The Two ‘U’s: Utility and Utopia

Dear Tristram…

No, don’t worry, this is not an open letter, it is just a reaction to an article I read in today’s Guardian that began: ‘Dear Tristram…’

I am not astonished by the picture of randomness and chaos that Tristram paints as I have been involved in teaching for over twenty five years and appreciate that this is integral to how we do things here, you see, I don’t see there was a golden ‘New Labour’ age, in fact much of what Hunt describes had its roots in the second and third words of Blair’s mantra: ‘Education, education, education…’ If only Labour had stuck to the first word things might have been different, but soundbite over substance – education became the catch all of all society’s ills and the backdrop to all our futures…

In today’s Guardian Tristram Hunt writes: “We signally failed to use the potency of education policy – its focus on the future, its capacity to craft a different society, its centrality to wealth creation and work – to offer a compelling enough vision of a Labour Britain.” And my two evil twin ‘U’s of education come to the fore; whenever these two feature in a short statement, disaster surely follows on: Utopia and Utility. Education is singularly far more interesting than this instrumentalist conceit.

But instead of seeing problems in his own ideas, Hunt goes on: “Yet I would make two criticisms. As leader of the Labour party, Ed Miliband…” He might as well stop there. Oh kick a man when he’s down, so many in the higher echelons of the Labour Party are standing at the side of their tent and pissing in, the collectivist party has picked on an individual and it is not an ‘ed’ifying sight.

Hunt goes on to say that due to fear of initiative-itus Labour: “tempered our radicalism… allowing the Tories to seize far too much of the education mantle.” But what is this radicalism? It seems to be about: “creativity, innovation and less testing,” white working class attainment, a national education system that: ‘integrates’ rather than ‘segregates’, the pupil premium extended to children from families just above the poverty line, and:

“…Most important is our vision of the future. Right from the start, the next leader of the Labour party has to place education at the core of their political project – it speaks to all the attributes of aspiration, the future and promise we need to own.” = Utopia

And: Technology. The digital economy is transforming the world of work and it needs to start reshaping the classroom. We have to embrace this and think about how innovation can re-energise our education system. Education must be our vehicle for a bigger story of Britain: how we use the extraordinary talent and creativity in our education system to build a competitive economy, how we ensure communities left behind by globalisation have the skills and confidence to thrive, and how we allow professional pride and moral mission to flourish in the English classroom. = Utility (and a bit more Utopia)

Deliverology, Targets, Instrumental approach to building the future, measured in how our economy performs. If people want to build a competitive economy don’t rely on schools, we don’t do that… and and… just what sort of ‘creativity’ are we being asked to indulge in? I expect it is the creativity of the business boardroom and west coast American silicon valley skateboarding technologists rather than that of Van Gogh, Sylvia Plath and Sid Vicious.

Unfortunately for all this talk education is far too important to be set in the service of the utilitarians and far more realistic, modest and cantankerous to satisfy the utopians.

Great educators are so creative that they will immediately spot where to chuck the spanner to put a stop to your well oiled policy pronouncement machines.

So when Tristram writes:

Right from the start, the next leader of the Labour party has to place education at the core of their political project – it speaks to all the attributes of aspiration, the future and promise we need to own. For the Labour party that has to entail our founding ideal of tackling inequality and building a just society. So, a focus on strong families, loving parenting, emotional resilience, high-quality childcare and better nursery provision is crucial. It is investment in the early years that makes the difference – which is perhaps why the Tories have identified it as an area for particularly deep cuts.

Does this mean the mantra of ‘education, education, education,’ will be replaced by: ‘education, education, education, EDUCATION!’ Will speaking of ‘aspiration’ make the whole exercise about ‘winners’, classroom walls covered in pictures and dubious quotes from successful people, and the odd mention of ‘failure’ but only as an adjunct to future ‘SUCCESS!’? Does owning the future and promise mean that they are there to be ‘bought’? And does Hunt really believe that Tories are cutting early years because they don’t want the poor to aspire? In fact the ideology of aspiration, poor children achieving more, is something that has driven much of the language of the Conservative education reforms for they have fallen for the same two ‘U’s as Labour, they too believe in Utility and Utopia.

A focus on strong families and loving parenting is to be applauded, though these things are not in the gift of Government. Yes, Government can legislate to allow families more time together but this might involve arguments away from Utility and Utopia. We might need a slightly weaker economy to allow better parenting and we might need to stop building for some halcyon future and start looking to the present and enable schools to have but one purpose, summed up in one word: ‘education’. Let schools be part of what we all do and do not burden them with the idea that they are sole agents of change for a society that has given up on everything else.

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