Save the children

For god’s sake.

At the risk of becoming a broken record, I wanted to note (rant about) yet another instance of flacid pseudo-neutral public ‘debate’, this time around education. Last week there was the argument about academies being held – by both sides – in entirely economic terms (with some admirable exceptions, Michael Rosen). I didn’t join in much because I was too angry and sad. This evening it was Save the Children who I heard on the radio, arguing that we need teachers in Nursery classes. The substance of their case doesn’t interest me; it’s an argument that has been going on for ages and says more about the prejudices of those who get involved (that ‘teaching’ and ‘caring’ are separate things) than it does about the children [edit: this blog written by a childminder well illustrates some of the prejudices suffered by those whose work is dismissed as ‘care’ rather than ‘education’]. What interests me are the terms in which Save the Children present their argument. Essentially it runs thus:

Birth-to-five is the most important period for educational development. Brain science shows that if you don’t get the good stuff when you’re little, you’ll never catch up. Evidence shows that children who attend nurseries often miss out on the good stuff, aren’t ready for school when they start at age 4, and fall even further behind as they go on.  Evidence shows that the best educational outcomes for those who risk being left behind arise through the kind of ‘learning interactions’ (‘shared sustained thinking’, as it used to be called) which are predominantly initiated by teachers. Therefore, we should have more teachers in nurseries.

Presented this way it seems pretty incontrovertible – why wouldn’t you want to improve the life chances of the least-privileged children? And they may be right that more teachers in nurseries is a good thing, but the goodness or otherwise of a choice about education does not depend on evidence. Education is bigger than the ‘scientific’* evidence, which, as your man Hume or Kant or whoever said, can’t turn an ‘is’ into an ‘ought’.

In the paraphrased argument above, for example, there’s an implicit belief that ‘educational outcomes’ are desirable. Says who? Seriously, who? In the evidence presented in the study, ‘educational outcomes’ means ‘level 4+ at KS2 SATs’ or ‘5 good GCSEs’ or ‘goes on to attend university’. Are any of these desirable? The answer’s not in the facts, but in a wider moral and social debate. And they’re not isolated from other impacts either. The decision to push for ‘level 4+ at KS2 SATs’ is not without consequences – consequences including the consistent degrading of childhood to a Korean-style drudge of managed dependence, the elimination of creativity from curricula, and a fundamental disrespect for what is most human and important.

I’m not saying we should get rid of SATs (I am; I definitely am) but there is a wider discussion to be held. ‘Educational outcomes’ is a made up thing. It’s not neutral or natural: it’s a measure of something you’ve chosen to measure and value. If Save the Children want to convince us that more teachers are needed in nurseries they have to convince us that the measure they’ve chosen is a good one.

But they don’t, and thereby they miss a trick: by accepting the neutrality of ‘education outcomes’, they forget the children. They forget that a better argument might be that the speed at which a hoop is jumped through (read: educational outcomes) is pretty much irrelevant, and that moral qualities such as creativity courage and care are more important than these hoops.

And this is the problem with regarding education as a science rather than an art – as something fundamentally objective rather than something fundamentally human. Seeing it as a science blinds us to the moral arguments which underlie any particular educational outcome.

What’s worse is that the narrative which sees education as part of a science is now hard-wired into economics. The lowest point of the interview with the Save the Children man was when your man said “And this is important for everyone – not just parents of young children – as, if we don’t get this right for our most vulnerable young children, it’s the economy which will suffer in the long term”. Yeah! You go save those children mister! They’re not going to become economy fodder without you to go save them! Quick, mister, before they fall behind and become a burden in the global race!

I’m sure that Save the Children are a good bunch of people; they save children. But this is what the pseudo-neutral terms of public debate do to good people: it forces them to speak in a language which makes liars and fools of them. And in this case that means bad thinking about education, which means letting children down. Save the Children have bought into a narrative around education which is leading children towards a narrower bleaker future.

Your man (a different one, I can’t remember who) said that you can judge a society on how it treats its elderly. We do pretty badly at that too, but I think you can tell more from how it treats its children. Education is the paradigm case which expresses what we value and want to be as a society. It’s about our hopes for being better people – for seeing the next generation exceed us. It’s about morality and culture and civilisation and purpose and love and humanity. It’s not about evidence.

*Just a brief note on the evidence – most of it is pure bullshit. The kind of bullshit in which ‘learning’ means ‘memorising’. And ‘brain science’ is the bulliest of all of the shits. Seriously, follow up on some of the links and look at how narrow they are in their concept of learning or impact. You can make whatever evidence you want up to grind your educational axe. It’s a cowards game.

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