Our degrees of chicken or egg…

Which came first, the Chicken or the Egg?
Tacuina Sanitatis

Today I had Some Thoughts Concerning Educationas ever these were influenced by others (the academic thought process) but conversely, unlike the 1693 treatise on the subject written by the English philosopher John Locke, I have no expectation of them becoming a major philosophical work on education in England.

Unlike many today, I don’t presume to academic adulation, or harbour any desire to be placed upon a pedestal of philosophical or professorial excellence. Despite having attended a good school and (eventually) the Open University, most (but not all) of my qualifications have been earned from the School of Hard Knocks and the University of Life.

The idiomatic phrases (above) highlight how there are many ways we can receive an ‘education’ during our lifetime, not all of them require you to sit through lectures. The idiom of the descriptive also happens to be a route cause of its condemnation by so many. However, an often unseen consequence of decrying the value of this alternate education process, has a tendency towards the creation of employment elitism.

For generations now, our historical educational process has revolved (almost exclusively) arround formal academia however, perhaps we finally need to change that ethos? Could the academic pains of a modern-day formal education, no less painful than learning from life’s usually negative experiences, dictate changes to how we value and quantify intellectual and educational ability?

Our education is a process very reminiscent of the classical academic conundrum, one that has rumbled around academia since Aristotle…”Which came first, the chicken or the egg?”  A literal answer may be obvious however, metaphorically speaking, an answer is somewhat more difficult to achieve. To better understand its metaphorical meaning, the question could be reformulated as: “Which came first, X that can’t come without Y, or Y that can’t come without X?” Confused yet? No? I’m already getting there but I’ll carry on.

The conundrum is in fact a circular reference calculation, one that could be considered as a major equation of state, an example would be; for a given amount of substance contained in a system, the temperature, volume, and pressure are not independent quantities; they are connected by a relationship of the general form:

{\ f(p,V,T) = 0}.

Cultural references to the chicken and egg intend to point out the futility of identifying the first case of a circular cause and consequence. My educational theoretical equation looks something like this; C(k x e)=V or perhaps, V(k x e)=C where ‘C’ = Capability, ‘k’ = Knowledge, ‘e’ = Education and ‘V’ = Value. Now let’s move quickly away from theory, mathematics and calculus, which were never my strong points, and examine some realities.

This week many kids have finished the initial stages of their formal education process and are (possibly) looking towards the next stage. However, the A-Level results earlier in the month and now the GCSE results published this week, have all served to load the cannons of a (wholly expected) broadside of media comment and opinion on testing in schools, within the wider context of our UK education system.

OK, so this point in the educational calendar is probably the most critical and life changing period in any young persons lifetime of learning (thus far). However, given that fact, it’s hardly surprising we see such an annual pilgrimage to the level of furore and debate that usually accompanies it.

Partly because of this, it is also usually the anniversary of me being engulfed in yet another grey cloud of social despair. A set of circumstances that often drives me towards that same conclusion of thought… Here we go again – what’s the bloody point and if there actually was one, why the hell haven’t we seen some change or done something about it? As usual, it’s all about the politics economics and silly statistics of the situation!

The whole malaise surrounding our current education system begins with primary school testing and achievements. Here lands the first of many chicken & egg analogies on our farm… Which comes first, a child’s education or education of the child? Two wholly linked but totally differing processes!

Returning briefly to Locke; despite modern-day critics who question class and gender issues in his work (and mostly irrelevant at the time), many of his observations actually formulated much of our early schooling process. In addition to the pedagogical theory, Locke also advised parents ‘to carefully nurture their children’s physical “habits” before pursuing their academic education’.  The passage of change in our educational theory and methodology has been myriad however; applying that great British skill of hindsight and in my opinion,  much of it appears to me as having proved detrimental to the overall process.

Almost from the word go it appears, we have conditioned our children into believing life is almost exclusively about attaining academic qualifications, SATS (Standard Assessment Tests) being a case in point.

…teachers are afraid of teaching imaginatively or making mistakes…The root problem is that schools should be educating the whole child, not just instructing them for tests – Dr Anthony Seldon

We continue through both primary and secondary education simply teaching them how to obtain those certificates. Instruction on how to pass, as opposed to imparting knowledge for the student to subtract and select that which they feel appropriate. In a way this is little more than learning by rote, a methodology that was mostly removed several decades ago. We had a move towards that ideal of more adult learning, whereby the student is encouraged to question and formulate opinion. If that was the actual aim, why then do we proceed to teach how to pass, as opposed how to learn?

When we feel unable to draw conclusions to problems our small island has a tendancy to look abroad for answers and solutions. On drawing the correct lessons from abroad Seldon said;

…students may be excellent on paper, but are low on imaginative and creative thinking, and are deficient in problem-solving and collaborative skills – Dr Anthony Seldon

At this point, and due to the high risk of raised blood pressure, I will refrain from any further observation upon early child development… I’m not sufficiently conversant with all the issues in this are, unlike my friend who clearly is. I can already hear the rattle of keys as my social sparing partner (and drinking buddy at the office), cranks up the steam on his laptop! No, ‘Rab’ and others will undoubtedly have more succinct and ‘expert’ views on early education than I.

Christine Blower (one of the ‘experts’), the general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, has been critical of the direction being taken by our government on education (see here). Additionally another ‘expert’, Chris Keates, general secretary of the NASUWT teaching union said there had been a “betrayal” of our young people…

In just over 12 months, this government has stripped away many of the opportunities available. Apprenticeships have been slashed, financial support axed through the abolition of the education maintenance allowance, youth unemployment has soared and university places cut. The coalition has ripped up the social contract between the state and young people…(politics.co.uk)

I suspect an element of political and/or personal alternative agenda creeping in here however, the content of the subject matter is wholly relevant. I personally have no political or professional connection with the secondary education process. But like many, I remain mostly sceptical about a system which (supposedly) achieves better results year on year, for upwards of twenty years or more? In countering the claims of mostly suspect statistics of high achievement…

Britain badly needs an overhaul of its outdated school exams. All of these new exams would be based on problem-solving, and application of knowledge to fresh problems, rather than mindless repetition of pre-learned answers – Dr Anthony Seldon 

Undoubtedly my cynicism stems from personal experiences of how statistical information is utilised, especially within the government and public sector organisations. Data that is so often skewed and/or manipulated to quantify political agenda that consequently, it is mostly unreliable as evidence of fact. Why therefore would our education system be any different?

Our nation’s media machine has recently trumpeted the following headlines from the rooftops… The rate of A-level passes has again put pressure on university places. Apparently NI A-level students are the best in UK however there was a Drop in top A-level passes in Wales but the Scots exam passes hit a record high and consequently as a nation, record numbers have ‘raced’ for places via University clearing.

On top of all the excitement as thousands of students were celebrating, the UCAS website had to be ‘taken down’ temporarily as it was “unable to handle the volume of people trying to log on”. At this juncture we have my next example of the chicken & egg conundrum – university education – which comes first, higher education or work/life experience?

Traditionally, and despite the options available to 14-19 year olds, further education has been a mostly automatic next step up the intellectual limbs of life’s learning tree. For many, except those taking the now fashionable gap-year foray into the wide world outside of academia, seeking work is not usually an option. At least not until they reach 25+yrs and only then, if the salary is sufficiently exorbitant. If for no reason other than the availability problems highlighted above, perhaps it’s now time to revisit this previously accepted tradition?

Recently we have heard how the government wants to “encourage more market forces” in higher education by “promoting consumer choice”, thereby making universities more “accountable to students” who pay higher fees (see University White Paper)… Obviously students weren’t happy about the proposals, as the president of the Oxford Student Union pointed out…

Dressing up the White Paper with the language of student choice is like putting lipstick on a pig… Education is not a commodity to be bought and sold – David Barclay (OUSU)

In theory and like many others, I would probably have to agree with that sentiment however; isn’t that what it is now, simply ‘sentimental’? Here we have yet another form of chicken & egg type issue – exam result standards as they relate to university places. As students achieve better results their university choice increases however, universities become more selective and more students are ultimately disappointed. That said, even if the factors were reversed, similar issues would exist.

Even the much acclaimed, highly praised and newly available International Baccalaureate Diploma qualification, designed to combat many of the issues surrounding our current system, appears not to be without its own major difficulties (independent.co.uk).

In our predominant culture of ‘expectation’ we have been continually brainwashed into believing we have a right to anything and everything we want, in many respects, a university education is no different. Much of our youth, mostly encouraged by forceful and overtly expectant parentage, believe a university education is their right of passage into adulthood and a subsequently highly paid career.

Wider concerns from employers are expressed about literacy and numeracy and the collaborative and problem-solving skills of graduates. Exam passes anda narrow notion of academic ability are all most universities care about – Dr Anthony Seldon

By way of further evidence of the previous chicken & egg quandary, if any was actually needed, one really has to ask – university then work or, work then university? It’s a question strengthened by more recent evidence revealed by the Association of Graduate Recruiters; graduates are facing record competition for jobs, with an average of 83 applying for every vacancy. Perhaps our university graduates are simply driving up a dead-end road on the proverbial chicken farm?

The number of graduates applying for each job has doubled since 2009, as three successive years of university leavers struggle with an over-saturated market…(independent.co.uk)

Again I would ask; is there really any point in all this malarkey any more, and the ensuing debate each year? After all, around a quarter of employers say school leavers lack the skills they need and, there is also a  “huge local variations” in the levels of basic education within Britain’s adult population (see bbc.co.uk) in any case.

Trust me, the first university to offer a ‘you will definitely get laid’ pledge will be challenging Oxbridge for funding within a decade. Mark my words…(newsthump.com)

In the UK, like our ‘guiding light’ the USA, we appear to have an incessant need for bits of paper that ‘prove’ how good we are. This desire to follow all that is American presents a little known but interesting fact to consider; wholly or partially state funded university education in the USA is almost non-existent. And with that in mind, I’ll offer a quote from the opposite side of the pond… “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country” (John F Kennedy).

Previously far too many have held the mostly mistaken belief the state owes them everything, perhaps it’s time to think again? Even if you do hold that belief (and I don’t), the reality is, the state can no longer afford to finance your idealistic dreams. Given the dire financial state of most nations in the western world (including our own), perhaps we need to adjust some of our expectations to ones that mirror reality a little more, at least financially? With that point I’ll move on to the value of academic qualifications to the world of work.

Like Sir Winston Churchill, I believe “my education was interrupted only by my schooling” however; in our modern world of hyper-linked virtual seats of higher learning, we can actually attain our academic qualifications at any stage in our life. Although this may be a phenomenon and possibility within our modern electronic world, it is also a factor of historical origin and highlighted so succinctly by Albert Einstein… “Intellectual growth should commence at birth and cease only at death.” Einstein’s observation is an ethos that I wholly subscribe to, it is also one that could probably do with carrying a far greater level of credence within the world of employment.

Yes I agree, we all need some proof of our intellectual ability however, what I can’t agree with is why so many take pieces of paper as the sole proof of total worth, especially at the selection stage. I suspect one of the fundamental reasons for this is; very few have the ability to truly asses the value of an individual, for a particular task or role, unless they own a certificate which ‘implies’ they posses  the ‘ability’ that is actually required. And often due to the selector having little knowledge of the task at hand.

It’s another proverbial chicken and egg quandary… Many decision makers and/or strategic thinkers, have risen to their exalted levels (often very quickly), not because of knowledge and/or experience, but as the direct result of a piece of paper… Unless a piece of paper says you can do it (whatever ‘it’ may be), you can’t. It’s the reason why certificates (or bits of paper) have become so de rigueur in almost every walk of life. This latter issue is no more prevalent than within our public sector and, due mainly to my police service, I’ll stick with what I know for my next set of observations and comments.

For some time now there have been numerous calls for greater ‘professionalism’ in the police service (and NHS etc). I know because, despite the many media observations, I have also been involved in several debates on the subject. Within varied forum there are generally two opposing viewpoints; those (like me) who value life experience, in addition to but not in isolation of academic qualifications, and those who believe academia alone is the answer to all problems.

I remain unconvinced that everyone requires a university education, at least not in the more traditional sense. Previously I have also argued that, total reliance upon academia often creates unseen consequences however; Peter Fahy, the Chief Constable of Greater Manchester Police (like many others) generally tends towards an opposite opinion…

One of Britain’s top police chiefs has said that learning in the university of life is “bull****” and called for officers to shake off a “plod” stereotype by gaining degrees…(telegraph.co.uk)

Fahy, who has a degree in French and Spanish, said that police had to “improve their status in society” by being “better educated.”  I mostly agree with his viewpoint in that, there is a need for police officers with academically sound and accredited qualifications, but not in isolation from experience. His view is one that is generally held by what could be refered to as the ‘academically elite’ within the service i.e. those who already hold degree level qualifications. Although quite what worth a degree in French & Spanish to an English police officer, is a little beyond me? No, much of the public disdain for the ability of policing has been born out of its often incompetent leadership.

A competent leader can get efficient service from poor troops, while on the contrary an incapable leader can demoralize the best of troops – John J Pershing

But if (as I believe) Fahy is simply suggesting; degree qualification implies a level of intellect and analytical ability, I would obviously agree. However, any degree must include greater relevance to the actual role and task to be performed, if we really want to see actual worth in the process.

Unfortunately, and sadly far too often the unexpected stark reality is; the incessant pursuit of academic and theoretical excellence has had negative impacts upon police service delivery. Application of that theory often bears little or no relevance to the realities of the task, or indeed the expectations of people being served. Those public expectations may often be simplistic, which can also be problematic however, if the service is unable to match the simplistic demands, what hope of efficiency in more complicated matters?

All this is compounded by the fact; even our politicians and senior police leadership are having great difficulty in defining service purpose. I can only assume this inherent failing is similar in many other areas of the public sector, along with various professions and businesses. Instead of the constant call for academic excellence, usually on appointment and after personal expense of the individual, the police service (like others) could do far better by aligning academic accreditation with training already being delivered. John Giblin, secretary of the professional development sub-committee of the Police Federation of England and Wales, was recently asked for his thoughts on police officers holding degree qualifications…

Does a degree make you a better police officer? I do not know. But I think what is more important is getting the training right. I do think the training needs to be underscored by something, maybe a degree, but the real key is getting quality training – (John Giblin)

So the final chicken & egg educational quandary – which comes first, theory or practice? Once again the answer happens to be a circular reference calculation. My simple answer is; one in isolation from the other is more or less worthless therefore it must be a combination of both. In my humble opinion, those who allow a period of ‘bedding in’ between childhood and adulthood, between schooling and higher education, are more able to reap the advantages of life experience. This in turn allows them to achieve greater levels of learning in higher education, theory and application become more closely linked. A factor of benefit in all walks of life, not just the police…

Leadership is a combination of strategy and character. If you must be without one, be without the strategy (Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf)

Reference not previously hyper-linked