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Date: 12/11/12

At Each Other's Shoulders, Or At Each Other's Throats?

Breaking away briefly from the ongoing slow drag towards the finishing line of The Great Revamp, I was passing through Alex Harrowell's blog, when I noticed a link to this piece at The Atlantic (a journal from which I know nothing) about Finland's education system.

The more I read it, the more it made sense. Not just from the point of view of education as it applies in a homogeneous Nordic country (Finland isn't Scandinavian, just to be pedantic about it; Scandinavia is just that phallic bit which juts out and down), but also as a general principle for society.

Looking at it just in terms of education for a moment, this quote leapt out at me:

"Since the 1980s, the main driver of Finnish education policy has been the idea that every child should have exactly the same opportunity to learn, regardless of family background, income, or geographic location."

This is surely right. Not just right in societal terms, but in ethical ones too. Why should any child suffer an inferior education (or, for that matter, inferior health care) because of his/her social or ethnic background or because Mummy and/or Daddy don't have well-paying jobs? Every child must count, because every child has unique attributes which will be of some benefit to society in general as well as to themselves and their families. Bringing those qualities out to their fullest potential must surely be in everyone's best interests?

But no. The prevailing ideology - in the so-called UK almost as much as in the equally soi-disant US, whence much of that ideology has sprung - is that only children deemed 'gifted' in a straightforward academic sense (or in an athletic sense in America, where complete meat-heads can get intensively coached to reach the barest minimum necessary to get a diploma or degree because such jocks are deemed to bring 'prestige' to a school or college) should be given any real encouragement or meaningful assistance. The more practically-minded pupils can be left to get on with it; after all, it's not as if we have any real use for engineers or plumbers when the jobs of the former have been outsourced to China, and any increase in demand for the latter can be met by people from Kraków. Those children who are not formally or easily-identifiably in either category can be left to rot; market capitalism will always need its underclass to throw bread rolls at, or to use as convenient bogey-persons to scare the lower-middle-class into enthusiastic compliance.

And so the watchword is 'competition'. In education, in health provision, in every aspect of life, the aim is deemed to be - to use that shrill old slogan - not just to play, but to COMPETE!. Not only must schools, hospitals, local authorities and the police be set against each other, they must be set against themselves. League tables of schools are no longer enough; there must be constant monitoring and measuring of individual pupils, students, teachers and even - I don't know, but it wouldn't surprise me - how good the meals are (although this has, of course, long since been thrown to the market).

Compete...compete...compete!...COMPETE!!!. That is all that matters.

And so we have 'academies', 'free schools', ''faith' schools', all competing with one another not to see who provides the best all-round education and turns out the best-rounded future citizens, but to see which ones can draw in the most pupils from the families of affluent Pushies (always, but always follow the money), and who can get away with the most restrictive admissions policies to exclude those children deemed to be 'challenging' or from the 'wrong' sort of background, i.e., economically poor, because that might cause the school to drop a place or two in the league tables which have themselves become the object of near-religious veneration in the 'education marketplace'.

And have the results of this fetishising of 'competition' as defined in these terms been beneficial to our society? Hardly. We are a more divided, more inequitable, more hateful society than at any time in my lifetime. I would guess that some sixty per cent or so of all children in our schools today have been - or will be - effectively written off as being of no economic value (which are the only terms in which, it seems, we are allowed to think), fit only for a lifetime of conspicuous under-achievement, under-employment and generational dysfunction, suitable only to fill our ever-expanding (and increasingly privatised) prison estate, or at least the freak-shows of daytime television.

And Finland, by comparison? Well, no system is perfect and what works in Oulo might not work in Ohio, or even in Oldham; but by not making an obsession of so-called 'excellence', the Finns have achieved consistently high rankings in the global assessments of education. Because they realised right at the start of their drive to put right what was wrong with their system that the more children you enable to achieve highly, the more children will achieve highly. And not just 'achieve' in the narrow, measurement-maniacal way of exam results, but in turning out well-rounded, productive and fully-socialised citizens of the next few decades. Compare and contrast, as they say.

In short, they have it bang on. Humankind's greatest achievements have not - contrary to the quasi-Randian bullshit which has been peddled to us like a quack medicine or equally cracked religion for three decades or more - been the result of 'competition', but of co-operation. Civilisation (which, present trends notwithstanding, endures even if in attenuated form) was built by people working together, not by each rampant individual seeking to cut out the next person's heart and eat it before their fast-dimming eyes.

"But", the acolytes of the Great Orthodoxy will say, "What about the great figures like Newton, Einstein, Shakespeare, Beethoven? They didn't need your pussy 'co-operation' to do what they did!" Wrong, Mitt. Each one of them built on what had gone before, some more obviously than others; but the point is that they could not have done what they did had the conditions not existed to enable them to do so. And those conditions are called 'society' and 'culture', and they are an accumulation of all the ways in which people have worked and do work together to improve things for themselves and for others.

There's an old Conamara proverb which I've quoted here before, but it sums this up better than most:

"Ar ghuailne a chéile a mhaireanns na daoine"

("People survive on each other's shoulders")

In short, it's that old-fashioned word 'solidarity'. A word one is scarcely permitted to utter in public discourse nowadays, so thoroughgoing has been the appropriation of our world by the language of brutalistic selfishness. Without it, ultimately, any castles - however grand - are built on quicksand, and it doesn't matter how good (measured in the narrowest, most number-fixated of terms) the school you send young Darius or Pippa to may be; they will still find in due course that not even the thickest wall, the thickest skein of razor wire atop it, or even - in extreme circumstances - the thickest armed security detail can keep out the desert that the canonisation of The Individual Triumphant has created.

Before leaving the article which sparked all this off in me, there's another quote in it which I found striking:

"As for accountability of teachers and administrators, Sahlberg shrugs. "There's no word for accountability in Finnish," he later told an audience at the Teachers College of Columbia University. "Accountability is something that is left when responsibility has been subtracted.""

Bullseye, Mr. Sahlberg!

Consider this: have you ever come across a situation where someone is 'made accountable' for a success? Of course not. The whole phrase contains within it a dense, throttling cloud of negativity. No-one is ever 'called to account' for, say, a school's exam results (those bloody league tables again!) having improved by 8 per cent on the previous year without having to fiddle the marking. No-one is ever 'held accountable' for a reduction in the number of potholes on the main roads of the county. No-one is ever required to 'account for themselves' because their efforts have enabled the company to increase its profits by £3m without having to have resort to creative accounting.

No. In the same way that there is, it seems, no such thing as a 'negative miracle', there is no such thing as being accountable for success.

By contrast, the word 'responsible' and its derivatives gives at least some semblance of a balance. If one is given responsibility for something, then it is yours to either fail or succeed at. Yes, you will still have to carry the can if things go pear-shaped in some way, but if you do your job right and get results, that will redound to your credit in the same proportion.

Just ponder for a moment the psychological effects of this on those subject to these two different conditions:

If you are told that you are 'responsible' for something, wouldn't you try to do the best you could to improve that 'something', even if there was a risk involved in doing so? After all, it would redound strongly to your credit if you did; and even if it didn't quite come off, you could at least hold your head high and say that you were trying to get things done better.

Now, think of being told that you are 'accountable' for that same something. In those circumstances, wouldn't your first - indeed, your sole - concern be to make sure not that things got better, but that they didn't get any worse on your watch? Wouldn't you seek not merely to minimise that risk, but to seek to remove any such risk altogether (which, of course, simply isn't possible)? And so you would tie up your people in an ever-tightening straitjacket of 'compliance' and 'monitoring', down to the very last paper clip being accounted for. Things might not immediately get any worse, but they sure as hell won't get any better, and your staff will curse you and your descendants, yea unto the fifth generation thereof.

And that is another thing which has gone wrong. People - as Mr Sahlberg says - are made 'accountable' without being made 'responsible', and whereas responsibility is yours whether you succeed or fail, 'accountability' simply means 'being made to take the rap when it all fucks up'. It is a thoroughly negative concept, and has led to more pathetic control-freakery and arse-covering per square kilometre than anything else in the annals of organisational practice. Those who are 'accountable' inevitably become risk-averse, nothing changes (and, more importantly, nothing changes for the better), and stagnation and institutionalised cowardice are the inevitable results.

This has become the standard way of doing things in commerce, in public administration, in politics and - as we have seen most gruesomely in recent weeks - in the media, and it is the primary cause of the timorous, sclerotic and thoroughly regressive nature of just about everything around us.

Hence the vista before us...and you know how bad a system Vista was.