On ‘being educated to be ignorant’ – ministers not learning from the mistakes of their predecessors

It took Members of the Youth Parliament of November 2022 to spell it out far more eloquently and more powerfully than many of the present cohort of backbenchers could.

Here’s one outstanding speech by Izzy Garbutt MYP (Wigan and Leigh 2022/23)

Above – Ms Garbutt’s speech, which you can also watch with the rest of the MYP’s debate here.

The debate they had reminded me of my very old early blogpost Life on a piece of paper where you are judged by society on the grades you achieved, not the person you are or have the potential to become.

‘My generation was never taught about democracy, citizenship, and the concept of the rule of law.’

Above – a sub-heading from one of my previous blogposts, where I make the point that the under-funded provision of adult education and lifelong learning, along with the very narrow focus of existing provision focussing on training for jobs and/or basic functional skills means that the damage done by policies from previous governments (eg Section 28) festers like an open wound on society.

“I can’t recall ever being taught about the importance of cultures, morals, and ethics from a personal perspective from GCSEs through to post-graduate education.”

“I didn’t know we had a British Institute for Adult Education!” – 30 May 2022

Looking at the state of the House of Commons, it doesn’t look like enough MPs (including and especially the privately-educated Oxbridge alumni) had these emphasise either!

The MYPs debated education and health – the latter being something conspicuous by its absence outside of ‘don’t smoke’ and ‘don’t do drugs’ in the 1990s.

It’s worth having a listen to the opening speeches of the debate – in particular the issues raised around public health issues (linked to poverty) and mental health issues (linked to the exams culture).

“Where does that social culture of being examined come from?”

Part of it is a symptom of broken systems of political accountability. If you want to know what is important to a government, look at what they measure, and the statistics they like quoting in debates. Furthermore, look at which interest groups they don’t like and which their allies and outriders try to undermine.

The incentives for schools as institutions in both the state and the private sector

Then look at the incentives of the individual institutions at a grassroots level. The ‘make or break’ level with GCSE results are the borderline C/D boundaries as-was. (The system has since changed). Or, with private schools, have a look at how preparatory schools market themselves in relation to elite public schools, and those public schools with entrance into Oxbridge. In the case of the latter, when exams had to be cancelled due to the pandemic in 2020 and 2021, that culture ‘winning at all costs’ was exposed when schools had to award grades to their students instead. The initial statistics showed candidates at private schools being awarded grades far higher than what state schools awarded when compared with recent previous cohorts.

“Labour has called for an urgent inquiry into the way A-level results were awarded last year, after reports that private schools in England gave out more than eight times as many top grades compared with before the Covid pandemic.”

The Observer, 06 Feb 2022

One school subsequently investigated was reported to have had a number of referrals upheld – but the confidential nature means that the full data will never be published. Understandable given that these are teenagers we are talking about, and they should never have been put in this situation by the adults & institutions responsible for them.

“These findings will do nothing to dampen suspicions that certain private schools were gaming the system during the suspension of exams due to Covid,”

Shadow Education Secretary Bridget Phillipson MP in The Guardian, 24 Dec 2022

The point with the examples above is that for the adults working in that institutional environment, it can become a bubble where the interest of the institution risks being prioritised over the interests of the children & students, and the wider public interest of having a sound education system. In the mind of long-established institutions, what’s a few corners cut here and there, or an embellished statement or three in the grand scheme of things? For the individuals concerned however? Life-changing. Especially if it involves a decision as significant as which university to go to – or whether to go in the first place.

Now extend that concept further – where people within an old institution have ‘been accused of wrongdoing’ – or judged to have done so in official inquiries, in an attempt to protect an institution from scandal but at the expense of an innocent victim. As I was to mention to one of the recently-appointed ministers of religion in my part of Cambridge, how can institutions that proclaim ‘the truth’ or which have public duties to educate children, do so if they cannot face up to their own truths? In particular their shortcomings?

Ministers making the same errors again.

I lived through the same ministerial and institutionalised shortcomings in the 1980s & 1990s when I was their age. The fact that today’s generation of ministers don’t seem to be listening to today’s generation of young people raising the same issues – a generation far more clued up about the world around them than my generation ever had the chance of being, is soul-destroying. (‘Us ‘elder millennials’ being the last generation who experienced schooling without internet access being the norm.)

“Why is this such a big issue for you?”

In my post-CFS-diagnosis state, I’m asking myself: “What was it all for?” As Ms Garbutt says below when complaining about the never-ending conveyor-belt of academic testing, between 1992-2002 I had exams every summer. For what purpose? Was the stress associated with revision and exams really worth whatever benefit the institutions supposedly derived from the results? What could have been done with all of that time instead?

Teaching to the test, only to find the answers are incompatible with, or irrelevant to the world outside school that young people are expected to make their lives in.

“We are picked up, put down, and strapped into a never-ending conveyor belt of academic testing”

Izzy Garbutt MYP (Wigan and Leigh), House of Commons, 04 Nov 2022

Hence it’s impossible to avoid looking back and questioning not just every other decision I made, but also those decisions that were both made for me by others, and wider public policy decisions at the end of the 20th Century that had a huge impact on the choices (or lack of) that my generation made.

“Young people are more than just numbers they see on a piece of paper in August. We are not just a percentage of A*s-Cs. We are not evidence in an OfStEd Report. And we are not a pass or a fail.”

Izzy Garbutt MYP (2022)

The late Professor Ted Wragg identified one of the structural problems twenty years ago in a piece for The Guardian where he was scathing of the role of Downing Street in Tony Blair’s years.

“”You can give that advice if you like, but ministers won’t like it,” was the constant dictum from civil servants.”

Ted Wragg, The Giardian, 01 March 2005

That wasn’t the only thing that Prof Wragg exposed; he demonstrated just how corrupt public policy making had become – and still is.

“One day we were simply told, during dinner, that Pearson, a publisher, was taking over Edexcel, an examination board. Just like that. Should a private, profit-making company run a public service like an examination board? Should all the boards have been put up for offer? Should business generally have been invited to bid for a board? Who knows? Protests were brushed aside. Tony Zoffis [lampooning Tony Blair’s Office] was happy and that was all that mattered. 

I was interested to note, when details of visitors to Chequers were revealed, that the head of Pearson had been a guest. I bet they talked about the weather.”

Ted Wragg (2005)

I had long been of the view by my early 20s that there were some things that should not be in the hands of the private profit-making sector – for example anything that involves power to deprive individuals of their liberty (such as prisons) to the running of examinations that are part of compulsory education for children and young people. As I have grown older, I’ve become more radical in the face of growing social inequalities – and that list of public services that should not be in private hands has only grown longer!

Given that I’ve taken an ‘It’s too late for me, so what are the public policy changes needed to prevent future generations experiencing similar bad stuff?’ mindset, I often ask what might have resulted in me making different, better choices with the benefit of hindsight? Which is one of the reasons why the 10,000+ pages of newspapers published in Cambridge between 1969-99 makes for both powerful and painful reading as a local historian who lived through two thirds of that time period and was inevitably affected by the decisions taken in the decade that preceded me.

“Decisions such as…?”

From the under-funded expansion of further education, to imposing a religious-based syllabus for Sex Education (Section 28) to the imposition of up-front tuition fees, all of these things had an impact.

Hence at a Cambridgeshire level, there are more than a few local history extended research projects for teenagers in further education today waiting to be undertaken, finding the answers to the question: “What has changed?” (If local teachers or prospective students want further advice and support on such a project, get in touch with the Cambridgeshire Association for Local History, which meets on the first Saturday of each month in Cambridge)

“Have things gotten better or worse for young people?”

On tuition fees, it has gotten even worse for the post-2010 generation. Furthermore, note the marginal rate of tax of those on low incomes also in receipt of Universal Credit.

Now add to all of that the cost of living crisis – which was another theme of the meeting of the UK Youth Parliament in November 2022. The opening speeches on the Cost of Living Crisis debate are worth listening to. My concern is that ministers will treat the speakers and the issues they raise with kind platitudes but little action or policy changes as a result.

“How would you change things?”

This was a question put to me by one of the new clerics in our part of Cambridge, Revd Rosie Hewitt (St James, Queen Edith’s in Cambridge) when I was fatigued out on my Saturday morning wander out to find coffee. (A committee meeting in town, and then a day of domestics earlier in the week had more than used-up all my spoons so I lost the previous and subsequent day.)

“Urgh! Why are you so cheerful on this miserably cold January morning?!?”

Me to Rev’d Hewitt, 28 Jan 2023

I mentioned by decade’s worth of blogposts and what I’d learnt having been inside the civil service before I started writing, and invited her to tell what she’d learnt and observed having recently been appointed to our part of the city. It was here that she mentioned what today the academics call social infrastructure.

“I have argued that in a city like Cambridge, with a rapidly growing and constantly changing population, the relentless emphasis on economic growth must be matched by an equal determination to bolster our spaces for social connection”

Cllr Sam Davies MBE, 29 Jan 2023

Cllr Davies quotes in her blogpost linked above the various academic reports that state the importance of social infrastructure – ones all too easily and willingly ignored by ministers who preach like they know the cost of everything and the value of nothing. Made all the more sickening by the behaviour of the now disgraced former Chancellor who has been shown to have behaved not just in a way as to unlawfully deprive the Exchequer of much-needed revenue by means inaccessible to most of the rest of us, but done on a scale beyond the comprehension of most of us too. It’s that old adage. When poor people try to get the upper and over the taxman it’s called benefit fraud. When rich people do it, it’s called ‘offshore investment’ or a ‘tax-effective financial strategy’. The issue of resources and people employed by the state to deal with both – and the balance of the two, remains a highly politicised issue.

Social infrastructure for children, for young people, for working-age adults, for those who have retired, and those whose lives are afflicted by chronic illness.

This brings us back full-circle to how young people can influence the decisions taken about the villages, towns, and cities that they live in.

I lived through an era where the social infrastructure of my city was destroyed through the policies of national government in the 1980s and 1990s. The limited revival made in the 2000s was swiftly undone over the last decade, with the pandemic completing the final crushing blow to already unstable organisations from high street national brands as employers to community groups no longer able to keep going.

As I mentioned in a previous blogpost, I don’t see the actors in the present town planning system as being willing or capable of building the much-needed facilities or supporting the much-needed spaces and urban designs to enable people and communities to build that social infrastructure. The Conservative Party in Government has more than demonstrated its unwillingness to fund local government to provide that essential local institutional support and democratic legitimacy to underpin it. The challenge for opposition parties is to come up with something different – and inspire enough people to vote for them when the next general election comes around.

Food for thought?

If you are interested in the longer term future of Cambridge, and on what happens at the local democracy meetings where decisions are made, feel free to:

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