Creative living, and longer lives

Creative living, and longer lives

I want to write about the return of music performance to my life, and think a little about what it might mean for education and the world of work.

For the last couple of years I’ve been playing violin in a band with a Mozambican singer, Maiuko. The rest of the band, drums, double bass, and piano, are seasoned jazz professionals. We play a kind of hybrid Afro-blues, with Celtic overtones (that’s where I come in). We played a successful gig on Friday at St George’s The Martyr in Borough, London, the beginning of a busy summer of planned recording and along the way a mini-tour to celebrate 40 years of Mozambican independence.

I played last night in another quite different band, again with a group of skilled musicians (guitars, drums, bass and trombone). The Kismet Collective performs only original material, mixing diverse pop, rock and folk influences. We’re focused on recording demo tracks at the moment, though we’re also honing the material live with a monthly residency at a great music pub in Dover.

I started playing violin in my mid-teens, teaching myself when I found I could (I’d learned piano for a couple of years and had some music lessons at school, so I had some helpful background in notation, scales and other basic bits of theory), jamming along with folk, jazz and rock records, playing in some bands with schoolfriends.

All this persisted into college but not much further. Music had always been important but it was a side interest. Friends went their separate ways. There were no longer any obvious opportunities to perform. Back then live music was much more restricted. There were no open mics, no obvious opportunities to meet new players and jam along informally. In any case I had other pressures. I had studied English literature at college and I was working in business as a writer. I was married and soon I also had children, so I was busy with the demands of parenthood, and making enough money to sustain a family. I’d pick up my fiddle from time to time, just to re-assure myself I could still get a noise out of it, but for the most part it sat in its venerable wooden case, gathering dust.

The children got older, and my marriage ended. I’d argue that mid-life crises, although they sometimes manifest themselves in pathetic ways (chasing younger women or men, fast cars or whatever) are in themselves a reasonable response to the realisation that you’re beginning to run out of time, and need to address the things you always wanted to do. Music had remained an important part of my life, as a listener and spectator, but I found myself wondering increasingly what it would be to practise again, and take a place among others in the blossoming local live music scene. My girlfriend at the time encouraged me. There was a great Sunday night session in the Man of Kent in Rochester, always welcoming to players whatever their ability. I got over my nerves and started putting bow to strings in public again.

I was lucky. I met some lovely and talented performers early on, so picked up a lot of pub gig experience quickly. At that stage all I really wanted to do was have fun in pubs and bars, but I found myself in demand, I think because being self-taught but with some grasp of basic theory I could improvise fluidly and fit in with whatever the other performers were trying to do. There are plenty of classically trained violinists in the area with better formal technique than me, who can do things I can’t, but few of them can move comfortably away from a score, and that’s a problem when you’re not playing within the disciplines of classical music (which I still love and respect).

My own technique has improved a lot (that’s what happens when you practise) and some bigger dreams have taken at least a cautious hold of me. The music I’m making now has become necessarily more ambitious and demanding, and I think it deserves a bigger audience.

With luck this might happen, since experience has taught me that financial reward for creative work depends as much on luck as talent. But all this is just the background to a bigger, more important point.

The return of music making to my life has transformed that life. I’m fortunate that I’ve found I have some ability in doing something that’s so close to my heart, but then I believe most people have that capacity to a greater or lesser extent.

My first real job as a commercial writer involved (among other things) interviewing people on the verge of retirement. This was a generation that had lived through extraordinary times, many of whom had fought in the Second World War, or survived the dangers and privations of that war at home. Perhaps they had been glad for the subsequent stability of routine work but for me it seemed vaguely depressing that so many of them regarded their looming retirement rather like an extended Sunday afternoon, a chance to catch up on some sleep and gardening. Perhaps in reality it proved different, perhaps they found some new passion to animate their days rather than a pastime that dulled their senses, but I doubt it.

In any case the worlds of work and the arc of a normal life have changed so much even in my (incomplete) lifetime. Now most of us can reasonably anticipate living longer, healthier lives. In economic terms alone we can no longer expect to slip into a kind of sleepy inactivity at 65. Biology still dictates the ages between which we are likely to have children and raise them, but beyond this the shape of working lives is already changing, necessarily becoming more fractured and diverse, demanding as we grow older that we find new ways of deploying what we’ve learned rather than prematurely winding ourselves down, and to develop creatively.

I’m not suggesting that everyone needs to pick up a guitar or a violin. Indeed when I speak of “creativity” I’m not just talking about art forms: I mean whatever it is in us that can take us beyond the ordinary, the mundane demands of feeding ourselves and keeping warm; to explore and exploit whatever potential we have to think around whatever we’re given, to make more of our lives whether in our work or outside it. Of course there will still be jobs that require little beyond repetition, even if their numbers are shrinking under the weight of automation, but those stuck in such work will have all the more need of something satisfying beyond it, and they’ll need to be able to adapt to new conditions, new work as the world continues to change.

So it becomes all the more important that we re-imagine and restructure how education can work in our lives. Partly this means thinking past the traditional limits of higher education, to reconfigure how schools and colleges function in their communities (at the same time accommodating the supportive role online resources could play).

But it also means reversing the movement to de-emphasise the importance of creativity in education, in schools and outside them. Whatever else successive governments have claimed they want to do, this is the reality of what they are doing, both directly in the pressure on subject timetabling, and indirectly by restricting the scope for autonomy and creativity in teaching itself.

All this sits in a bitterly ironic relationship to their apparent belief that what they are doing will better prepare students for the “world of work”. I’m not suggesting for a second that we don’t need good mathematicians, physicists or engineers, but we might stand a better chance of getting them if we started with the recognition that the “world of work” cannot be insulated from our other worlds, from the changing arcs of our lives.

I’m not suggesting that we should ignore basic skills in literacy and numeracy. I’m saying that we need better ways of engaging children in their acquisition. In the process we might also find that we’ve given our children better abilities and resources to meet the diverse demands not only of their work, but their changing lives. If we fail to do this we’re not only wasting valuable human capacity; we’re nurturing unnecessary and dangerous frustration.

Why work for nothing? (4)

Why work for nothing? (4)

The idea of ownership is important to our sense of ourselves. Most of us have at least a few possessions which we feel are really part of us, which somehow help to define us. I have thousands of books, reflecting the development of English literature from Chaucer onwards, most of which I rarely look at, but each one is linked to a moment in my past. Whenever I’ve moved house, getting my books up on shelves has been fairly high on my list of priorities.

And yet things are changing. I used to feel much the same way about my music collection, which includes vinyl and CDs, and I still value those old sleeves and covers as design objects. But the only time I’ve bought a physical CD in recent years is at gigs. Otherwise it’s all been (paid-for) downloads, and at a stroke what was quite an important part of male socialisation (the inspection of the record collection as a ready way to judge someone’s taste and intelligence) has all but disappeared.

Packaged music itself has proved a short-lived phenomenon. Recorded music has only been with us for a hundred years, and slickly packaged good quality recordings for far less than that. Formats have shifted in that time, and it seems that even the desire for ownership itself may be a generational thing: a lot of people now are using streaming services like Spotify as their primary source of music. There’s something grimly ironic about this, because much as though the internet seemed to offer radical disintermediation (that is, connecting creative people directly with their audiences) the only people making money out of Spotify are the service’s owners and the record labels.

This may be a temporary aberration, which will work itself out as musicians renegotiate their terms with their audience. Musicians are fortunate in that they have (just about) alternative sources of income, through playing gigs and perhaps teaching. It may be in the future they will also work out better ways of being paid for recorded music, or it may not. The second half of the twentieth century was a unique period in western culture, when new technologies made the mass distribution and sale of recorded music possible, and with it the possibility of making significant money from your efforts. It might be that we will revert to a situation where you can only get paid for live performance, or through some kind of patronage, as it was in the past. It may be that we have to lose the social mobility that for a few decades was associated with being creative.

The situation is slightly different for writers. It’s true that it’s becoming harder and harder to make much of a living through sales of books, but book sales themselves have not entirely collapsed. The business of publishing is certainly changing, with self-publishing lifting itself from the mire of vanity publishing.

There’s loss and gain here. The changed economics of digital publishing (where there is no marginal cost associated with each ebook produced/sold) means it should be far easier for poets and literary writers to get their work out to what are now niche audiences: they should even expect to keep the greater part of the cover price, so digital publishing offers a viable route to a readership.

The loss is that doing so means joining in the cacophony of stuff out there, with accordingly diminished chances of being heard. Some have expressed concerns too about diminishing quality because traditional publishers imposed an editorial layer before a text saw the light of day, but this is to confuse a relatively simple task with a complex economic structure: there’s no reason why writers cannot themselves seek out editors and work with them before self-publishing, just as there is no reason why the marketing and design services which remain a publisher’s only raison d’etre could not be offered as a standalone and properly costed option.

Before getting too excited about this brave new world we should be concerned that a single commercial entity has become monopolistically dominant. To be fair the deal Amazon offers authors is a pretty good one compared to traditional publishers, and better reflects the vastly lower intermediary cost of publishing electronically.

But there’s plenty to dislike about Amazon’s corporate ethics, to the point where creative people of good will might reasonably not want to contribute to its profits. More directly there’s a twist in the whole concept of ownership: notoriously when Amazon was caught in a copyright dispute people who had bought ebooks in good faith suddenly found they could no longer open them.

Amazon acted to correct what it claimed was a mistake, but there must be an underlying worry that something we’ve come to take for granted as a public property (ie the book format itself) is being privatised, because we will depend on the goodwill of a commercial entity for its continued use (this is directly analogous to the problem with GM foods, discussed in a previous entry in this series).

This worry runs through much of what’s going on as we adjust to the omnipresence of the internet. The UK government recently, rightly, expressed concern that much official information is created and stored in a proprietary document format: Microsoft’s doc or docx. Right now I’m sure Microsoft has no intention of going under or restricting access to those formats (it also moved a few years ago to make the docx format “open”, though no one was really fooled), but we should not be comfortable with this dependence, especially when there is a ready alternative in something called ODF (open document format).

ODF is not only “open source” (in that its code is freely available to other developers) but is managed through an open licence, which means that it’s not owned by anyone. It was created and is maintained by net activists concerned to defend the promise of the internet, its promise to empower us all. It sits at the heart of LibreOffice and OpenOffice, which themselves are created and maintained by a mixture of volunteers and engineering time donated by big sponsors. Many of these people work for free because they believe that activities we once did without proprietary qualm (like writing) should not be tied to any kind of corporate control or interests.

So here’s the paradox. The internet promises to open up everything. It appears to be transferring the power once concentrated in the hands of commercial publishers (who controlled distribution) directly into the hands of artists, writers and musicians, so they can manage a direct relationship with their audiences. But the reality is different.

We’re in danger of becoming more and more dependent on just a few mega platforms: Google, Amazon, Facebook, and perhaps Apple and Microsoft. We’re becoming dependent on them to do amazing things, which is why we have turned to them in the first place, but more worryingly those advanced things have wrapped themselves around more basic things which we also still need to do. The internet seems to be enabling a social new model of connected smaller communities who can share interests and resources, but beneath lie just a few monolithic corporations.

I suggested at the outset that creative people might have to accept the brief period where they could make a reasonable living from publishing or recording has come to an end, and that they would have to look to other means to fund their creative habit (actually poets have been in this position for a long time).

But it’s not as if there is no money going through the system, and all things considered it seems the creative people are getting a raw deal. It’s true that Google has various schemes to share advertising revenue, but it and the other monoliths are sucking up the greater part of it for themselves.

Datacentres and the networks that link them cost money to run and set up, and the corporations who do so can’t be expected to do so for free, but right now the market is not proving effective at bringing forward and rewarding the real creation of value in all this. This big connectivity is in truth a commodity. and though the search or shop software at the front end is important, what gives it real value are the resources or content available through that front end. But this simple truth is being obscured by the general upheaval surrounding the multiple impacts of the internet. We’re all creating stuff for free, and even feeling grateful to the platforms for allowing us to share it so easily, happily letting them make money off our “eyeballs” as advertising targets, and recklessly ceding our privacy in the process.

We need to worry more about this. I don’t doubt the integrity of Google founders Brin and Page with their “don’t be evil mantra”, though more corporate minds like chairman Eric Schmidt’s are not in the same space (which is to say nothing of Amazon’s Jeff Bezos). And that’s the point: ordinary corporate minds would need to evolve before they could be trusted with the role they are taking on.

In the meantime the cracks are beginning to show. As I write the giant France-based publisher Hachette is locked in a dispute with Amazon about discounts and prices. There’s an obvious irony in holding up a traditional publisher as some kind of white knight, but there may be comfort in the implicit assertion of the value of the content over the value of the platform and I really hope Hachette sticks to its guns.

If the internet is to fulfil its true potential for social liberation we need serious commons-minded alternatives to these commercially-driven platforms. There are it’s true many smaller scale publishing sites, for different media, but they seem mostly invisible in the shadow of the monoliths.

All the same, the future might be very different from the way things are now. In a recent address to the RSA Jeremy Rifkin speculated on the possible radical impact of zero marginal costs, 3D printing and home-generated renewable energy. He argues that the non-profit “social commons” already represents over five per cent of GDP in the US, Canada and the UK. It is growing faster than global markets, and it will change everything. He under-describes the economic tensions in that growth but there’s a compelling vision beyond those tensions, a vision of a society transformed by collaboration, sharing and self-production, where money has far less presence and importance (because there is far less scope for corporate profit).

In this model ownership becomes less significant than access. Why own a car if there are better ways to secure efficient convenient personal mobility? This kind of shift would require supportive change across our economy and infrastructure, but then the way we’re managing these things at the moment is literally unsustainable. Perhaps we will get to a future where creativity is better valued among other exchangeable goods, a world where people are no longer working for nothing, but for a sustainable, comfortable and natural common good.

That probably sounds idealistic, but it may yet prove more realistic than a society in which a tiny minority grows rich beyond its spending powers from the unrewarded efforts of the vast majority.

Why work for nothing?

Why work for nothing?

Christopher Hill’s The World Turned Upside Down looked at the radical and free-thinking groups that flourished briefly around the time of the English civil war. Those watching the engaging Channel Four series New Worlds have been asked to think about some of the immediate consequences of that turmoil through the Restoration period, a time more troubled and troubling than the idiotic Govian view of British history would allow, when monarchy was the unabashed figurehead for the tyranny of the wealthy.

The world is on its head again, albeit this time without such violence. We are trying to adjust to the wholesale disruption created by information technology, particularly the internet. That sounds prosaic in contrast to the dreams of the Levellers or the Diggers, but the revolution in progress may prove more enduring.

There is a political dimension even to this bloodless upheaval, not least because in the UK and the US we’ve had to watch an extraordinary widening in the gap between the wealthy and everyone else, a new nakedness in the wealthy’s sense of their entitlement, while the internet conversely promises an unprecedented distribution of potency (if not power) to the mass of the population. It would be foolish to make too much of this just yet (foolish to try to predict the counter forces it could bring into being) but I want to spend some time thinking about some of the underlying cultural changes apparently in progress, and what they could mean for the future (this will probably be spread across several blog entries).

Much of the disruption lies in the fact that what once seemed solid (notably writing whether in books or newspapers, or music in recorded formats) has become disembodied, digitised.

This new ephemerality has in turn stimulated the spread of the “free” internet, where that idea of the free has a double edge: it is liberating, in the way it has allowed us easy and immediate access to much of the world’s knowledge, as well as allowing us to make our own contributions to that knowledge (on platforms like this, without the usually stultifying mediation of a traditional publisher). But of course there is also the other sense of “free”, in the way the internet is habituating us to the idea that we should not be paying for any of this stuff. This brings some obvious problems, because if people won’t pay how are the creators ever going to be rewarded for their efforts? According to expectations established by the end of the last century, without that immediate financial reward the creators will simply stop producing things for us to enjoy.

The truth is less obvious, more complex.

Certainly old production models will have to change, probably beyond recognition. I no longer have a normal TV. Whatever I watch, I watch through a computer, which apart from liberating me from the tyranny of schedulers, until recently offered me the pleasure of ad-free viewing even on commercial channels.

Commercial TV was launched on a kind of contract with the viewer, a contract which is still influential in the digital world. Instead of having to pay to watch, we would sit through ads. In this business model, we the audience actually became the product, our attention the thing that was being sold to paying customers (the advertisers).

In the UK at least the satellite broadcaster Sky first broke this model, charging a (high) monthly subscription and forcing its subscribers to watch even more (and more intrusive) ads than they’d been used to on terrestrial channels. But as the channels multiplied the audience fragmented, and as broadband connectivity brought good quality video to computer screens “traditional” TV viewing has gone into a permanent decline.

The response of the traditional TV companies, like most other pre-digital publishers, has been pathetic, as they attempt to extend their old revenue models to the new media.

I watched the aforementioned New Worlds on 4oD, Channel 4’s catch-up service. Channel 4 has followed ITV (the UK’s main commercial terrestrial broadcaster) in blocking the ad-block software on my browser, so now if I want to watch any of its programming I have to disable the ad block and sit through some crass sales messages.

Isn’t this reasonable? Actually, since I’m not the customer, but the product, it’s just dishonest, because it still doesn’t deliver my “eyeballs” to the advertiser. I wonder what world the channel managers (and their customers) are living in if they don’t understand that watching something on a computer is quite different from lounging passively on a sofa. I still don’t watch the ads; when they come on I simply switch to something more interesting for a few minutes, (the normal internet experience has trained me to flit between content streams or pages) and feel irritated with both broadcaster and any possible advertiser for intruding on whatever dramatic tension the programme might have built up.

I do understand that the broadcaster needs to have some kind of revenue to pay for the programming, but it can’t expect a sustainable revenue stream from this kind of behaviour; it can’t sell a receptive audience to advertisers by creating irritated viewers. The audience “product” needs remodelling, to understand in what circumstances I might be happy to watch a sales pitch for something I probably don’t want or need. It probably means being far more carefully intrusive, perhaps only running ads at the beginning of the programme, and certainly far less frequently through the programme itself (probably just once every 45 minutes). It might mean asking me to log in then using my profile to show me only products or services I’m probably interested in, actually using the differences between internet and traditional broadcasting to create a more compelling offer to advertisers. Someone must be thinking about this stuff, but there’s no sign of it in the way those broadcasters behave.

To be fair I’m not sure many people apart from Google have really cracked how to make advertising work in this new media world (Facebook is clearly making lots of money but its user base remains fragile and vulnerable to fashion change). It may be subscription models and streaming offer a better way forward for many. I’m certainly happy to pay Netflix a few pounds every month as long as there are a few things queued up in my watch list, and to pay Google a streaming rental for new films. Spotify and similar services are fast becoming the commonest way for people to enjoy music, though here there’s a different problem with the music labels grabbing the lion’s share of whatever royalties might be available. Then again this is probably a temporary issue, as artists work out how best to take advantage of the direct access to their audiences offered by digital technology (I can see a future for specialist music marketing services, but certainly not the labels as we have known them).

In future blogs I’ll be looking at further implications for creativity, the individual and the corporate world. For the moment suffice to say that the can is open and the worms wriggling.

Brutal truths

Brutal truths

I caught part of a recent BBC Wales profile of Karl Jenkins, perhaps the most commercially successful “classical” composer of our times. I feel I must put in these inverted commas because the genre is not an easy one to talk about: it denotes broadly a world of virtuosity and rigour, a world of demanding music particularly in its contemporary forms. Jenkins’ music demands the inverted commas because in critical respects it’s not particularly demanding, is in fact resolutely accessible. He has his fans among classical musicians, but I imagine he’s well used to what may seem like an elitist snobbery from his detractors.

When I was a schoolboy I was interested in some of the whackier jazz fusion combos, including Soft Machine. Jenkins replaced the Softs’ sax player Elton Dean in the early 70s, and was important to the band’s evolution, but I always felt he didn’t quite fit, that there was something detached about him. It didn’t come as any great surprise when a few years later he left experimental jazz behind for the lush embrace of advertising soundtracks.

I’m not a fan, but that’s not particularly important. Praising Jenkins on the documentary the ad mogul Sir Peter Hegarty claimed that there was no greatness in making difficult music for an audience of 40 people; that truly creative people absorbed what was going on around them, and redeployed it somehow, in a way that had integrity but could appeal to a mass market (I paraphrase).

I guess it’s no great surprise to hear that coming from an ad man, but it only illustrates how denuded the idea of “creativity” is in the advertising world, which in many ways has shaped our culture, our mainstream sensibilities (entirely to their detriment).

Some great art is popular. Much of it isn’t, because, pace Hegarty, popularity or the lack of it is pretty much irrelevant to the quality of a piece of art.

Advertising requires imagination, and technical skills, but it is never creative in the way good art (let alone great art) must be. That’s because advertising is ALWAYS safe, and has to be, even when it seems to court risk (what it offers is the manner of the risky, but never its substance). Advertising is rooted in cliché, because advertising needs its instant hooks, the easy pull of the familiar; it needs to reassure even when it’s promising adventure. The focus groups wouldn’t have it any other way. Good art on the other hand, however it works, mostly takes us to places we wouldn’t normally go. It unsettles us to move us, not to buy something, but to re-experience in a new light some aspect of what we already have, or give us something perhaps we didn’t know we wanted.

Art and advertising are diametrically opposed. It’s not then surprising that in his recent TV paean to Brutalist architecture the great Jonathan Meades should in passing take a swipe at the stultifying influence of advertising. That said, Meades’ real target as so often was our cultural veneration of mediocrity, the safe, the undemanding. He traced a line from the the perceived grotesquerie of John Vanbrugh, through High Victorian Gothic, to the Brutalist design of the 1960s and 70s (or thereabouts). This, he argued, was an architecture which felt no need to apologise for itself, an architecture of ideas and the imagination, an architecture capable of refashioning the space it occupied. All this sits in contrast to the unassuming orderliness of Georgian building, beloved by the conservative mind, easily harmonious in its proportions, which some would see as elegance or even beauty, but others like Meades would find oppressive in its bourgeois lifelessness.

It would be unwise to argue that a design was good just because it was adventurous, or exciting. It might be these things and still not work, for other reasons. Assertiveness is exhilarating when you have something worth asserting; without it assertiveness is most likely to bring us bathos, or vulgarity.

Brutalism is a misleading term, suggesting something thrustingly hideous, but then what we think of as Brutalism isn’t even a style. Like most architecture it was a response to its times, a determination to find an adequate form for conflicting senses of hope and darkness, those apprehensions themselves born out of a feeling for the blankness of the natural world, the dependence on ourselves to make what meaning we could in our lives, at a time when religious faith appeared to be necessarily collapsing into the confines of the lunatic fringe. In many ways we’re still struggling with these darker apprehensions, all the more so since any optimism bubbling up around our emergence from the Second World War seems to have fallen by the wayside.

Instead we have a society increasingly polarised between the crushing and the crushed, where private and corporate wealth, protected from the consequences of its own grotesque misjudgements by public handouts, now commands shining and vapid temples to itself, the new towers of London evoking not so much awe as the vaingloriousness of San Gimignano’s merchant princes.

Through the ministries of consumerism we’re offered the consolations of constant undemanding distraction, whether through sanitised mysticism, or the forced and prurient excitement of Reality TV (never was a genre more ironically labelled).

That’s not the fault of Karl Jenkins, or any other creative soul working to do something good in these conditions; just because something’s not great doesn’t mean it can’t be good.

Unfortunately the danger seems to be more the other way round; so our apparent desire to shirk the serious or the difficult means we settle for consolation when we could do with confrontation, when we debase our own judgements to claim greatness where there’s only a kind of slavery.

I find advertising almost impossible to watch or read these days, no matter how well-crafted. I find it hard to look beyond the manipulative motives, the unsustainable pointlessness of it all, much as though this is the world in which I make my living. But at least when I’m making my living I know what I’m doing (in every sense); I’d never mistake it for something more important, something enduring. And I hope I’d never mistake the sentimental for the truly sentient, never mistake sensation for sense.

Changing education (part three)

Changing education (part three)

3: How to abolish secondary schools

So far I’ve looked at misguided aims and an increasingly misconceived curriculum. I’ll pick up those threads now to look at how secondary education resources could be better organised to support more flexible and useful learning.

Resources and personalisation

Usually within a local authority there might be half a dozen secondary schools (more or less), each with its own version of a library, science labs, sports facilities and so on. Not only does this look like an inefficient replication of resources but it also ensures that the quality of those resources will be diluted.

Worse still, given the limits of available funding, it means that the study options available to students will be limited by the particular decisions of the governing board. Tony Blair encouraged schools to make a virtue of this limitation by giving them financial incentives to become specialised, but the resulting divergence was superficial and the mechanisms of parental choice were never going to function properly. Schools themselves have tried to alleviate the situation, particularly at sixth form, by linking up with other schools to broaden their curriculum offer, but this too is a half-baked solution.

In most authorities, the assumption is that children will go to their local school, but in practice the allocation of places is messier and not least has given us the phenomenon of selection by postcode (where parents jostle to buy their homes in the catchment areas of higher performing schools, pushing up house prices and so perpetuating the deep class bias in English education).

This is all the more frustrating because technology has transformed the significance of geography in many areas of our lives (we can do so much over the internet, from research to video conferencing) and yet has hardly touched education. School is still a building you go to, an institution which as an institution will quickly acquire its own priorities, rules and culture. It’s become imperative to clear away these barriers.

I want to put the idea of personalised learning in its rightful place, in the light of what technology can do now. There is no point whatsoever in pushing children (or young adults) into classes where they have no interest in the subject and do not understand the value of being there. It’s hardly surprising that they then fail to learn anything. I believe that learners from the age of 12 should have the ability to construct their own curriculum, choosing the subjects they see as relevant to them at each given stage in their development. And unlike the current system I want to build in the flexibility which recognises the obvious truth that we mature at different speeds, so that something which seemed irrelevant at 12 but which suddenly seems compelling at 15 is not blocked by a decision we made three years earlier.

In each local authority area we should stop replicating resources. Instead of schools we should have a group of defined faculties (much like a university). So each area should maintain a science and maths centre, a humanities centre, a performing arts centre, a sports centre, a a language centre, a design and engineering centre, and so on. These centres should be as close to each other as possible, and as close to the centre of town as possible, and could be integrated with local resources like libraries and museums. They should be available to adult learners as well as teenagers, probably taking the place of FE colleges. Within the various faculties then there would be need to be provision for the kind of vocational options usually covered by FE colleges though now being picked up by some schools.

Indeed one of the prime benefits of doing things this way is that it would remove the stupid anti-technical/vocational bias that we have built into our educational system. It means recognising that you don’t need an academic degree in nursing to be a good nurse, and that instead of pushing people into expensive and misguided higher education courses we should be supporting more flexible combinations of academic and technical paths that do not denigrate the value of either.

Clearly few learners at 12 will have the maturity to pick their way through these different open choices on their own. This concept would be founded on a system of personal tutors, whose task was to understand individual learners’ needs and interests, and guide them through their options, to monitor their progress and encourage them to follow whatever options looked most promising for them.

Part of these tutors’ responsibilities would be to ensure that there was some breadth in each student’s work programme. For academic students this might not look so different from current arrangements, apart from the fundamental shift towards a personal development plan (managed through the personal learning space on the “learning platform” intranets that are already supposed to exist in every secondary school).

For more vocationally inclined students their vocational study (for instance in car mechanics, childcare or hairdressing) could be set as a goal for their learning, with specific skills teaching introduced at fifteen or sixteen. Before that age the ground could be prepared by imaginative teaching of more advanced (but perceptibly relevant) functional skills as well as tailored approaches to mainstream subjects: you can teach quite a lot about history or geography by the looking at the development of fashion, or transport; you need to have some understanding of chemistry, biology, and the arithmetic of ratios to use hair dyes well. Those teaching the vocational subjects could work closely with colleagues in the academic faculties to design and develop these modules.

This “non-curriculum” would indeed be far more modular than current practice, giving students the option to move in straight lines or to cut sideways and diagonally, exposing them to new areas of knowledge and letting them pursue things in greater depth when they want to. Practically there would need to be some structure. Modules might be project based and designed to last for a manageable period (six weeks perhaps). Students’ progress in each assignment would need to be visible to subject and personal tutors, who would help those students plot the most fruitful path forward. Within those options there should be some presumption that every student should be encouraged to investigate at least one creative activity (perhaps painting, dance, or drama) and probably some kind of physical exercise. These creative activities should be positioned as core subjects, not optional extras.

Or perhaps for the first two years of this phase students would be encouraged to explore as wide a range of possibilities as feasible, rather like a foundation year at art college, and then for the next two years start narrowing their choices according to the interest or abilities they are discovering in themselves. They might spend their final two years with a sixth-form like specialisation, though I’d like to think that there would still be the flexibility to shift between areas of study if necessary and pursue other learning topics simply as matters of interest.

In this steady narrowing of focus these ideas may seem to come closer to current practice, but there’s a very different ambition underpinning what’s being proposed here. There’s no great value in seeking to inculcate any particular set of “facts” even through the secondary education phase. It’s a given that the system needs to nurture basic functional skills, but beyond this the underlying objective is to give learners a foundational sense of how the world is, what knowledge is “out there” and how they can take that information and deploy it through the evolving needs of their lives. It’s about nurturing the natural enthusiasm for learning carried by every infant, inspiring and exciting the continuing thirst for knowledge. It’s about laying firmer foundations for lifetime learning, which is what we need as individuals as well as in the changing world of work. It’s about placing this idealism at the heart of education, because without it we have the reactionary factories that are busily destroying our capacity to develop knowledge.

I don’t underestimate the practical challenges, not least around timetabling, although those challenges could be significantly eased by an effective use of technology. Much of the required tuition could be delivered online, with students having some flexibility about when and where they worked. Apart from anything else this would be a necessary introduction to the reality of assessment by output rather than presence, a lesson that needs to be learned for the coming world of work. I recognise too the importance of sustaining social interaction. This could be achieved partly through the pastoral organisation surrounding the personal tutors, partly through an emphasis in many projects on collaborative work: this would have an obvious pertinence in creative activities like performing arts, but could be successfully applied to field trips and lab work.

Another element here is the importance of working with the grain of the way young people already live and function, because if we don’t do this we can hardly be surprised if they see what’s on offer in school as irrelevant and out of touch with the real world. Only if we work with this grain can we hope to help young people discern when best to work through a screen, and when best to turn to the living world.

Part four

Changing education (part one)

Changing education (part one)

1: Systemic failure

I think it’s time to abolish secondary schools.

This is a longish piece, so I’ve broken it into four parts, but they should be taken together.

What follows is a vision, a challenge to prevailing assumptions, rather than a blueprint for a changed system: much would have to be worked out, and maybe the real solution would look quite different. All the same we need some truly radical, scary ideas, when the poverty of thinking about education from successive governments is causing untold damage.

I should also stress that I’m thinking about conditions here in England. These ideas may have value in other countries, other systems, (not least the rest of the UK) but I’m in no place to comment on those other countries.

Let’s start with the systemic failure of what we have. Nothing I’m going to say should be scarier than the fact that even by the government’s own measures, at least 40 per cent of young people are getting more or less nothing from secondary school. Where I live in Kent, and where we have selective education, the figures in many schools are significantly worse. Successive governments seem to think this is down to poor teaching. I’m sure there is some poor teaching, but failure on such a scale suggests a deeper problem. It suggests we should be asking ourselves more searching questions about what we’re trying to achieve, and how we’re going to do it.

And yet we routinely accept this failure rate as if it was somehow a feature of the system, as if it was acceptable that nearly half of our children flounder in institutions that mean nothing to them, and which can give them nothing as a result. We routinely see this floundering as a reflection of those children’s failures as human beings, when in truth it’s an increasingly dangerous failure of the political elite to grasp what’s going on in front of them.

Meanwhile information technology is transforming practically every aspect of our lives, and yet it has barely touched our thinking about education. Yes, most schools now have whiteboards rather than blackboards, but it’s not really about hardware or software: it’s about how this technology can and should change our ideas about what we’re doing in school. In the vast majority of schools, technology is being used as a tool to support existing practices, practices which are looking increasingly irrelevant to conditions outside education.

Post-industrial education

In a memorable TED talk Sir Ken Robinson skewered the hopelessness of pursuing an industrial model of education in our post-industrial world. Successive governments have resolutely ignored him, pursuing policies that far from improving the competitiveness of the English workforce (their stated ambition) will have the opposite effect. I’m going to follow Sir Ken in saying that we need a post-industrial model that nurtures imagination, flexibility, and (in broad terms) creativity. We need this partly for economic success, partly because a sustainable economy itself demands the general well-being that such a transformed educational system would promote.

Instead we are enforcing an increasingly narrow curriculum, and defining success in matching (ie inadequate and narrow) academic terms.

I am not against academic excellence. Indeed I’d want to ensure that the relatively small proportion of the population whose brains work that way (I’m in that group) still get the opportunities and support they need to develop their particular intellectual skills. I also want to ensure that we become much better at identifying who those people are, because right now we’re pretty useless at it, with parental circumstance being by far the biggest determinant of the opportunities a child is likely to have, regardless of that child’s real abilities. Not only does this seem unfair. It’s a dreadful waste of ability.

Comprehensive schools were a laudable attempt to address this class bias, but that idealism has been undermined by politicians (usually privately-educated themselves) losing faith as well as “selection by postcode”. If you want to avoid the latter bias you’ll need to make location irrelevant (and IT can really help here).

In any case nurturing this academic excellence is only a fraction of what secondary education could and should be doing. Nor does it reflect what the world of work actually needs from young people. Worse still, its single-minded pursuit creates a false and destructive self-perception of failure and worthlessness.

Ken Robinson has argued that our current system crushes the natural curiosity and imagination of children. But if you crush those qualities how can you be surprised when significant numbers of those children decide that learning is for other people?

There’s another implicit problem. While it’s broadly true that schools have been organised around an industrial metaphor, to serve an industrial world, those schools (and the industries they imagine) have also followed a military metaphor. Traditionalists argue that schools need discipline, and that a general failure of discipline has undermined teaching. I’m sure you can’t teach effectively if a class is in chaos, but the chaos is rooted not in lack of self-discipline, but in lack of interest.

Significantly too a superficial notion of discipline is misplaced because it is explicitly designed to suppress individuality and thoughtfulness (the unreflective insistence on the value of school uniform is a sure sign of this approach). This is where the military metaphor intrudes. It’s certainly appropriate in the military that a body of soldiers should have its collective will broken like this: you need those soldiers to behave in a machine-like way if they are going to kill people without having a breakdown. Business too in the past has aspired to a machine-like condition, and in many ways still struggles to relinquish its command-and-control cultures.

But current management theory generally demands that it does just that. You can’t have a command-and-control culture and at the same time demand creativity and flexibility from your staff, so businesses are slowly changing, becoming less hierarchical, aiming to manage by output rather than chaining people to their desks. The role of the manager is also changing (again this is a frustratingly slow and uneven process but it is happening because of the nature of the tasks we need to fulfil): managers used to be primarily gatekeepers of knowledge, but information technology has made that role irrelevant. Managers continue to set direction and tasks, but they also need to ensure that those performing the tasks (at every level) have the tools and resources they need to do them properly, and because conditions change so quickly this demands constant attention.

In this respect management is becoming a support function.

This shift seems to have gone largely unnoticed by those currently shaping education. If anything the clock is being turned back to try to live up to a myth of lost academic excellence, which even if it was achievable would fail the economic imperatives apparently driving it, to say nothing of a broader vision of what education can and should be.

Against this background we need to make some radical changes, the subject of subsequent entries.

Part two