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This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Friday, June 4, 2010


Interesting chat with Daryoush when we were in Waterstone’s. He’s been working on Yemen’s educational system and remarked that education was the key to a country’s future. “Yes and no” is my feeling. I remembered the veneration still accorded in 1980s Sweden to the reforming social democrat leader (Branting?)whose educational initiatives clearly made a major impact on that country’s subsequent social and economic development. Daryoush assured me that the transformation of Finland (an Denmark) was based on similar thinking. But notice that these programmes were based on a very distinctive set of values – they were not pushing education the way the technocrats do these days. And a review article of D. Ravich’s Death and life of the great American public school system in the 13 May edition of The New York Review of Books which I had bought in Waterston’s gave a clue. The article makes a distinction I hadn’t come across before – between the community-oriented schools of 19th century and the child-centred schooling which the thinking of Dewey had brought in. Apparently this was a distinction de Tocqueville made during his visit to the US in the 1830s –
In the US the general thrust of education is directed toward political life; in Europe its main aim is to fit men for private life
! Ravich’s latest book is an attack on the choice and measurement approach to schooling now dominant – and, intriguingly, Colin Talbot reveal that David Osborne who wrote the (in)famous Reinventing Government book of 1992 was opposed to choice in education.
He was asked what he thought about choice and markets in secondary education. The Charter Schools movement in the USA – very much similar to the ‘free schools’ policy of our Coalition government – had started just a few years earlier.

As with ‘free schools’, Charter Schools were supposed to be freed of state controls whilst still being funded from the public purse, and, crucially, be non-selective. Parents had the choice to send their kids to a Charter school or ordinary state school, but the Charter Schools were not supposed to select who they took. A perfect example of choice in operation, very much in line with the themes of ‘Reinventing Government’, one might have thought.
David Osborne however thought otherwise. He said that whilst he was in general in favour of choice there were some areas where it was not appropriate for super-ordinate reasons, and compulsory education was one of them. Why? Because, he argued, schools were the crucible of a pluralist society – it was the place where kids learnt to get along with people of different class, ethnic, religious and other backgrounds. Without this crucial formative experience existing divisions in society would be amplified and damaging – he even pointed to Northern Ireland as an example of what happens when you have segregated schooling. And of course the USA already had an all-too recent history of school segregation which the Civil Rights movement had fought in the 60s and 70s.
Schools choice, Osborne asserted, was already leading to renewed segregation in American schools. Whether or not the schools operated selection (and he thought they in reality did) it was pretty obvious parents were operating self-segregation. There were white Catholic and white Protestant schools being formed, black Protestant and Hispanic Catholic ones, and so on. He thought this was a disaster in the making and for over-riding reasons of democratic pluralism was against choice in this case. State-funded compulsory education, he argued, ought to be used to bind society together rather than splinter it into fragments.

His remarks clearly surprised quite a few in the audience, me included. Most of his listeners were clearly not convinced – this was after-all a mix of Tory policy-wonks and civil servants keen to do the bidding of their (current) masters – and in any case even the opposition New Labour party had gotten the ‘choice’ bug. But I came away thinking just how wise, thoughtful and courageous, his response had been. Some of our current and former leaders could do well to think a bit more about his arguments

For more see here.
Glorious weather now since I arrived here in Brussels. It’s great to have the luxury of relaxing and not having to tear around the countryside looking at areas and houses. If it wasn’t for the prices, Brussels could be ideal for a pied-a-terre. The faces in the city centre were happy and so cosmopolitan. Brussels and Sofia are definitely my favourite cities. Have been going through the last month’s back numbers of Le Monde – mainly for my vocabulary. But it is interesting to see the various issues which have been given prominence in that excellent daily - the argument about increasing the French retirement age (only 60 at the moment!); the growth of China; the future of the political centre in France; the future of the euro (naturally) and Europe generally.
The painting is
L'homme a la fenetre
by de Braekeleer

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