The Great Leap Forward


I think it is vital to discuss the purpose and quality of education, so you might think that I welcome the Commons Education Select Committee’s Inquiry as to what it might be… but I don’t. The worry is that they might reach a conclusion and it is here that the danger lies, for a committee deciding that either education is a utilitarian or utopian pursuit and that therefore targets should be set and some great five year plan set in motion is likely to cause untold harm to many. A Great Leap Forward is never what it seems, measures will be imposed, targets will be ticked and after the damage is done people will look back on the scene and point fingers. Mao looked back on the chaos caused by his Great Leap Forward declaring:

Comrades, you must all analyse your responsibility. If you have to shit, shit. If you have to fart, fart. You will feel much better for it.

That somewhere between twenty and forty-five million people were thought to have died as a result of the ‘Leap’ should remind everyone who has great visions that sometimes there are great costs. So too any grand scheme devised in a committee room, a bureaucratic compromise from which untold damage might be done to the education of millions of children. Imagine that the committee demand education be for the world of work and deem that everything should be pursued to this end and measured as to its success, or that everything should be to satisfy the nation’s international standing as measured by PISA, or some utopian vision as to making a better world. All these ideas might seem reasonable but are, actually, mad. Thirteen years of utilitarian education so that one might work in Tesco seems a drudgery that no true soul should bear. That a nation wants to compete with other nations and therefore demands sacrifices of its youth in order to rise up a dubious league table so that it can be top nation is a nation that is Maoist and anyone who freely serves this ideal will be asked one day to shit and fart at their leisure. As for making the world a better place, wouldn’t we all wish that this was what education was for? At first sight this seems ultimately reasonable but, like a parent who wants their child to become something they always wanted to become but never fulfilled their dream, things might fall apart when we deem a cultural revolution might be needed:

Both students and intellectuals should study hard. In addition to the study of their specialized subjects, they must make progress both ideologically and politically, which means that they should study Marxism, current events and politics. Not to have a correct political point of view is like having no soul.

On the Correct Handling of Contradictions Among the People: Mao

The period of schooling should be shortened, education should be revolutionized, and the domination of our schools by bourgeois intellectuals should by no means be allowed to continue. – “The Whole Country Should Become a Great School of Mao Tse-tung’s Thought”  

Editorial, Renmin Ribao 1966

Politically ‘correct’ thought, getting rid of contradictions in the thoughts of the people and kicking out the bourgeois intellectuals from our schools in order to revolutionise education are ideas that might find a resonance in some of our contemporary discussions around utopian ideas for education. The dangers should be clear, the only way to have ideologically pure education is to purge schools of those who are not ideologically pure. Ousted by Ofsted, the ideologically impure bourgeois will have to be sent to thought camps to be rewired in the service of the ‘futurely’ correct.

The discussion set in place by the Ed Select Committee is welcome and an outcome is to be feared. Unless they can come up with something that, instead of shaping children in an image that we decide for them, allows children to shape the future for themselves. In that pursuit we can help by helping them learn what we think has been good and bad about our past and give them the wherewithal to join in with and continue that conversation, should they so wish. We should enthuse our children that the pursuit of wisdom is a welcome adventure and that the arrival at knowing it all is a deceit.


9 thoughts on “The Great Leap Forward

  1. Another thought-provoking and enjoyable read. I share your mixed feelings about the Ed Committee process. Likewise your antipathy towards ideologues and technocrats – especially when they form a dangerous political alliance (Mao’s ‘Leap’). But there’s no getting away from the fact that if you want to make a better world, education has a fundamental role to play. And for me, the problems we’re currently facing are so deep-rooted – in particular the alienation from nature/the natural ecosystems that support us brought about by our neoliberal consumer-capitalist system resulting in the threat of disastrous global warming – that a fundamental rethink of what education is for and how it should be structured is needed. In short, we need to make ‘ecoliteracy’ – the knowledge and skills that provide for a truly sustainable society/green economy – core to the curriculum. Whilst some might argue that this is dystopian (it’s surely not as bad as the doom-mongering ‘treehuggers’ make out) and/or utopian (hippie idealism) thinking, I would urge them to take a close look at the pioneering work of the Center for Ecoliteracy in California. The philosopher and environmentalist Fritjof Capra is a co-founder and central to his work is systems thinking – what we do to the ‘web of life’ we do to ourselves. Imagine if all children grew up with a deep understanding of that principle as well as the science and enviro-ethics that underpins it..


  2. So Memneon, you agree with Martin, only to a second later head off into a utopian scheme to save the world.

    How about we educate people in science, so they can tell when the scientists are lying and when they are not; in economics, so we know which “cures” will actually cure us; in history, so we will recognise doom-mongering has a long history; in statistics, so we can read the number that show whether we are actually in trouble.

    And perhaps most of all, in being able to read texts to follow through to a conclusion and not be swayed by words like “neo-liberal” and “eco-literacy” that aim to sway us by emotion rather than any actual proof or logic.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I think you’re somewhat guilty of misrepresenting my argument (straw men). I agreed with Martin to a point. But made it clear where we part company – I am in favour of radically changing education to make a ‘better world’ and have a clear vision of what that entails (ecolieracy/sustainability) – I’ll come back to your point about trying to ‘sway’ you in a moment.

      The history of education, particularly post-war, shows clearly that it’s an ideological battleground. And I think it might reasonably be argued that the Left in particular have tried to use education as an instrument of social engineering – to create a fairer society. But the Right’s attempts to resist/reverse Labour policies, in particular by promoting ‘traditional’ (vs. ‘progressive’) pedagogy and latterly by reinstating grammar schools, is undeniably ‘ideological’.

      So my point is this. Education is not, never has been, nor never will be politically ‘neutral’, however much liberal-humanists might wish this was the case. This applies every bit as much to the content of the curriculum as the methods of teaching and learning. And more broadly to the issues of institutional systems, inspection etc.

      But let me also make this clear. However ‘utopian’ my vision might seem, I’m not arguing for eco ‘indoctrination’. Science and critical thinking go hand in hand (or at least should). To make systems thinking core to the curriculum is to reflect a fundamental principle about how the universe works – just like gravity. But as we all know, the fundamental principle governing science itself is the scientific method – testing hypotheses/investigating empirical evidence etc. And at a higher level we become aware that this gives rise to difficult epistemological problems – climatology being a case in point.

      Nonetheless science has established through rigorous investigation and overwhelming consensus that human activity is causing global warming. Moreover the situation is now critical – if we continue as we are we’re in real danger of breaching the 2 degree threshold that experts predict will have a catastrophic effect on the environment.

      So you’re left with a choice: Carry on as normal with the current education system or change it so our children grow up with a deep understanding of the issues and the knowledge and skills to do something about them.

      And just to correct you on my attempt to ‘sway’ you with emotive/vague language. I think the meaning of ‘neoliberal’ was clear from the context. And I provided you with a link to the extensive Center for Ecoliteracy site. My guess is you didn’t bother to check this out because you already know where you stand? ‘The mark of an educated mind is to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.’ Aristotle.


      1. “Neo-liberal” is always clear from context. It means nasty person to the right of me, for any personal value of me.

        To make systems thinking core to the curriculum is to reflect a fundamental principle about how the universe works

        Waffle. How is “systems thinking” any different from “thinking”?

        But made it clear where we part company – I am in favour of radically changing education to make a ‘better world’ and have a clear vision of what that entails (ecolieracy/sustainability)

        And I’m clear that I want not a bar of it. It puts education behind a clear political goal of “sustainability”. A clear goal that you may be passionate about, but not shared by close to a majority of the population. How is it your particular hobby horse gets to be ridden?

        You want to make a Great Leap Forward, in essence, to fundamentally change the value system of education. Having learnt nothing, apparently, from any of the previous disastrous attempts at such a thing.


  3. Thank you – the place of intellectuals in schools, especially primary, has been undervalued for too long in a system which favours babysitters to those who can educate. On the few occasions, I have been allowed to lead it was due to utter need of the school due to Ofsted!! Funnily enough, we got a good team who did follow the latest guidance. The difference meant I could have an honest conversation about the changes I was making and how I envisioned the subjects I led would be taught. However, all this meant was that once Ofsted was over, it was an opportunity to slip back into the old ways. One can only hope to have left some mark on someone.


  4. Hi Martin, thanks for your post. Remember that Politics in Education Summit? The Select Committee could have ignored the transcripts and summaries from that event, but they didn’t and now we have a platform. “The worry is that they might reach a conclusion” – completely agree, though I’m still full on supporting this enquiry because it is a platform for a conversation bigger than any I could ever provide. My hope is that the Select Committee will wisely lead the way by taking the evidence and using it to define their OWN purpose and measurements to fulfil their self-defined purpose. I’d like everyone to do this. It’s mentally draining learning from or working with anyone who doesn’t communicate and hold true to their own purpose. It’s worse when people have no choice over who they learn from or work with. The summit transcripts are packed with details to inform those who want to dig deep and all summaries are available from here: This move by the Select Committee could be important if too many people don’t dismiss what it might become.


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