Is there anything called pure education?

Education standards as such can’t do much to improve the standards of living or the quality of living. For the later virtues we have to search for salvation, not in education but in economics and culture. Here in a perceptive review of an education report just published in the UK, the author examines education reforming. And comes to the inevitable but sad conclusion that no prodding of children or parents to go (or send their children) into schools would do.

And more for our so-called “liberalizers” outside the education, economic growth while it is very good, in itself can do little to remove barriers to better jobs and earnings. It is culture and sociological issues that could finally give equal social conditions where education and economics might coalesce for the larger good.

It has become an article of faith that education holds the key to economic success. Raise the level of educational attainment and you will make the economy more prosperous. Behind this idea is the notion that in a globalised economy, free trade means that a country does not have to be endowed with natural resources in order to be rich. It is only a nation’s stock of human capital that really makes a difference. The way to increase the stock of human capital is to provide more and better education.

The fast-growing economies of East Asia are cited as proof of this. Pupils in Taiwan and Hong Kong do better at School-particularly in maths-than UK children. Need we look any further for the reason why British are falling down the international league table? Well, yes, to be honest.

There is no doubt that ministers believe that the ideas on human capital popularized by Robert Reich, Bill Clinton’s former labor secretary, hold the key to Britain’s renaissance. Education is at the heart of the Government’s programme, and there has been a steady stream of announcement over the past few months aimed at raising standards, setting tougher targets, sending hit squads into under-achieving schools, providing money for summer schools and starting to phase out the assisted places scheme to cut class size for five to seven year olds. In short, education is the one remaining area where Labor feels comfortable with full throated interventionism. It is the epitome of the party’s insistence that Keynesian notions of tax and spend have been replaced with a strategy based on invest and grow. Like any policy, this one needs to be tested.

Does more education make us better off? Or is better education the result rather than the cause of economic success?

In one sense, the argument is irrelevant. Spending more on education might be seen as a good long-term investment even in the absence of immediate short-term economic gains. Good schools with dedicated teachers impart values and virtues to pupils, reducing anti-social behavior and perhaps increasing the incentives to achieve in later life. This, nowadays, sounds a naive notion of what education should be about, because it assumes that the point of mandatory schooling is well-rounded pupils able to think and question rather than an apprenticeship for a job. It could no doubt be argued that there is no contradiction between these two aims, but there is.

In America, schools have started to abolish classes in dance, music and drama in favor of buying more computers. Employers want pupils with IT skills; there is no demand for children who can hum a few bars from the Pastoral Symphony.

In fact the utilitarian approach to education could backfire, even in business terms. The trend is towards more service-sector employment, where interpersonal skills will count more than being able to process data. Education is linked to an individual’s employment chances. The evidence is pretty strong that those children who have trouble with reading and writing are the ones most likely to end up unemployed or in a succession of insecure, low paid jobs. However, getting this message across to under-achievers may not be as easy as the Government thinks. David Hargreaves, professor of education at Cambridge, says one of the main characteristics of the East Asian model is that pupils are hell-bent on learning and are supported by ambitious parents. “This does not generally apply in contemporary Britain; and preaching to parents about their responsibilities changes little.

“A significant minority of students enjoys and makes full use of their lives at school and university, and enters the professions and the higher levels of business, industry and public service. There is another group who put up with their education and does reasonably well. But there is a third group who by their early teens at the latest is thoroughly bored with their formal education, and over time become increasingly alienated.”

Prof Hargreaves argues that the anticipation of unemployment and social exclusion foster a “disenchantment which drift into deviance and unacceptable life-styles”.

At this point the problems of education start to merge with the structure of the labor market and social factors such as poverty and inequality. In a paper Peter Robinson of the Centre for Economic Performance argues that the data from studies which tracked the lives of those born in 1958 and 1970 showed that social class, parental interest and peer-group pressure were the main factors in determining levels of numeracy and literacy. “Children who had come from low-income households and from poor-quality housing were significantly more likely to be experiencing problems with basic skills as adults.” The 1970 survey found that pre-school education, class sizes, teaching methods, homework policy and streaming had no impact.

This analysis runs counter to modern orthodoxy, which says that these factors are of crucial educational importance. His conclusion is that a “serious programme to alleviate child poverty might do far more for boosting attainment in literacy and numeracy than any modest interventions in schooling. One might have though that tackling child poverty would be considered a good idea in its own right by a new Labor Government.”

The upshot is that the better qualified pupils take jobs that would have gone to the less qualified, leading to frustration and boredom for the former and reinforcing the sense of the pointlessness of education to the latter.

Finally, there is the question of whether raising levels of attainment is good for growth. Robinson’s study found there was no link. The comparisons between maths tests in Britain and East Asia taken by 14 year olds in 1996 tell us very little about economic performance over the past decade because, even under the Conservatives, flexible labor markets did not mean putting five year olds back up Chimneys.

More relevant comparisons emerge from tests undertaken in 1982-83, when pupils from Hong Kong and Thailand did not perform any better in maths than children in Britain. A World Bank study of illiteracy in Hong Kong and Singapore in 1985 found illiteracy rats of 14 percent and 12 per cent respectively, rising to 20 percent for women. In Britain, the figure is less than 1 percent and has been for many years.

The “tiger” economies did well in maths, but so did the Czech and Slovak Republics, and Bulgaria. The US results were as mediocre as those in Britain. Britain was in the bottom half of the table for maths, but right near the top for science.

A successful economy does require the three Es-not education, education, education, but the economy, equality and education.

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