Bill Scott's blog

Thoughts on learning, sustainability and the link between them

Monthly Archives: March 2011

What some students have to put up with

📥  Comment

I have just read, with some despair, an academic's post-UK budget posting to the SHED-ACT [Sustainability in Higher Education Developers Act Network] list serve.  This is what it said:

I'm sure by now many of you will have picked up the latest use of 'sustainable development' in the UK Budget to mean industrialisation and economic expansion: "we will expect all bodies involved in planning decisions to prioritise growth and jobs, and we will introduce a new presumption in favour of sustainable development, so that the default answer to development is yes." (George Osborne)   Last week there were strong comments on this list about the document "Manstreaming Sustainable Development: the Government's vision", particularly bits of it like this:  "Our long term economic growth relies on protecting and enhancing the environmental resources that underpin it, and paying due regard to social needs ... We ...will outline how Government will seek to maximise economic growth, whilst decoupling it from impacts on the environment." (UK Government Feb 2011)

It's worth tracing this back, because it echoes Brundtland's discourse from so long ago: "Sustainable development involves more than growth.  It requires a change in the content of growth, to make it less material- and energy-intensive and more equitable in its impact." (Brundtland 1986)   Except that Brundtland was talking about "developing" countries, not "developed countries".  Taking the term 'sustainable development' from genuine efforts to improve the lives of people in poor countries through economic growth and environmental protection and applying it to rich, over-industrialised and over-consuming ones instead was a sneaky rhetorical move.   It could be argued that it makes no sense at all to talk about 'sustainable development' of a university campus, a business, or a country in the already 'developed' world.  Instead, the overriding priority is on contraction (i.e., contraction and convergence) - or more precisely on finding ways to give people employment and fulfil people's needs which still 'work' while the economy is shrinking, which it will undoubtedly do anyway because of peak oil and ecosystem destruction.   I know the conflation of SD with economic growth makes people involved in 'Education for Sustainable Development' uncomfortable, and we try to sidestep the issue by calling it 'Education for Sustainability', usually abbreviated to ESD none-the-less.   I wonder if it's time to stop and to say that Sustainable Development is for developing countries, and for people in already developed countries the priority is something different.  In the end there aren't and never will be perfect terms or concepts for what this 'something different' is - we had 'development' but it was flawed and we moved to 'equitable development', which was flawed and we moved to 'sustainable development'... if we feel that 'sustainable development' in the context of developed countries is also flawed then we may need to embrace other concepts, while recognising that they have their time and place and will undoubtedly need to be moved on from too.

For me, the 'Transition' movement looks much more like 'Sustainable Development for already developed countries'. It emphases reducing consumption, energy descent and fulfilling people's needs in ways that are less dependant on the global economy. And it's a bottom up movement, so the concept is less open to appropriation by dominant forces. That's why I've become involved in my local transition movement, but I'm very well aware of it's flaws, recognise the need for a diversity of approaches, and the need to move on from the concept of transition at some point.  Anyway, this email is just to distance myself from some of the concepts of sustainable development there are out there, because a permanent 'yes' to any kind of development of the countryside on the grounds of 'sustainable development' isn't where I'm at!

Where to begin!  I was tempted not to begin at all, as smarter people than me have noted that to comment is to condone something as worthy of comment, and hence to acknowledge its value.  However, let me run that risk as there is hardly anything in this egregious outpouring of angst with which I agree.

1.  The idea of sustainable development doesn't have to be read as an oxymoron, although many are determined to do this, and some academics have made a career out of it.

2.  Brundtland saw socio-economic development as [i] necessary and [ii] having to occur within environmental limits.  So, if it can take place within such limits, and without exploiting others, where's the problem?   The Ellen MacArthur Foundation (for which I do a little bit of work, let me declare) is actively exploring this through the idea of the circular economy.

3.  This bipolar division into developed and developing just won't wash: How do the lives and lifestyles of the middle classes in India and Brazil compare with the poor in the UK and Ireland – very well indeed thank you.

4.  Who's going to vote for economic contraction?  What a miserable idea.  Only the comfortable could ever begin to think of it.  This is not inevitable.  To pretend so is tendentious and rather sad.

5.  Who is going to be doing the "finding ways to give people employment and fulfil people's needs ..."? Clearly, not a market economy.. Then what ...?

There is one good thing though: it reminds me why I have nothing whatsoever to do with the beggar-thy-neighbour economics that the transition movement represents and the dominant force it would like to become.


UK Census Form Illustrates the Chaos that is FE

📥  Comment

As I read through the 2011 Census form I found myself having many of the thoughts about it that have been widely aired in the press, in particular wondering just how useful such a process really can be for social planning purposes. However, as I'm clearly not a good judge of that question, I'd best say no more.

Two things struck me quite forcibly, however:

[1] the failure to distinguish between an MA / MSc, a PhD, and a PGCE.  These, it seems, are all "postgraduate" if you're a censur.   What purpose is served by this deliberate confusion is hard to say – and anyway, a PGCE is usually only postgraduate in the temporal sense, and not a level one.  Maybe there's some nascent pique here: a resentment that my hard-won PhD is counted in with all those many, many MAs out there!  Surely not?

[2] Respondents are invited / required to identify their qualifications.  This is all pretty straightforward when it comes to GC(S)Es, A levels, and degrees (notwithstanding the MA / PhD confusion), but when it comes to vocational qualifications it's a very different story.   Because there have been so many awarding bodies and levels, when all the possibilities are written down it looks like an alphabetical obstacle course.  No wonder there's so much confusion, I thought.  So much is historical baggage, of course, but are things really different now?

As to the Census form, I am really looking forward to filling it in ... .


OECD Confirms UK School Grade Inflation

📥  Comment

In its recent economic survey of the UK, the OECD devotes a significant part of its comments to a critique of how grade inflation in tests and public examinations [SATS & GCSEs] has obscured a poor performance when compared internationally through its own PISA studies and the like.   The report says:

Despite sharply rising school spending per pupil during the last ten years, improvements in schooling outcomes have been limited in the United Kingdom.  Average PISA scores, measuring cognitive skills of 15–year olds, have been stagnant and trail strong performers such as Finland, Korea and the Netherlands.  The use of benchmarking in England is more widespread than in virtually any other OECD country.  Transparent and accurate benchmarking procedures are crucial for measuring student and school performance, but “high–stake” tests can produce perverse incentives.  The extensive reliance on National Curriculum Tests and General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) scores for evaluating the performance of students, schools and the school system raises several concerns.  Evidence suggests that improvement in exam grades is out of line with independent indicators of performance, suggesting grade inflation could be a significant factor.  Furthermore, the focus on test scores incentivises “teaching to tests” and strategic behaviour and could lead to negligence of non-cognitive skill formation.

It goes on in this vein for several pages.  The bar charts in Figure 4 make for particularly depressing reading.  They show the rise of national grades set against the fall in international scores, and this is not just an English problem as even the much vaunted Scottish system is found at fault.  Meanwhile, Wales doesn't get a mention.

OECD is particularly concerned at how children from disadvantaged homes fare badly in the UK.  In paragraphs 25 and 26 they say:

Schooling outcomes in the United Kingdom are among the more unequal in the OECD area.  This leaves many students from weaker socio–economic backgrounds with insufficient levels of competence, which hampers their chances in the labour market and higher education.  Further reforms are needed to improve the outcomes for students from disadvantaged backgrounds to raise their life chances and overall productivity.

The unequal educational outcomes partly reflect a complex, multi–layered and poorly functioning deprivation funding system for primary and secondary schools in England.  The implicit compensation for disadvantaged students that the government provides to local authorities is only partially spent on disadvantaged schools and students.  This mismatch partly reflects the complexity of the funding system.  By moving to a less complex system and introducing an explicit pupil premium, the government has started to address these problems.  The premium is, however, relatively low in an international perspective and it is not clear that it will cover the extra costs of admitting disadvantaged students.  The government needs to ensure incentives are sufficiently large to incentivise schools to admit disadvantaged students.  To maximise transparency the government should consider increasing the pupil premium, within the overall budget constraint on public spending, and making it the only source of deprivation funding.

Indeed.  I have long thought that schools would compete madly for such children were the funding really to encourage this and enable dedicated and effective teaching.

The situation is summarises as follows:

Despite significant increases in spending on child care and education during the last decade, PISA scores suggest that educational performance remains static, uneven and strongly related to parents’ income and background.  Better educational performance could improve labour market outcomes, raise growth, lower the consequences of a disadvantaged background and increase social mobility.  Given the austere fiscal outlook, improvements have to come from higher efficiency rather than further spending.  More focused pre–school spending on disadvantaged children could improve skill formation.  Better–targeted funding for disadvantaged children combined with strengthened incentives for schools to attract and support these students would help raising educational outcomes.  The government is increasing user choice by expanding the academies programme and introducing Free Schools, but needs to closely follow effects on fair access for disadvantaged children.  The impact of increasing user choice oneducational outcomes is uncertain, but the government should experiment with proscribing the use of residence criteria in admission to local government maintained schools in some local authorities. Reforms to increase supply flexibility should be pursued.  All government funded schools should enjoy the same freedom in hiring and wage setting to level the playing field across different school types.  To better gauge progress and inform policy makers, schools and parents on educational outcomes, additional performance measures should be developed and steps taken to lessen the reliance on grades in performance management. Insufficient supply of high–quality vocational programmes and tertiary education study places hamper human capital formation and growth.  Stabilising and simplifying vocational education by more focus on high quality apprenticeships would support participation.  The government needs to find efficient measures to raise participation especially among children from low income families to replace the abolished educational maintenance allowance.  Further reforms to funding of higher education could lower taxpayers’ costs and help finance a needed expansion in the sector.

All very worth a read, and Chapter 4 deals with climate change policy ...


The Trouble with DfID is ...

📥  Comment

I've lost count of the number of discussions and conversations I have these days where someone starts a sentence in this way – and it usually ends, one way or another, with a complaint that DfID is [shock] promoting current government policy.  But DfID has always done this, and a major purpose of the development education that it has supported over recent years has been to win public approval for its policies – hence all those Brazilian Dance troups that the Daily Mail (and others) go on about.   And when there has been low public support, historically, for the idea of overseas aid, there are points that need to be made and ideas to be got across.  So, the problem now is not that the department has changed; rather, it is that the policy has – which is what so many people are upset about.   DfID is ok, it seems, provided it's 'OK'.   As for me, well, I am always uneasy about government departments promoting themselves through the education system, as this is not what schools, colleges and universities are for in a liberal democracy.  Imagine the uproar if the MoD ... .


London School of Epicaricacy

📥  Comment

I have done my level best to take some vicarious satisfaction at the plight of the London School of Economics in its dealings with the offspring of Libyan dictators, but try as I might, I can't do it.  So it's sorrow rather than pleasure to see a great institution humbled in so public a way.  All universities take some risks in their research and consultancy contacts with the wider world – and in their share-holdings – and not everything is as clear-cut as resolving to have no truck with the tobacco industry, as my university decided a long time ago.  Supping with people and organisations who might turn out to be on speaking terms with the devil is hard to guarantee.

The Calculus of Needs and Means

📥  Comment

At a meeting the other day, I heard myself say, without really thinking, "Social justice always trumps equality".  This was in response to a half-hearted complaint that someone (not me) had a bigger mug of tea than everyone else.  It has to be true, of course, because the calculus of needs and means should always favour need: treat everyone equally unless circumstances merit some being treated differently.  I thought of this when reading about the European Court of Justice's latest judgement (on insurance and gender discrimination) which will surely affect us all.  See the Economist's Bagehot and Buttonwood columns for further (witheringly scornful) comment.


An Expert Review Disowned

📥  New Publications

Hot on the heels of UNESCO's UK funding problems comes a report from UNESCO in Paris: Education for Sustainable Development: an expert review of processes and learning

Its Preface says:

"... UNESCO has commissioned this expert review on processes and learning for Education for Sustainable Development.  This publication endeavors to identify which commonly accepted learning processes are aligned with ESD and should be promoted through ESD-related programmes and activities. It also seeks to examine which learning opportunities contribute to sustainable development.  I hope that this well researched and reader-friendly publication will contribute to develop a better understanding of the nature of ESD and help stakeholders to make the Decade of Education for Sustainable Development a success".

Quite so.  I'm looking forward to reading it.  Curiously, however, in keeping with its normal practice, UNESCO disowns the report whilst welcoming it.

The designations employed and the presentation of material throughout this publication do not imply the expression of any opinion whatsoever on the part of UNESCO concerning the legal status of any country, territory, city or area or of its authorities, or concerning the delimitation of its frontiers or boundaries.  The author is responsible for the choice and presentation of the facts contained in this publication and for the opinions expressed therein, which are not necessarily those of UNESCO and do not commit the Organization.

Despite all that I hope the report gets a wide, critical reading.  It is certainly getting a wide circulation – I must have been sent it 6 times already.

There's just one thing.  When the Preface says it has set out : '... to identify which commonly accepted learning processes are aligned with ESD and should be promoted ..." , I wonder which commonly accepted learning approaches are NOT so aligned.   There are a few that are not commonly accepted, of course: rote learning of UNESCO texts, for example; water-boarding pedagogies, for another; values inculcation through hypnosis, a third; electric shock instruction modes, etc – you get the picture.

But the report implies that there are morally-ok methods that are especially good for ESD; and hence that there must be morally-ok ones that are not.  I just wonder what these latter ones are.  My default position is that they're aren't any.


Jamie's Nighmare

📥  Comment

I watched Jamie Oliver's Dream School unfold last night with the same sort of awful anticipation that is normally reserved for a slow-motion crash: a totally debilitating mixture of fascination and horror.  Of course, it was all set up for the usual TV confrontation that passes for "reality" these days: where a cohort of stroppy youth meets a cadre of unskilled celebrities – unskilled, that is, in teaching the kind of young people that had been rounded up for this exercise by cynical TV executives.  Just what all this is supposed to illustrate is beyond me, other than the medium's endless re-invention of new ways to exploit and diminish people.

I shall be watching next week, however, if only to see what should be the confrontation of the series: David Starkey taking on the headteacher whose values are obviously incompatible.  My money's on Starkey, I have to say, as he never knowingly shies away from a confrontation, whereas the headteacher, judging by what we've seen so far is quite good at it.

As for Jamie, well, there's always restauranting to fall back on.

Unesco in "Special Measures" Shock

📥  News and Updates

Such is the reach of Ofsted's special language games that it has even reached Unesco in the Spotlight which emphasises links between the USA and UNESCO.  Spotlight uses this phrase in its report of the very recent DfID review of the UK Aid programme [ the MAR ], although the report itself doesn't use the phrase.  The gist of this story is that DfID finds that UNESCO's work (as a whole) does not have a good match to UK Aid priorities, and so DfID is wondering whether it should stop its funding.  Two £16m tranches of funding in each of the next two years are promised pending a further review.

Page 204 of the MAR sets out the evaluative comments about UNESCO.  These include:

Despite its importance to some government departments, UNESCO’s significant under-performance in leadership means it is rarely critical in education and development.

UNESCO performs an important role in education policy and reporting. It fills critical gaps in science and culture.

It has poor systems and is unable to identify its results.

Has performed a useful post-disaster role in education planning and protecting cultural heritage, but needs clearer policies and attention to needs in fragile states.

UNESCO has an extensive range of policy and institutional actions on gender and climate change.

It could do more to lead the debate on girls’ education.

More work is needed on its own carbon footprint.
What any of this means for UNESCO in the UK is unclear.  The National Commission's own website is keeping an indiscrete silence [ the last "news" positng was 9th February ].