The silly season used to consist of two or three weeks of summer torpor when newspapers used up their stock of daft and inconsequential stories that couldn’t make it into the paper on normal days. This year the silly season started early and shows every sign of becoming permanent – it’s now not the daft but the normal that’s in short supply.
After the mega-daftness of Brexit and the accompanying rounds of governmental musical chairs, the latest sign of soaring unreality is the much-trailed suggestion that Theresa May’s government is about to sanction a return to selective education and grammar schools. If you take the view that part of Brexit was a cry to stop the world and return to the imagined insular certainties of the 1950s, there’s perhaps a certain mad logic in taking steps to try to bring that world about. But in any other sense it’s a policy that would give even the Monster Raving Loony Party (‘Vote for Insanity!’) pause.
It’s quite hard to know where to begin, but let’s give it a try.
In an age of headlong technological advance which eats jobs for breakfast, lunch and tea (more than 40 per cent of all jobs will be automatable by mid-century, according to one much-quoted estimate) one thing that everyone agrees on is that an essential step in easing adjustment and heading off mass long-term unemployment is to equip people (all people) with better qualifications and broader skills.
In a pre-digital era that was the thinking behind the comprehensive movement and then the ambition that 50 per cent of every age cohort should attend university. The application was flawed, and such supply-side measures are, as I keep saying, in any case pathetically insufficient. But that doesn’t make the reasoning wrong.
The second reason why selection at 11 is criminal as well as crazy is that no one these days still believes that intelligence is fixed. Sir John Harvey-Jones always used to say that the root cause of the UK’s disproportionate contingent of unskilled, poorly-paid workers was low expectations. He was right. Countless experiments at school, in the military and at work have shown that those expected to do well perform better than those who aren’t, and conversely that treating people as failures is the surest way of ensuring that that’s what they become. A neglected part of Steve Jobs’ success at Apple (albeit at high personal cost) was his use of impossibly high expectations to force results from people that astonished even themselves. Selecting by ‘intelligence’ at the tender age of 11 is as unacceptable and arbitrary as selecting by class, gender or colour.
The third reason, and one that amplifies all the others by orders of magnitude, is the ‘100-year life’, the prediction that on present trends half of those born today will still be alive in 2116. Increasing longevity makes a nonsense of the straightforward linear progression from education to work to retirement. If the extra years are to be a blessing rather than a grinding burden, multiple mini-careers will have to become the norm interspersed with education that is lifelong, not bunched upfront at the beginning. In this context, a narrow education determined at an early age is a complete disaster, the exact opposite of what is needed. In their book on the new demographics, Andrew Scott and Lynda Gratton emphasize the importance of keeping the widest spread of options open for possible futures. They also warn that it will be up to the individual to do this: neither governments nor corporations (if there are any left in a generation’s time) will do it for you.
This of course widens out into a bigger debate, perhaps the biggest of all, about education seen as a whole, not just schooling. Just as it makes no sense to select academically at 11, in a world where human life is lengthening and technological cycles are shortening loading 20-somethings with huge debts at the start of an uncertain 60-year working life for a one-off, possibly depleting university investment is plainly crackers.
What is really needed is an entirely new look at at what education should mean in the age of big data and the truly smart machine. What are the roles of man and machine? What does it mean to be human? In front of such issues, the ‘why’ questions trump those of ‘what’ and ‘how’; as machine capabilities develop and algorithms drive ever more of our world, the study of history and thought may become the key factor in preventing the sorcerer’s apprentice from taking over entirely. A greater distance from today’s instrumentalist, reductive, teach-to-the-test teaching it is hard to imagine. As Yuval Noah Harari writes in his new book, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, ‘As long as you have greater insight and self-knowledge than the algorithms, your choices will still be superior and you will keep at least some authority in your hands. If the algorithms nevertheless seem posed to take over, it is mainly because most human beings hardly know themselves at all.’