Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Engineering the Future

A criticism of policy I find strange is “social engineering”. People who talk about it assume that it is a) a bad thing, and b) not currently happening. Isn't social engineering just what schools do?

Take 'current Year 7' - that's English school children aged 11 – 12. By now their teachers have divided them into high, middle and low ability students; here are their pathways. The high ability students will learn that they can. Praise builds confidence and they will take that to the best universities and the best jobs. The only price for this is the resentment of those below and some will fare better than others in the shark-pool.

The middle ability students will learn that they can do enough, that deadlines are ever extendable and laziness is tolerated as long as some work is produced eventually. Spoiling the party for the children of the middle is the fact that, in a system geared exclusively to individual performance, they will be publicly judged and found wanting. The denial of status creates a hunger for it.

Amongst the low ability students you will find the disruptive, the defiant, the failures and the depressed. We are quick to throw our hands up at their families, their poverty, their social lives, but not to ask if their hostility towards us, and education in general, is influenced by the humiliation of being the bottom. Did you get told you were stupider than everyone else throughout your childhood? What do you think that's like?

Of course the coincidence of a school system that is stratified with wildly unequal outcomes and a society the same does not prove that one causes the other. To do that we have to look at changes in schools to see if they are replicated. The big change of the last fifteen years has been the pressure on schools to improve exam results, which means teachers are far more detailed and prescriptive in their instructions to students. If schools engineer society, then this should have resulted in an erosion of school leavers' ability to work independently. Research by the CBI suggests this is the case.

Social engineering is going on right now in every town and every city, the question we should be asking is: what kind of society do we want to engineer?

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