It is said that there is really nothing new in the world, and that which comes around once will inevitably come around again.  Most of us can testify to the truth of this.  But even I was brought up short by a letter in today’s Post from the Department of Children, Schools and Families informing me that they had just appointed the Jigsaw Research agency to carry out a survey on the levels of satisfaction expressed by people/organisations like us who, they describe, as ‘customers’ of the Department.

The word ‘customer’ hit me in the face.  I read the letter a second time.  The word customer is used five times.  Me, a man who, on behalf of the Initiative, has written many times to the Department to comment on policy decisions… does that Department really think that I am in a ‘customer’ relationship taking, and presumably rejecting if I have the choice, what the Department might assume is a service they offer, or are organisations like ourselves not potential partners with central government?  Partner, or customer?

Then I remembered, to my amazement that I had received such a letter once before – it was back in 2003 when the Department traded under a different name, the Department of Education and Employment, and that letter had used the word ‘customer’ six times.  Later this morning I looked up the manuscript of a book that I was writing at the time (Master and Apprentice: Reuniting thinking with doing, not as yet published) I thought that readers of this blog might find the following extract from the beginning of Chapter 17, entitled “Pilgrim or Customer” interesting.  It’s quite lengthy, but read it as you will.  It goes as follows.

In October 2002 I had been invited to address a major conference of teachers in Birmingham when, late the evening before, I was told that my time slot was being cut as a “very important speaker from Downing Street” had expressed his willingness to address the conference at short notice.  I came out of my session breathless as Tony Blair walked up on the stage.  For an extremely busy man he spoke most eloquently about the importance of education and roused the spirits of teachers like a general facing his troops.

Listening carefully, I was struck by two things.  He yet again reiterated his favourite political mantra – real Adam Smith stuff – that competition was the best way of raising standards in schools and therefore it was totally right that parents should hold the schools accountable for the education of their children.  He then went on to exhort the teachers to think of all possible ways of improving secondary schools, and invited the audience to let him know what we thought.

As it happened I was flying to Tokyo that evening, so I had an opportunity to think about what the prime minister had said and, as I did so, found myself drafting a letter to him.  I kept the letter short.  I congratulated him on his personal commitment to education – and I meant everything I said.  My second point was, however, a rebuke: every time that you or any other politician tell parents to hold the school accountable for the education of their children, I said, you deliver a devastating, perhaps unintentional, subsequent message, namely that it is the school’s job not the parents’ to bring up their children to be fully responsible adults.  I then went on to make the argument that it was in the failure to appreciate the biological opportunities of adolescence that secondary education was failing.  I indicated that modern research is showing that the practice of secondary education simply does not match the opportunities which we now know exist in the adolescent brain.  “Only by restructuring secondary education to reflect what we now know about the adolescent’s deep need to experiment, and take increasing control of their own learning and progression, can we ever hope to get the improvements, Prime Minister, that we all seek.”  I concluded by suggesting that, in verifying what I’d said he should not refer my letter to the Department of Education “who see every problem as having a school-based solution,” but rather to those neurologists and psychologists with a professional interest in adolescence.

I was disappointed, but I suppose not surprised, to get the standard Whitehall-style reply: The Prime Minister thanks you for your letter, but you will appreciate he is too busy to reply, so we are referring your letter to the Department of Education.  Why bother, an inner voice kept saying, the invitation to a dialogue was surely empty rhetoric.  Yet I did write again, but heard nothing until, some three weeks later, I had a curious letter from the Customer Focus Team at the Department of Education.  It said: “As part of our continuing programme of listening to our customers we are researching what customers think of the quality of our replies to letters…  you are one of our recent customers.”  Six times the letter referred to me as a customer.

“Customer”?  Is that what we are to think of ourselves as – a model based on how much money we spend on a range of alternatives?  Are parents simply the customers of a school, rather than partners in the complex task of bringing the next generation of children into adulthood?  Are children customers of what their parents might have to offer?  Whose children are they in any case, the parents’ or wards of the state?  Or are they simply young customers in the making?  We seem to have got this all the wrong way around.  Neither the church nor the government should ever control what is taught in the school, as Marx argued in 1875, for it is better that the state should be educated by the people.

‘Customer’ surely defines a specifically materialistic concept of life.  My life has worked on a very different model, namely that of John Bunyan’s pilgrim, a man making his troubled way through life with a heavy load upon his back, beset on all sides by temptations and threats to belief.  A very human kind of being who could see beyond him the House Beautiful, yet could still flounder in the Slough of Despond.  A Pilgrim moved by the story of the Good Samaritan to know that, however rough the going was for him, there were always others who were worse off.  A man who grew stronger with every obstacle that he learned to overcome.

Pilgrim or customer?  A creator of his own eternal destiny, or a purchaser of a range of goods and services as defined by someone else?  A thinker able to take responsibility for his own actions, and willing to accept responsibility for working for the common good, or a man who, in his frustration that nothing he has so far pulled off the shelves of a supermarket quite suits his taste, searches for yet another perfect brand?  That one has to raise such a question about who we think we are – pilgrim or customer – has to be a sign of the moral confusion of our times.  And these are confused times.

That was six years ago.  We thought we were confused then… are we not infinitely more confused now?  If either I, or other people, could have challenged the concept of customer as the overriding description of the relationship of ourselves to central government in 2003, might we just have avoided the horrendous implications of the financial crisis that is now upon us?  Think on such matters.