Education and Surveillance Are Merging in the UK

The function of education has been narrowed down to a set of standardized paths towards getting a job in a cruel marketplace.
Education, education news, Education in the UK, UK news, United Kingdom, British news, reception baseline assessment, European news, Europe, Britain

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September 04, 2019 12:37 EDT

The United Kingdom has begun deploying what it calls reception baseline assessment for children entering primary school. It promises to “provide the basis for a new way of measuring the progress primary schools make with their pupils.”

It sounds very rational, but according to a survey conducted by University College London (UCL), “86% of headteachers were negative about the reception baseline assessment, variously dismissing it as ‘totally unnecessary’, ‘utter nonsense’, ‘a terrible idea’ and ‘one of the most poorly conceived ideas I have experienced in my 30-plus years of teaching.’”

Here is today’s 3D definition:


A process that claims to provide objective data about levels of knowledge or skills, but which essentially serves to consolidate the supreme authority of an institution or person whose role is to program and judge all behavior

Contextual Note

Although the survey was admittedly “small-scale,” the result of 86% disapproval against 8% approval appears to be pretty damning. Not to mention the verbal descriptions provided by the commentators, people whose professional culture, working conditions and image will be affected by this bureaucratic invasion.

An organization called More Than a Score insists on the traditional view that sees education as an opportunity for learning, exploring and becoming, rather than the managerial view that relies on key performance indicators (KPIs) to increase output, margins and revenue. The organization’s spokesperson, Nancy Stewart, sums up the research: “Heads agree with education experts and parents: this scheme is a waste of everyone’s time and a waste of £10m [$12.2 million]. It is simply another way for the government to judge schools, using unreliable and unfair testing methods.”

The supposedly “fiscally responsible” Conservatives who run the Department for Education in the UK appear to be only too happy to spend £10 million on a scheme whose principal effect will be to upset the professionals obliged to apply it. The public has a right to wonder why.

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Is it pure ideology based on the belief that standardization always equals progress, whether it achieves any other purpose or not? Or do they have a more devious motive? Could the authorities have conceived the expensive program as an additional instrument in the growing toolbox of mass population surveillance that the UK appears to be enamored of?

Though testing and recording every generation of 4-year-olds’ ability to use numbers and letters may seem like an innocently scientific exercise, nothing prevents it from being integrated into the surveillance framework as a key element for political control. With big data, artificial intelligence (AI) and the “internet of things” combining to make everything in the world “more efficient.” Every person and object will be identified, classified, evaluated and judged according to criteria that will be managed and perfected by AI. The more raw data we produce, the greater the chance that “our” intelligence — which is no longer human, but embedded in algorithms — will understand the world, relieving us of the responsibility of doing so. And what a relief that would be, since we used to count on education, research and human insight to do that, however imperfectly, but now it will be done for us. And we (or rather our children) will be done by it. Because human imperfection will be replaced by technological perfection, the ultimate outcome of “machine learning.”

This speculation about the politicians’ motives and their vision of the future (assuming they have one) has no solid evidence to back it up and may sound alarmist as an argument against the reception baseline assessment. But if teachers and headmasters in the UK, with near unanimity, are expressing their alarm, the insistence of the government to continue its application requires some explanation.

The presentation of the program claims that it will allow “a fairer measure of the quality of education provided by primary schools.” In other words, it may be less about evaluating the children in the interest of their growth and education than judging the schools. This completes the picture of how politicians view schools and teaching staff. Schools and their staff are expenses that need to be assessed by powerful statistical tools and managed in a rational way.

Historical Note

The standardized test movement emerged in the US, where it has done permanent damage through programs such as George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind and Barack Obama’s Race to the Top and the Common Core. It is a direct outgrowth of the late 20th century pseudo-scientific IT management culture that insists on standardization of processes and the homogenization of culture. One of the features of this culture of homogenization is its largely hypocritical insistence on “respect for diversity,” as if compliance with the behavioral components of such “respect” could compensate for the more general requirement of conformity with a standard model. Diversity as a management theme has become formulated as a legal requirement, a component of a system that demands compliance, which of course translates as the surveillance and enforcement of superficial behavior.

For the Obama administration, Bill Gates provided much of the input that fed the drive toward standardization, which he saw as the key applying IT-grade industrial logic to solving the problems of education in the US, as if it was all about supply chains, production processes, promotion and distribution. It didn’t occur to him that the crisis of education may be due to a deep misunderstanding of what education meant within the culture.

In the interest of efficiency, equality and tolerance — the three guiding values of the new management approach — the purpose of education, an idea now embraced by virtually all public figures, is to prepare people to enter the job market. Once upon a time, education served to stimulate intellectual endeavor, provide young people with the cultural bases for successful integration into society irrespective of their future economic role, and build local, regional, and national links with universal culture, drawing on the resources of diversified teaching and the learning communities.

Once the purpose of education is redefined as channeling individuals toward essentially salaried employment, the very idea of citizenship, that of being a contributing member of the polis, becomes compromised. The person’s contribution will consist of three things: working for someone else (99% of the time), paying taxes and voting for the lesser of two evils to prove one is a member of the polis.

Tom Vander Ark, writing for Forbes, situates the attitude behind standardization as it was designed in the US: “While most OECD [Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development] countries have sweated validity (good measures of what’s important), the U.S. has been preoccupied with reliability (inexpensive measures of what’s measurable).” This means that anything that isn’t measurable — which we would be tempted to call the “dark matter” of education — will not be considered. But just as dark matter represents as much as 85% of the universe, the culture of education and the education of culture constitute a similar proportion of the universe of knowledge, abilities, social presence and skills that define human value in society.

Most people naively accept an absolutely mad but utterly dominant ideology that says human value is principally, if not uniquely, one’s earning capacity. That’s one of the key things we learn in our schools and are never allowed to forget.

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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