Perhaps unsurprisingly, no-one at this week’s debate organised by the Free Society was prepared to argue a case for mediocrity, so excellence was seen as the way to go, but as chairperson Claire Fox suggested, what is meant by excellence in education needs some examination.
Unfortunately, rather than tackling the challenge of this question head on, most of the panelists tended to start with the issues of funding and organisation. Professor Terence Kealey, vice-chancellor of the University of Buckingham showed a certain cynicism towards his fellow academics when he argued that academics are not independent, being influenced by their funders and their environment. Universities that are owned by venture capitalists, he said, are as bad as those owned by the State. Kealey showed little independent thinking of his own in attacking Professor Grayling and his New University of the Humanities as being ‘a for profit institution’ and ‘nothing to do with learning’, without clearly explaining what he thought ‘learning’ was.
Diversity was the buzzword adopted by both Tom Clougherty of the Adam Smith Institute and Matt Grist of Demos. Grist argued that there has been a misplaced promotion of egalitarianism in education. Diversity of curricula would be the friend of excellence. But excellence for Grist wasn’t about everyone being given an academic education – this might be the ideal, but was far too ambitious - but about providing an education tailored to needs. He gave as an example a school in Hackney that works with local businesses and provides a specific education focused on English and Maths and providing prospects for the particular children it served. He wanted us to stop worrying about quantitative measures in education (such as league tables) and focus instead on improving education for the top and bottom 30%. For Clougherty, diversity was about freedom from state control. He wanted a ‘free, open, diverse’ education system that could embrace different children and would be guided by parental preference. Pondering on this idea afterwards, I wondered whether the promotion of diversity through ‘parental choice’ is not simply another way of arguing for ‘appropriateness’ of educational provision, without having to explicitly say so.
Clougherty gave us a strong defense of education as the pursuit of individual learning and knowledge. He challenged the idea that education should have a collective outcome in the form of either creating ‘good citizens with the right values’ (from the Left), or ‘boost GDP and create good employees’ (from the Right), and instead posited the idea that education was about ‘grasping, aspiring, learning new ways to make the most of our lives; about flourishing.’ Unfortunately, political outcomes are still being imposed upon education, as illustrated by David Davis MP who wants education to solve the problems of social mobility. He repeated the now well-rehearsed statistics quoted in the Coalition’s social mobility strategy, Opening Doors, Breaking Barriers. I will repeat just one here, so you get the idea: ‘Whilst only 7% of the population attend Public Schools, 55% of solicitors are public school attendees’. Davis sees this as a ‘serious social problem, undermining the fabric of our society’, and along with his Coalition colleagues, wants to solve this through education. Davis is an advocate of selection, because ‘if the state doesn’t select by ability, society will select by something else’. Michael Gove also sees education as a motor for social mobility, but draws the opposite conclusion about selection. On this point, I agree with Clougherty that education should not be set up to solve any problems, except to educate, which for me means to pass on the best that is known by this generation to the next.
I thought the most interesting speaker of the night was Toby Young. I am still not certain whether I agree with the government policy of Free Schools, but Toby Young is impressive in his justification of his own school’s curriculum. Young is promoting an academic curriculum with fewer choices at age 14. He argues that children shouldn’t be given easier options, but that they need to be challenged. Taking up the suggestion that parents might not go for an academic education for their children, he argued that we should give parents a bit more credit, that his school was attracting children from every walk of life, and that the majority of Free Schools have generated a better curriculum that that on offer in comprehensives. This is a compelling argument, and Toby Young’s West London Free School does seem to be shining a light on what may be possible in education. But for me, it is precisely in its educational offering and aspiration that this school is exciting, not its organisation or funding.