Imagine and live

A blog about education, public policy and all things related

The big freeze? Energy prices and the public interest

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I am uncomfortable with Ed Miliband’s idea of a freeze in energy prices.  Not because I don’t want the cost of energy to be reined in – my combi boiler broke down last week, so any price relief is welcome right now.  I’m uncomfortable because price controls are merely a sticking plaster.  They divert attention away from the real problem, which is the way we address energy infrastructure in this country.

At the core of the problem is the relationship between large private companies and society at large.  A purely capitalist perspective might say that the prices set by companies are a reflection of the market.  Companies must abide by the law, but that is pretty much the extent of the relationship between state and business.  Thus, if we want to bring down prices, then companies need to have a much easier ride in terms of regulations, standards and so forth.

But is there more to it than that?

The American political theorist John Dewey explored this very idea in his 1926 classic “The Public and its Problems”.  He argued that the critical thing is not whether an organisation is owned by the state or private investors, or whether its activities are conducted in the public realm or behind closed doors.  What really matters is the consequences of the organisation’s actions.  He writes:

“…the line between private and public is to be drawn on the basis of the extent and scope of the consequences of acts which are so important as to need control…” (p.15)

And that:

“The lasting, extensive and serious consequences of associated activity bring into existence a public.” (p.67)

So if the actions of a private company have widespread impact on society at large, then that private company effectively becomes public.  There is a legitimate public interest in its activities.  This provides a fairly simple justification for state regulation of certain business activities; the state is the collective representative of the people, and therefore has a responsibility to promote and protect the public interest.

I argue that there is more to it.  If a large, influential private sector organisation’s activities are consequential enough to create a legitimate public interest, then that also places a responsibility on the private business.  In this case, the energy companies are, by virtue of their large-scale and impactful activities, in an unbreakable association with the public.

Energy companies provide an essential service to the vast majority of society, including other private businesses.  The consequences of them failing to conduct their normal activities would be catastrophic.  This confers upon them a moral duty to place the interest of society at the top of their agendas.

What this calls for is a government policy that reconstructs the moral relationship between state and private enterprise.  Only a constructive process of dialogue can achieve this.  Confrontational blustering by Ed Miliband to please the Daily Mirror is no way to advance the public interest.


Dewey, J. (1926) The public and its problems, London: Allen and Unwin

Written by Michael Hall

October 4, 2013 at 2:43 pm

One nation? The difference between citizenship and nationality

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The BBC’s Tom Geoghegan has published a thoughtful piece on the number of American expatriates giving up their citizenship in response to US tax regulations.

What is particularly interesting is the case of “Bridget”, who has lived in Scandinavia since 1979.  In her case, the decision to give up citizenship was due to the complexity of compliance with US regulations.

However, it highlights an interesting concept: the difference between nationality and citizenship.  How could someone give up their US citizenship and still remain, in their minds, American?

If we think of citizenship and national identity as synonymous, then they clearly cannot.  Surrender your passport and you surrender your national identity.

Yet if we think of nationality as being an ethnic and cultural concept, as opposed to a political or administrative one, then it starts to make sense.  Our identities are then formed through conscious reflection on our life experiences.

In mainland UK this is not a new concept.  The re-emergence of Scottish and Welsh nationality in the post-war years has led to a distinction between being British – as our passports say – and our personal national identities.  Indeed, the 2011 census revealed that 62% of people living in Scotland described themselves as “Scottish only”.

Perhaps, in a more globalised world, this makes the concept of the “nation state” less relevant – or, at least, less clearly defined.  It poses a fundamental question about group identity.  When it comes to political allegiances, is it possible to feel committed to more than one group?  And how useful are concepts of nationality in categorising the population and making policy decisions?

It certainly presents a challenge for anyone campaigning on a “one nation” agenda; when there are so many individual conceptions of “nation” in the popular consciousness, one must look to other ideas upon which to convey a sense of cohesiveness.

Written by Michael Hall

September 27, 2013 at 11:25 am

School places: subsidies for prep schools are no solution

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The Association of Prep Schools has proposed that the government’s Tax-free Childcare scheme could be adapted to cover school fees.  This, they argue, could be a partial solution to a predicted shortfall in school places.

Predictably, this has been criticised as an opportunistic move by the Campaign for State Education, as well as being inadequate to address the scale of the problem.  Yet there are other, more compelling, reasons why state subsidies for private education may not be desirable:

1. State subsidies blur the distinction between the public and the private.  While this is not necessarily a bad thing in itself, if not handled correctly then we may end up with an entire section of publicly-funded education outside of the reach of public accountability.

2. At the other extreme, the erosion of the public-private distinction might result in the character of “good” independent schools being compromised through assimilation into the system of public accountability.  The diversity of educational provision may end up being constrained by a state-driven culture of compliance.

3. At a values level, state education is driven by ideas of common access, common entitlement to learning and a level playing field.  If part of the state education system is in effect contracted out, how would these core values be defended?  Who would ensure that the entitlements of children are truly being met?  This may require the creation of a new management structure within local authorities or the Department for Education with its associated costs.

4. Given the challenges that the government has faced over rail franchising, a robust system of ensuring value for money would be required when assessing whether subsidies could be given to private schools.  However, the stakes are arguably higher in education than in rail transport.  Failure to make the right decisions during the early years of children’s education may have repercussions throughout their lives.

5. Even assuming that all of these challenges could be met, introducing private providers to the state system in essence changes the competitive dynamic.  What would happen, for example, if some parents are granted the opportunity to send their children to what they perceive to be a more attractive prep school, yet others are denied that opportunity?  This would undoubtedly create potential for tension and conflict.

These five points begin to illustrate the complexity of introducing a mixed private-public marketplace, particularly for something as socially crucial as education.  Lest we forget, the former Nursery Vouchers scheme was scrapped in the wake of the 1997 general election; the Labour Party had criticised the scheme for introducing administrative costs without creating new nursery places.

In short, adopting a policy such as this might end up being more trouble and costing more than it is worth.  And when the ultimate cost is the quality of our children’s education, all the more reason to be sceptical.

Written by Michael Hall

September 24, 2013 at 2:42 pm

Is business at risk from a pro-business education policy?

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The employability of graduates and school leavers has become one of the dominant discourses of education policy.  The skills and capabilities of graduates, and the production of knowledge, are held to be central to the UK’s economic competitiveness.

This has been a key justification for government interventions into the education sector, from James Callaghan’s “great debate”, through to the National Curriculum and countless white papers and reforms.  Central to much of this has been a desire to more closely align education provision with the demands of employers, in response to supposed market failures.

Yet is this ostensibly business-centric approach actually a danger to the ability of the business community to satisfy its skills needs?

Boden and Nedeva argue that three things have happened:

  1. Government policy has replaced labour market relations as the moderating influence in the relationship between education and employers.
  2. “Employability” has shifted from being a measure of what the market wants to the sum total of personal qualities held by individual graduates.
  3. Education providers – particularly universities – have come under increasing pressure to turn their provision into regularised, measurable commodities.

Why might this be bad for business?  Let’s start with the first argument.  Government policy exists to address perceived market failings; it is assumed that the labour market is not sending the right signals to the education sector.  What this means is that “good” outcomes are now defined according to a narrow, subjective and specific assessment made by policymakers.  Usually this assessment is informed by consultation with business.

But – given that there were an estimated 4.8 million private businesses in the UK at the start of 2012 – this consultation is unlikely to be representative of the vast diversity of businesses and their particular needs.  Thus, what happens is that a small number of higher-profile business figures – the James Dysons and Richard Bransons of this world – get to set the agenda. Policy is built around ideas that can be condensed into media-friendly terms: entrepreneurialism, high-tech manufacturing, creative industries and so forth.

As a business owner, if your needs are neither commonplace nor glamorous, your voice is unlikely to be heard as readily at the top of government.  In fact, your activities and demands are likely to be held as second-order.

The second argument is that “employability” has now become personal rather than contextual.  What this means is that responsibility for success or failure in the labour market is purely the responsibility of the individual.  This leads to policy responses that focus on the individual: an academic curriculum, testing, standards, expectations.  Everyone is viewed through the same lens; local differences become irrelevant.  This also limits the diversity of business needs that can be addressed, since the local context is no longer relevant.

Thirdly, education providers are now under pressure to produce employer-relevant content.  Again, this is largely reduced to the transmission of generic work-related skills according to a central ideology, without reference to the diversity of business requirements.  Some educational providers, such as elite universities, have the reputational capital to resist such instrumental agendas; their graduates continue to be sought-after because of the quality of their intakes and their teaching and learning.  Other institutions, by contrast, become reliant on this instrumental work-skills agenda, which is inevitably derived from a simple, common idea of what employability means.

So can a pro-business education policy put businesses at risk?  Yes, if the dynamic local relations between employers and education providers are replaced by a centralised, simplified, sound-bite vision of what success looks like.  Businesses and education providers can find themselves heavily stratified; A-list business leaders set the direction from their own perspectives, while the bulk of the economy loses its voice.

However, Boden and Nedeva’s analysis gives clues to an alternative approach.  Education and employability policy grounded in local-scal relations between employers and education providers, where government focuses on facilitating thousands of relationships rather than promoting headline ambitions, must offer a better proposition for meeting the needs of a diverse economy.  Not everyone will have access to the same opportunities, but then again not every opportunity will exist in an ideological hierarchy.  Perhaps we will end up less London-centric than at present.

Localism, in this sense, is the courage to let a thousand ideals of employability develop.


Boden, R and Nedeva, M (2010) ‘Employing discourse: universities and graduate ’employability”, Journal of Education Policy, 25(1), pp.37-54


Written by Michael Hall

September 22, 2013 at 3:31 pm

The clash of equalities

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Equality in education is not a straightforward topic.  I estimate that there are five types of equality at play in the context of education, and I will try to summarise them as succinctly as I can.  These are:

  • Equality of access: all learners have access to the same institutions and/or content on the basis of the same criteria (the criteria determine just how equal this access is).
  • Equality of conditions: all other things being equal, the degree to which learning environments of equal status exhibit the same characteristics.
  • Equality of treatment: the degree to which all learners are afforded the same status, dignity and responses, given the same behaviours.
  • Equality of expectations: the degree to which all learners are expected to achieve, or aspire to achieve, the same standards or outcomes.
  • Equality of outcomes: the degree to which the outcomes experienced by each individual learner are similar.

This is a rather imperfect attempt to describe the five equalities, but they suffice to start the argument.

Our education system demonstrates an interplay of these forms of equality. Comprehensive schools are built on the idea of equality of access, and to a lesser extent equality of conditions and equality of treatment.  The National Curriculum exemplifies equality of expectations, based around equal access to the same content.  Our analysis of school effectiveness, by contrast, is often grounded in equality of outcomes: exam results, Ofsted inspections and so forth.

The challenge comes when these equalities, worthy as they may be on their own terms, overlap and conflict with each other.  The National Curriculum is supposed to guarantee a minimum entitlement of access to knowledge, but if not taught in a differentiated way then the equality of outcomes is jeopardised – as is equality of access to the knowledge itself.

Equality of expectations assumes that all learners are fundamentally the same, but this can result in undue pressure to achieve being placed on individuals, potentially negating the equality of dignified treatment.  Likewise, the pursuit of equality of outcomes can result in a reduction to the lowest common denominator and the devaluing of diversity and personal interest.

The clashing of equalities should cause us to reflect on what it is we choose to value as the outcomes of education – whether we want a set of outcomes that is diverse and vibrant, yet complex and opaque, or whether we value the simplicity of being able to judge all learners against a common standard.

It also calls on us to ask whether the standards we set as a benchmark should be universal or adaptive – is the objective to drive learners towards a common goal, or to enable all learners to move forwards in meaningful and rewarding ways?

These are not simple questions, and they are unlikely to be answerable once and for all.  But they must be constantly engaged with and reflected upon in order to ensure that individual learners do not become lost in a tempest of values and expectations, unable to orient themselves and find personal affirmation.


Written by Michael Hall

August 15, 2013 at 5:29 pm

Educating for the flexible future

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The job-for-life, so we keep hearing, is gone.  The future of work is going to be more flexible, less rigid, less prescriptive.  Change will be the watchword.

The most innovative and impactful ideas in business today are not coming from the major corporations, but from enthusiastic individuals with an idea and a vision.

Even some of today’s most established names in business and culture originated as a bright idea of some innovative and passionate individual – think Bose, Microsoft and Starbucks. 

And the regimented, nine-to-five office experience is giving way to a coffee shop-driven creativity.  The traditional office is now coming to be viewed as a creativity killer.  Chris Ward’s excellent part-memoir, part-blog Out of Office is testament to the non-essential nature of the office environment.

Yet if this is true, why do we continue to educate our children as if this flexible, creative world did not exist?

Our traditional educational mindset is built around a simple idea: equip all children with a set of skills and knowledge that is calculated to meet some perceived aggregated needs of the economy of the day.

This rigid, curriculum-driven approach then becomes conflated with ideas such as accountability, rigour, standards, achievement, and access for all.  Thus, to challenge the traditional core becomes something unthinkable, morally repugnant, even damaging to global competitiveness.

But by reducing education to the frantic acquisition of knowledge and skills, we are forgetting that the real driving force of business is enthusiasm.  In other words, we are preparing children not for a passionate engagement with ideas, but for a transactional relationship with a manager.

We are educating for a population of also-rans, the cubicle dwellers lampooned by Scott Adams in the Dilbert series.

Sure, not every child is going to grow up to be the one with the bright idea and the energy to bring it to market.  But everyone can find an idea with which one can engage and empathise on a personal level, be it high-end hifi or industrial plastics.  Everyone should be able to find a place where they feel a personal connection with the activities they undertake.

So what might an education system that fosters personal passion and creativity look like?  Firstly, it means abandoning the myth that every child can emerge from formal education looking more-or-less the same.  That mindset is about shoehorning knowledge into brains, rather than the building of personality or character.

Secondly, it means placing more emphasis on the pursuit of interests than the acquisition of qualifications.  Success would not be measured by the number of STEM graduates emerging, for instance, but by the engaged and constructive contributions that each individual is able to make.

Thirdly, it means a reconfiguring of the very mission of education.  Education would no longer be there to supply raw materials to the economy in the form of educated young people.  Instead, it would supply the catalysts for change – motivated people of any age with the passion and enthusiasm to engage with the working world.

The flexible future requires the production not of human capital, but of passionate people.  This is the fundamental requirement.  Skills, knowledge and capability will be forged as a secondary outcome, fuelled by a desire to engage and to be involved.

Written by Michael Hall

August 2, 2013 at 12:25 pm

From RE to philosophy: a more morally engaging education?

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Philosophy is one of the most wonderful embodiments of human culture.  For centuries, we humans have strived to make sense of the complex and challenging world in which we live.  The wealth of ideas and structures that have emerged enshrine many eloquent guides to the choices we make in life – as well as some utterly loopy and downright dangerous ones.

It is a shame, then, that so much of this rich moral and intellectual heritage is not offered to our children, either within school or without.  Instead, certain forms of philosophy are given a privileged position in our schools, and this privilege is enshrined in law.

Learning about the world’s major religions is important, if only to promote understanding and tolerance of differing life philosophies.  Yet treating religion as something special in its own right makes no sense unless viewed through the lens of tradition and vested interests.  Religious movements have traditionally held a powerful influence within communities, and this influence is what is protected in the legislation.

Of course, principled choices must be made as to what is taught in schools.  There is only so much teaching time available, and lots of possibilities.  But to prioritise religion to the exclusion of other human philosophies is flawed for a number of reasons.

Firstly, it prevents children coming into contact with alternative viewpoints, particularly those that lack the sort of robust political institutions that are enjoyed by major religions.  Not all Standing Advisory Committees on Religious Education encompass non-religious perspectives, for instance.

Secondly, it risks a reduction of religious education to an “acts-and-facts” approach, with only a surface treatment of the fundamental moral structures and values.  Engagement with the philosophical basis of a religion is as important to understanding its relationship with society as understanding its historical development.

Thirdly, a policy that serves to defend the local status quo is unlikely to be progressive.  Without being open to new ideas and responsive to societal change, religious education is likely to become more and more irrelevant.

At worst, we risk failing to equip our children to critically engage with crucial questions of culture, values and morality.  This can leave them vulnerable to uncritical acceptance or rejection of religion, with all the consequences this has for community relations, tolerance and understanding.

Some schools have taken up the challenge of bridging the new and the existing.  Andrew Jones explains how he and his school rebranded RE as “philosophy and ethics”, a neat move that allows the introduction of new material alongside the current agreed syllabus.  This has value as a transitional step, a way of changing the discourse by degrees.

My suggestion would be to go further.  Schools should separate the current concept of RE into two subjects: the history of religion, and human philosophy.  History of religion would encompass the factual and cultural dimension of the world’s religions, with a particular emphasis on those religions with a strong local presence.  Human philosophy would be the space in which the ideas of philosophy can be engaged with, considered and debated.

The outcome would be to create what Cardinal Newman called the “philosophical habit” in our young people.  Perhaps this would lead to more conscious and critical engagement with moral and religious ideas and values in general.

Written by Michael Hall

July 26, 2013 at 12:55 pm