On going to your public – even in state education

Those of you who generally like political writing will find an abundance elsewhere.  You could, in fact, start with my own blog – 21st Century Fix.


And although it isn’t the prime purpose of this space, even so it’s clear that politics has a place.  If you ignore it, and think that’s enough, you’ll soon sadly discover that in your absence it won’t ignore you.  As Lawrence Lessig has so clearly outlined: perhaps more importantly than Left and Right, the political world is made up of Insiders and Outsiders.  And most of us fall into the latter category.  We just want things to work whilst we are allowed to get on with our lives.

Things which work also include, of course, democracy and justice.  We’re not talking of a fascist state where, apocryphally, the trains run on time.  We’re talking about Peter Levine’s definition of Good Democracy: inclusive and efficient at the same time.

So although you may not consider yourself on the Right or the Left, you can’t escape being either an Insider or Outsider.

In England right now, it appears our government is planning to turn the world of education upside down – without trials too.  Meanwhile, the Labour Party and its leader, Ed Miliband, look set to suggest parallel vocational qualifications in order to provide the skilled pool of labour all modern technological societies require.  I imagine, though don’t know for sure, that this will lead to a plethora of newly-focussed technical colleges, designed to separate out at the age of sixteen (or maybe even earlier) those who plan to go to university from those who plan to study, say, film editing.  I think we’d be losing a lot if that really was the suggestion.  Here’s why.

The great thing about the idea of comprehensive education was physically bringing people together at a young age to engineer a society where difference was seen to be culturally constructive, not something to be shied away from.  Of course, its actual implementation was, as is often the case, underfunded in relation to the ambitions and expectations the policy raised at the beginning.

This was an attempt at social engineering on a massive scale.  And why not?  After all, a society made up of sub-groups unable to appreciate the other’s value is hardly the most efficient way of constructing the foundations any Good Democracy needs to build on.

So comprehensives generally failed – but I would argue not as a concept.

What do both the Coalition and Labour seem to be proposing now?  Placing society once again into two massive streams of behaviours and rights: on the one hand, the governing elite which will be extracted from those who go to university; on the other hand, we get the worker bees who will actually do the Knowledge-Society work which, in turn, will create the wealth the elites will have to rely on.  Clever, ingenious, intelligent and highly-educated worker bees.  But worker bees all the same.

But what I fear, even more than that, is the physical separation of one from the other in different and distant institutions.

This isn’t good – and I’d hope you’d agree with me on this.  Cultural dissonance – or rub as I’ve called it before – is where the sparks of invention and progress really come from.  Without sustained and consistent contact amongst those very different societal sub-groups I mention, especially from the moment we go to school and acquire our most fundamental prejudices, we will not be able to save our societies from a slow-burn destruction of all we’ve treasured to date.

No.  I really don’t think this is the way.  If we must have two streams of learning in our schools, let them occupy the same buildings; let citizenship be a common and core subject; and let permanent contact amongst these in each be the essence of what English education becomes.


  1. Pingback: There’s gotta be more to democracy than this, right? » 21stCenturyFix.org.uk
  2. Carol Jess

    I totally agree Mil. I went to a good comprehensive school in Scotland where the mix of people meant that I not only mixed with people with all types of academic abilities, but also a mix of socio-economic backgrounds.

    I personally think that is important in a Good Democracy to not allow academic and socio-economic factors “stream” our children so they never have the ability to see that “the others” are just like them; I watch the stratification of societies in South Africa and Brazil (my 2 most extreme examples that I’ve visited) where “the insiders” never have to encounter the “outsider” being driven to and from their air-conditioned, security guarded houses to their air-conditioned security guarded workplaces and schools past “the others”: against whom they must be protected and hope that this is not how my home country is going.

    The stratification of schooling is the first step in this process – in my opinion,

    • Mil

      Hi Carol – thanks for your comment. Yes. The stratification of schooling has far more to do with social re-engineering than it does with the needs of training and education. There are plenty of tools, systems and syllabuses on the market which could allow for effective multi-level education in single classrooms. The fact that government ministers are not looking to take advantage of such technologies in order to continue to keep society together in a constructive openness and honesty does, therefore, beg the question: what are their real motivations in wanting to stratify schools? They’re not educational ones, for sure …

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