The UK is experiencing a big series of changes which are being introduced at breakneck speed by the new coalition government. The most dramatic changes are taking place in the public sector: schools are being heavily encouraged to become academies which are independent of local authorities: health budgets will be transferred to GPs; the financial settlement on local authorities is being drastically cut back which will lead to widespread loss of jobs, and even the defence forces will be scaled back. This will be accompanied by a huge hike in fees for students wanting to study at university, accelerating the transition from understanding education as a public good to privatising and individualising it. One theme of justification put forward by the current government, which is a familiar one amongst conservatives everywhere, is that the public sector is ‘unproductive’ and ‘crowds out’ the private sector. Cutting back the public sector thus allows the private sector to flourish just as cutting back shrubs in the garden enables border plants to thrive.
All governments are ideologically committed even when they are pretending not to be. So for example the Blair government in the early years talked of having moved beyond ideology, following Tony Blair’s intellectual mentor, Anthony Giddens: not left, not right, but what works was the mantra for at least the first term (Giddens’ work Beyond Left and Right: the Future of Radical Politics was published in 1994). There was much talk of ‘evidence-based policy’ until a series of high-profile occasions where government ministers took decisions that seemed to fly in the face of the evidence they were being offered by leading scientists (see previous post). What Giddens was suggesting, and what the new Blair government wanted to believe, was that it could be possible to come up with policies with which all rational-thinking people could agree. Somehow political policies could be ‘objectively’ correct, because they were based on ‘the evidence’. The idea, then, is that evidence interprets itself: the ‘science’ , according to ministers, speaks for itself. What policies meant in terms of value propositions were thought to be of secondary importance, or of no importance at all, until of course the values-implications of certain courses of action became obvious even to government ministers themselves and could not contemplate carrying them out despite ‘the evidence’.With this current government there is much less talk of being evidence-based, and much more rhetoric about values: the coalition government is being ‘progressive’ and ‘fair’, and is undertaking ‘reform’. We are told, of course, that there is no alternative to the course of action being taken. The ideological thrust of many of the policies, however, is clear to anyone who takes even a moderate interest in politics.
Recently, I was sitting with a group of school governors who were discussing the changes proposed for schools and what they would do in their own school’s case. Just to reiterate, the current government’s view is that schools are held back by the dead hand of local government bureaucracy and would be much better off if they could become academies, being entirely responsible for their own budgets and keeping the budget top-slice that is usually taken off to fund the local education department. They would be responsible for hiring and firing, setting their own admissions’ policies and their own salary scales for staff. Depending on one’s point of view one could either view these changes as liberating, as some parents, teachers and governors do, or as increasing the dynamic of unnecessary competition which began under Mrs Thatcher and was accelerated by the Labour government with the publication of league tables, the creation of school specialisms and the comprehensive regime of testing that underpins every aspect of the centrally-described curriculum. Instead of co-operating, which the schools in my own particular city have been used to more many years, schools are encouraged to compete against each other for students and for staff. The fear is that this particular dynamic favours the already successful schools in middle class areas with a large proportion of already high-achieving children. It removes schools from democratic oversight, and pushes competition and market forces into every conceivable nook and cranny of public life.
The strong invitation to become an academy results in practical and ethical dilemmas similar to the prisoners’ dilemma. To become an academy gives into the government’s agenda without questioning it. However, this particular school would probably do very well, since it already has a good reputation which is likely to be enhanced if it could encourage more aspirational families to apply and discourage others, if it can attract good teachers by offering slightly more in salary and benefits than its rivals. However, this would go against the ethic of the school, iterated and reiterated by the head teacher and the governors over many years, which is to offer a truly comprehensive education and to accept whoever comes in through the front door, and to co-operate with as many other schools as possible. The disadvantage of refusing the invitation, however, is that all the other schools in the city could become academies, could receive all the incentives to do so, and could lock out ‘less desirable’ children which the schools which were not academies would be obliged to accept, perhaps dramatically affecting the mix of students in the school. In effect there may be no choice at all, and the decision to accept or reject depends on a discussion of values, a reading of the game, and an appraisal of the costs and benefits of opting to go for academy status or not opting. How does a group go about doing this – how is it possible to survive in times of cuts?
This particular group of governors began to engage with the question as to what the school should do, and there were a variety of responses. Most were overwhelmingly opposed to the ideological thrust of what is being proposed and if they could be sure that no other school in the city would go down this route, then probably they would vote against. However, they could not be certain what other schools would do and there might also be a way of turning around the proposal which was seen by the group as setting one school against another by applying for academy status as a group of schools and working out a co-operative agreement. Most were concerned to try to find ways of discussing and rediscussing values as a way of functionalising, making concrete, what they might mean as we tried to find a way forward together, attempting at the same time not to jeopardise the advantages to this particular school perhaps at the expense of other schools in the neighbourhood.
Amongst the dissenting voices was one person who argued for ‘objectivity’. It was best, he said to look at the facts as they presented themselves and to weigh them up objectively making the best decision for students in the school having worked through the costs and benefits. This would be best done, he argued by making a thorough plan of everything that needed to be studied and decided, and then to work through this plan up to the decision point.
There was much that was said by this dissenting voice that reminds me of the dominant way of thinking about complex experience in organisations. Firstly there is the preoccupation with the plan as though it would be possible to make it robust enough to anticipate all contingencies in such a fluid situation: thought is considered both prior and superior to action. Secondly, there is the suggestion that politics and values of what is before the group of governors can be stripped away to reveal ‘the facts’. Thirdly comes the idea that it would be possible to calculate what would be best for the current and future generations of students at this particular school separate from what is best for their communities and the other schools that make up the fabric of the city. In appealing to rationality, the dissident’s proposal attempted to ignore politics, ideology and values, perhaps because they were thought to be the ‘soft side’ of what we were being asked to consider. The ‘hard’ side is an objective consideration of what is efficient, effective and beneficial.
Another way of thinking about how this particular group of governors might press forward with their deliberations, accepting that they are planning in uncertain times when nobody, particularly the government, has any idea how this scheme might play out is to plan seriously, but only for the next step. The next step might throw up a need for a different kind of plan or planning. There is no excuse for being unprepared, but equally no certainty that a plan we conceive now will be of use even a month later. Secondly, there is a compelling need to continue to have the discussions about what we choose to value and what this means for what we are doing and the choices we make at every turn. As we have pointed out in many previous posts, values are idealisations which can only be functionalised in every day, practical ways. Thirdly, the group of governors might benefit from engaging actively with each other, and with other boards of governors in the city on a continuous basis as they strive to make sense of the game they find themselves obliged to play. In participating actively in the complex web of politics and ideology they inevitably begin to shape it, although there is no way of knowing how it will be shaped in advance of participating. This is a very different way of proceeding from the idea that the group of governors would be best placed reflecting in isolation on their best options.
What I am arguing is that there is no way of discussing this situation which is somehow outside of it, no objective place to stand. Using the phrase of the philosopher Thomas Nagel, there is no view from nowhere. The propsoed change to schools is a product of values, ideology and political power and can only be engaged with in similar terms. However, there is one thing that I do take from the dissident voice, t as my interpretation of what he is drawing attnetion to, and that is the importance of the group of governors striving to be more detached about their involvement in the game. This is not the same as claiming objectivity, whatever that might mean in a such a complicated area of human experience, but sometimes and in different ways to pay attention to the ways in which they find themselves caught up in what they are doing could prove helpful for undertaking the next step together.