Why Labour’s National Education Service is such a powerful idea

Mellissa Benn wrote about this in a Guardian article of 18 July 2017:

There could not be a more favourable time for the development of a fresh vision for state education, one that is, in the words of one senior leader, “based on ethical service with the re-professionalisation, and trust, of teachers at its heart.” The market-driven policies of the last decade have pretty much run into the ground. Free schools and mass academisation are no longer considered the cure-all for social or educational inequality; parents are beginning to rebel against a narrow curriculum, too much testing and rogue school admissions systems; and there is unease about heads of multi-academy trusts earning two or three times more than the prime minister, while teachers’ pay has crawled up just 1%. More generally, there’s a feeling of a vacuum in authority and policymaking at the heart of government, particularly after the failure of May’s grammar school initiative.

If more support for Melissa’s argument is needed, as I write this article it has emerged that the marketisation of the English education system has brought about a huge increase in the proportion of lessons taught by unqualified teachers in our schools.

This reflects the fundamental change in teaching methods brought about by marketisation spreading to, and so corrupting Local Authority schools, as well as Academy and Free Schools. Business focused Multi Academy Trusts (MATs) are responsible for this ideology, supported by the Department for Education and uncritically condoned by OfSTED, the government’s puppet school regulator.

Academisation is the English implementation of the ‘Global Education Reform Movement‘. It results in the replacement of ‘Headteachers’ by ‘Executive Principals’ and the domination of the ‘behaviourist’ assumptions that flow from the culture of ‘training’ that MATs impose onto their schools. I am not criticising training. I want the people that drive the 125+mph trains that take me to London to be well trained. Such training requires learning the BR drivers’ handbook by heart and lots of practise in simulators.

But training is not education, ‘telling’ is not ‘teaching’ and ‘listening’ is not learning.

This is because while the memorising of facts is an essential part of learning it is not enough to secure deep understanding. The decline of teaching for deep understanding is a serious weakness in the English education system that will be worsened by the universal Academisation that the government is seeking to bring about.  The ‘Slow Education‘ movement provides further comment on this process, but perhaps the clearest exposition comes from Vygotsky.

As we know from investigations of concept formation, a concept is more than the sum of certain associative bonds formed by memory, more than a mere mental habit; it is a genuine and complex act of thought that cannot be taught by drilling, but can only be accomplished when the child’s mental development has itself reached the requisite level.

Unqualified teachers ‘delivering packages’ in the role of ‘instructors’ within the behaviourist business paradigm of ‘training’, rather than cognitively developmental education, can indeed ‘deliver’ this sort of teaching more cheaply and with less risk of ‘insurrection’ than employing university educated teachers backed by their professional associations.

A National Education Service would be about much more than schools. It would build on Harold Wilson’s legacy of the Open University and the parallel tradition of LEA provision of adult education classes in schools and FE Colleges. In the 1980s and 90s I was fortunate to teach in a Leicestershire 14-18 Community College where adult classes and mixed adult/sixth form student classes took place in the daytime as well as evenings. The OU was not the only route to higher education for adults without academic qualifications, nor was it necessarily the best given the inevitable isolation of independent study compared to the peer to peer, seminar type arrangements possible in adult education classes. I personally know of Secondary Modern educated adults that attended daytime classes at a Leicestershire 14-18 Community College, followed by a pre-university course at Charles Keene FE College in the City of Leicester, culminating in an Honours Degree at Leicester University and a professional career.

All such opportunities have been lost with the demise of Local Education Authorities.

In my headship 11-16 inner urban comprehensive school, from which I retired in 2003, we ran a full adult education programme of evening classes supported by Cumbria County Council, which school students could also attend (free of charge). Maths and English classes were popular to support their GCSE studies. We also accepted adults from the local community into our daytime school GCSE Art classes in years 10 & 11, where they worked on drawing, painting and pottery alongside our school students. All of this is now history in our state education system, where the mean, dispiriting and dulling effects of privatisation are extending far beyond the dismal Gradgrindian curriculum imposed on our young people in so many Academies and Free Schools. As for the idea of adults (not police checked) from the local community mixing with 15/16 year-olds in lessons; this would now be seen as a shocking invitation to paedophiles even though such classes were continuously supervised by an experienced teacher, and that the vast majority of our students from the age of 11 walked to and from school through the centre of a town presumably teeming with paedophiles, as thousands of school students did (and many still do) in towns and cities throughout the country.

Of fundamental importance to adult education was the philosophy of developmental education, which is characterised by the inspiring personal challenges of the related social and cognitive nature required by the developmental, rather than behaviourist, approach that I promote in all my articles and in my book ‘Learning Matters‘.

The crucial shared assumption of a National Education Service would be that developmental education is never wasted on anybody, of any age, from the cradle to the grave. This has a powerful parallel with the NHS, which has the same principle of cradle to grave entitlement to healthcare.

It is no co-incidence that our NHS is increasingly threatened by the same privatisation agenda that is wrecking the English school system.

Like Michael Shayer (Professor of Applied Psychology), James Flynn and the mainstream international academic community to which they belong, I accept the general intelligence construct ‘g’ as not only valid and meaningful, but essential in any consideration of developmental learning and the effectiveness of different approaches to bringing it about.

What may be new to both ‘g’ accepters and ‘g’ deniers is the fact that cognitive ability is plastic throughout life, even if its maximum plasticity corresponds with ‘developmental spurts’ before adulthood. Not only is intelligence not fixed at birth through genes (or anything else) neither can it be permanently limited (rather than just damaged) by poverty, poor parenting or bad schooling. This does not mean that all learners are capable of attaining the same level; the Bell Curve of natural variation always applies. The important principle is that all learners at any level can always develop their cognition and that all such development is worthwhile not only to the individuals concerned, but to society as a whole.

That is why Labour’s ‘National Education Service’ is such a powerful idea.

The pedagogy of developmentalism is founded on Piagetian epistemology and Vygotskyian approaches to teaching and learning based on metacogition and social interaction. It is all about the development of cognitive ability on the basis that this is the driver of attainment in all contexts that require understanding rather than just factual recall.

Research by the government funded Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) shows that higher ‘specific attainments in particular subjects’ are achieved as an indirect consequence of teaching for general cognitive development, than through the behaviourist ‘knowledge-based’, discipline-enforced instructional methods that are taking over the English school system through the neo-liberal Global Education Reform Movement led by Academy and Free School MATs, resulting in the destruction of public education through democratically accountable local institutions. I write about this here and here.

The problem for many on the left is that much of the international academic community that has researched cognitive development is still ignorant of the evidence for plastic intelligence and therefore remains obsessed with arguments about heritability issues. The fact that what we are born with, is far less limiting of our developmental potential than was previously thought, changes everything.

A notable example is the case of James Flynn, a ‘superstar’ of the international academic community that studies ‘intelligence’, who defined the ‘Flynn Effect’, which is the tendency for mean national IQs to increase over time in all countries with developed national education systems. The Flynn Effect is itself an obvious clue to the plasticity of intelligence. Significantly, the Flynn effect has gone into reverse in the English marketised education system and so has become an ‘anti-Flynn effect‘.

Flynn reveals his acceptance of plastic intelligence, and of developmental models of cognition in his latest book, which I review here.

Flynn writes powerfully as follows.

“my analysis gives human autonomy a potent role. Here we must distinguish between internal and external environment. You can join the book club but it is more important to fall in love with reading; you can fill your mind with trash or ponder over a chess problem or any other problem that provokes wonder.

How wonderful it is that adults enjoy autonomy throughout their lives! University students come to me and say,” I know I am not as quick as the very best but I want to improve my mind and solve problems that captivate me; is that possible?” To this the answer is “yes”.

 “I did not do well at school; will I be able to handle your introductory course in moral philosophy?” To this the answer is that you may do very well indeed: some of my best students are mature students because they work out of genuine interest. Note my assumption: that current [cognitive] environment is the key and they need not worry too much about the past environments that have handicapped them since school.”

The relevance to Labour’s National Education Service is obvious.

Further evidence for plastic intelligence and its potential for development throughout life comes from the work of David Eagleman that I write about here.

Eagleman produces fascinating evidence for the plasticity of cognition enduring not just through our youth, but into old age. Some of this evidence is from a longitudinal study of Nuns, in terms of how physical deterioration of the brain associated with dementia and confirmed through most-mortem brain analyses does not necessary match cognitive function measured prior to death. It appears to show that continuing mental challenge can result in the maintenance of high function plastic intelligence even as brain tissue is lost to age-related disease.

This suggests that although there are time windows of rapid potential cognitive development in early childhood and adolescence, all is not lost to individuals deprived of optimum cognitive stimulation at those times. I refer to this in Section C5.2 of ‘Learning Matters‘.

If Shayer and Adey are right, and I believe they are, then such developmental potential applies to all children including those born into deprived backgrounds. If a child’s brain is indeed ‘irrevocably shaped’ in the first three years of life then schooling won’t have much impact and spending a lot of taxpayer’s money on it will indeed be in vain.

This relates to my study of Mossbourne Community Academy (Part 4 of ‘Learning Matters‘). If the rejection of plasticity is correct then Mossbourne’s excellent exam results and progression to university of children from severely deprived homes (Section 4.14) shouldn’t be happening, because the ‘impaired synapse connectivity’ of early years deprivation should trump any later pedagogic intervention and limit educational attainment. A comprehensive school like Mossbourne (not run by a MAT at the time) very importantly shows that it doesn’t have to. Eagleman shows that neural plasticity has the potential to compensate for earlier impairment.

The potential for Labour’s National Education Service to dramatically improve the UK quality of life goes beyond the benefits to individuals of enhanced general intelligence, significant though they are.

There are also benefits to individual health that can not only be aggregated to the national level, but also have major implications for our economy, levels of taxation and general well being. Given that the NHS treats every ailment of every person for free out of general taxation, any connection between enhanced national IQ and health have enormous economic implications. The evidence for just such a link is overwhelming. It is not even necessary to discuss intelligence directly for the link between educational attainment and health to be clear. The conclusions of this US study undoubtedly also apply to the UK.

Socioeconomic status (SES) is usually measured by determining education, income, occupation, or a composite of these dimensions. Although education is the most commonly used measure of SES in epidemiological studies, no investigators in the United States have conducted an empirical analysis quantifying the relative impact of each separate dimension of SES on risk factors for disease. Using data on 2380 participants from the Stanford Five-City Project (85% White, non-Hispanic), we examined the independent contribution of education, income, and occupation to a set of cardiovascular disease risk factors (cigarette smoking, systolic and diastolic blood pressure, and total and high-density lipoprotein cholesterol). The relationship between these SES measures and risk factors was strongest and most consistent for education, showing higher risk associated with lower levels of education. Using a forward selection model that allowed for inclusion of all three SES measures after adjustment for age and time of survey, education was the only measure that was significantly associated with the risk factors.

It is therefore reasonable to expect Labour’s National Education Service to result in a significant improvement in levels of education (and I argue, therefore mean general intelligence), so resulting in profound positive health, economic and other benefits and improvements to the quality of life of UK citizens.

The risks and social costs of dementia in our aging population currently feature at a high level in our national discourse and were a major issue in the 2017 General Election affecting the result. The following is from Alzheimer’s Research UK.

Several studies have suggested a link between mentally-stimulating leisure activities and a lower risk of dementia. Other studies have linked spending more time in education with a lower risk and research is ongoing in these areas.

This supports the conclusions of the nuns study reported by David Eagleman. It appears that while education cannot prevent the physical loss of brain tissue, it can mitigate the effects by remodelling the remaining brain tissue to make it cleverer.

The social implications of general intelligence have been most famously and comprehensively researched in the US by Herrnstein and Murray and published in their book, ‘The Bell Curve‘.

This book remains highly controversial and is dismissed and rejected by many on the left. I can understand this because the authors do not believe in ‘plastic intelligence’. They make this clear in Chapter 17. However, they are not educationalists and in this respect I believe them to be wrong. However they do recognise in the same chapter that, “Raising intelligence significantly, consistently and affordably would circumvent many of the problems [of low IQ] that we have described.

PART II is entitled ‘Cognitive classes and social behaviour’ and addresses issues relating low cognitive ability to poor outcomes in terms of poverty, schooling, unemployment, idleness, injury, family breakdown, welfare dependency, parenting, crime, civility and citizenship.

However uncomfortable the conclusions, the evidence, methodology and statistical soundness of their work is not disputed by serious academics.

Here in the UK these discomforting social patterns are often explained by the left, not in relation to cognitive ability, but in terms of class, ethnic or religious discrimination. Of course such discrimination persists, but I produce evidence to take issue with these explanations in relation to the UK ‘educational attainment gap’ here.

I will conclude with what I see as one of the most interesting and profoundly socially relevant sections of the Bell Curve research.

It is that improvements in cognitive ability result in enhanced vocational performance for jobs at all levels of cognitive demand including the most menial. This is very important to our education system where the value of providing cognitively challenging education for students at lower cognitive ability levels is still questioned.

It is the justification for 11 plus selection for grammar schools and for selection within schools into ‘vocational’ and ‘academic streams’ on the false basis that it is only worth developing the intellect of the most cognitively able. The rest are argued to be ‘more suited’ to cognitively undemanding ‘vocational training’ from the age of 14. I reject this in all my published work and am happy to cite this example from ‘The Bell Curve’.

In the following quotation a ‘busboy’ is the lowest level of employee in an American restaurant.

Being a busboy is a straightforward job. The waiter takes the orders, deals with the kitchen, and serves the food while the busboy totes the dirty dishes out to the kitchen, keeps the water glasses filled, and helps the waiter serve or clear as required. But complications arise. A busboy usually works with more than one waiter. The restaurant gets crowded. A dozen things are happening at once. The busboy is suddenly faced with queuing problems; with setting priorities. A really good busboy gets the key station cleared in the nick of time, remembering that a table of new orders near that particular station is going to be coming out of the kitchen; when he goes to the kitchen, he gets a fresh water pitcher and a fresh condiment tray to save an extra trip. He knows which waiters appreciate extra help and when they need it. The really good busboy is engaged in using his cognitive ability when he is solving the problems of his job, and the higher his cognitive ability the more quickly he comes up with the solutions and can call upon them when appropriate.

The point is one that should draw broad agreement from readers that have done menial jobs: intelligence helps.

So Labour’s National Education Service will not only raise educational standards in our schools, but will bring profound benefits to all aspects of our national life.

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