they can get their hands on, while those who have little are doubly damned: at once excluded and looked down on for it. If May is serious about addressing the causes of Brexit she should start closer to home – with the belief system which allows the rich to grab an ever-larger share of available wealth while telling those who are denied access to the same resources that they have only themselves to blame.

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