This is an important book. Most of it is concerned with a critical examination of governments’ policies on education during the past century and more. It is at the same time an objective critique of educational policy, drawing widely upon research from many scientific disciplines, and a personal manifesto, a plea for change.
At its heart lies a challenge to government, to build their policies on evidence and scientific advances, particularly about the development of the brain and its implications for adolescents’’ development. Adolescence, argues John Abbott, is not an awkward phase, to be contained and controlled as best we can, but an essential part of human development. It embodies a readiness to take risks, question, and do the unexpected, characteristics which are fundamental to human progress.
The book raised two broad questions of public policy for me. The first concerns the machinery of government – the organisation, processes and culture of Whitehall are not conducive to the radical cross-departmental thinking which we increasingly need.
The second question is about public opinion and government policy. The Labour Party’s campaign slogan in 1997, “education, education, education” was a bold move to shift the focus of public debate. Unfortunately the phrase was applied to mean “standards”, and standards were linked to tests in a way which effectively narrowed the curriculum and the educational experience of young people. In the process, it had the effects described in this book.
Yet there was clearly a different debate to be had about “education, education, education”, and that concerns the ambitions and hopes which (virtually) every parent has for her/his son or daughter – that they will enjoy their childhood and will grow into adults with the intellectual development, practical skills, and psychological resilience to flourish and make a positive contribution to society. So why was this debate restricted to “the professionals”, whose motives could be challenged so easily – fearful of accountability, backward looking, etc?
The answer, of course, would require a further book.
John Abbott concludes by reminding us of the critical distinction between state and civil society. ‘Civil society is about the quality of human relationships implied by covenant; it is where people have to accept responsibility for the consequences of their actions… the revitalisation of education has to proceed in sequence with the recovery of civil society.’ By seeking to provide answers to every aspect of our increasingly complex lives, it seems to me that government is undermining the capacity of individuals to find answers for themselves, and in the process is weakening the social capital on which society’s future depends.