This tweet from controversial educator Katherine Birbalsingh makes clear the rationale of proponents of ‘no excuse’ schooling: belonging is an ultimate goal, education facilitates this in our culture, and conformity facilitates the most conducive learning environment to afford that education.
The rationale appears to be infallible, and as such, vehemently defended by conservative educationalists. This is understandable, especially considering the likely irrefutable argument that our natural desire as humans is to belong: we all feel deeply for those who don’t, and it’s a feeling that is particularly acute if it happens to be you who doesn’t.
For invested proponents, the approach becomes almost evangelical, and leads to rigorous implementation of policies that serve to eliminate obstacles that impede the opportunity for learning. Methods include direct strategies such as issuing detentions for not tracking the teacher in lesson, to less explicit actions such as preventing talking during breaks. The measures seem extreme to some, but to those enforcing them, they are deemed as necessary components of the process of encouraging a conformity that results in belonging for all. For many of the schools with current notoriety, this is particularly poignant as many of the pupils in attendance are often from disadvantaged backgrounds that often lack the cultural advantages that serve to benefit the particular type of education that western culture espouses on mass.
Why would anyone challenge this?
Whilst the sense of belonging would be characteristic of all educators’ ontological leanings, there are however, large disagreements in how to achieve the ideal. The ‘no excuse’ approach that is exteriorised by a total insistence on conformity attracts criticism for a variety of reasons. Many struggle to extricate a significantly negative connotation from the word conformity, derived mostly from a perceived loss of personal freedom.
The disquiet is fuelled by instances of advocates (feasibly unrepresentative) tarnishing the brand with profligacy. The recent advertisement from a school for teachers who enjoy getting upset over the little stuff hurts the crusade because the overtone borders on the sadistic, and thus becomes legitimate fodder to the movement’s adversaries. There’s more to be said about this particular aspect of personal freedom, but for the sake of this post I want to discuss perhaps the more immediate concern emanating from the recent popularity of ‘no excuse’ policy.
Because conformity is logically characterised by a reduction in autonomy, the community that places trust in such a philosophy is at the mercy of those who lead it. The hierarchical nature of the military is instructive in illustrating this thesis. Subservience is encouraged in order that soldiers do what they are told when it may appear to contradict their intuition. Consequently, a good leader can achieve lots, but a bad leader can do enormous damage. A bad leader may simply just lack the skill necessary, but worse, may be self-serving.
Corruption always begins imperceptibly
It is unlikely that the vociferous opposition to the brand of ‘no excuse’ education ever emanated from a disagreement to the notion of belonging, but more from a cautionary reaction to the potential abuse of power connected with conformity, a connection that is historically less concomitant, and more concurrent with it.
But one needn’t visit the history books to find evidence of the abuse of power. It is most definitely alive and well in modern society. It is in fact ubiquitous, from the lies in modern politics (take the lies of the Brexit campaign) to the selling off of public services (profiteering for a few rather than the community) to multi-national business tax avoidance to the abuse of data from social media conglomerates (Cambridge Analytica). It happens more subtly on other levels: off-rolling students, promoting a product under the guise of journalism, to even the current ban on a television advert. The consequences of the corruption can be wide reaching, shockingly debilitative for communities, and therefore, significantly counter-productive for individuals. It is the existence of this malfeasance that disturbs and motivates the antagonist, and yet ironically motivates the building wave of ‘no excuse’ schools: to save disadvantaged students form the pernicious cycle of poverty and societal inequality created by the abuse of power, whether it be in wealth, race or gender.
The declaration of indignation, by those whose sense of justice is obfuscated by the desire for conformity, is largely generated from the concern that conformity leads to a reduction in an ability to challenge the abuse of power. The harrowing imagery in sci-fi novels and movies of future society indoctrinated and shackled by a lack of opportunity to think because of a lack of transparent information resonates with us all. The key here is not a lack of education to understand the information, but the omission of information omitted because it interferes with the interests of those in power. Institutions that promote unmitigated blind obedience to a higher power aren’t criticised because of their desires to improve the lives of those they serve, but because of the perceived likely reversal of who is doing the serving at a later date.
The need for transparency has perhaps never been more imperative. Those in positions influencing educational policy should have no problem in explaining their connections and links to boards and companies in order to assuage the fear of those who are appropriately wary of the misuse of power. It does not mean however, that individuals with insights into education should not be allowed to be rewarded for it, or promote their agenda as much as they can, or, importantly, to be presumed guilty simply because they are in a position to be so. But without the transparency, historical and modern corruption pervades and inevitably looms large in the minds of the average educationalist. It is this average educationalist that understands that as soon as promotion deviates from the intention of benefitting students, to the intention of benefitting individuals, then all is lost.
In the end it boils down to a fairly simplistic reduction. Can those who encourage complete conformity of our future generations guarantee their subservience is safe? If they can, it is likely that a great percentage of the consternation of opponents to ‘no excuse’ policy would dissipate. If they can’t, then it is likely that a great percentage of the consternation of opponents to ‘no excuse’ policy will remain.
I’m Paul Moss.
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