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For a Civic and Constitutional Republic 


Issue No 115 Sunday 20 January 2013

This Week

  • The Commoditization of
    Our Educators

News Stories

Highlighting news stories important to the Civic Republican view, particularly those that are overlooked or little covered in the main media.

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The Commoditization of Our Educators

Peter Kellow gives a personal view

The new proposals for the pay of teachers in the state schools has produced an outcry from the teaching unions. The plan to be introduced this autumn will abolish the mandatory yearly pay rises for new teachers and replace them with ‘performance related’ pay. The assessment of performance will be done by the head teachers.


The immediate story here is of the way in which we pay teachers, but it is part of a longer term view that places too little value on education. This means in turn that those who perform the education also are not valued sufficiently. Thus they are treated as mere tools to get the job done. The complex and difficult set of problems they face in the classroom is ignored. The role of our educators is reduced to that of a mechanical process where “performance” can be measured and rewarded - or not - in monetary terms.

There is nothing exceptional in this. It is all part of the monetization of every aspect of our lives. It is built into the neo-Liberal political philosophy that dominates the thinking of all the main parties.

The orthodox political economics under which we live has practically nothing to say about education as a source of wealth. The great neo-Liberal hero, Ludwig von Mises, hardly mentions it in his magnum opus Human Action. Even Keynes’s “General Theory” has no entry for education in its index. Economics was not always so dismissive of education being of primary importance to our wealth. The great nineteenth century economist, Alfred Marshall, wrote in 1890

There is no extravagance more prejudicial to the growth of national wealth than that wasteful negligence which allows genius that happens to be born of lowly parentage to expend itself in lowly work. No change would conduce so much to the rapid increase of material wealth as an improvement in our schools … provided it be combined with an extensive system … which will enable the clever son of a working man to rise gradually … until he has the best theoretical and practical education which the age can give. (Marshall. The Principles of Economics p176)

And Marshall fully understood that although education is primary to wealth, the benefits are not easy to quantify

… the wisdom of expending public and private funds on education is not to be measured by its direct fruits alone. It will be profitable as a mere investment, to give the masses of the people much greater opportunities that they can generally avail themselves of. (Ibid p 179)

Such a civilized, balanced and realistic view is now drowned out by calls for saving money and getting rid of “dead wood” in the system. What is completely lacking is any sense that our educators can only function properly within the right context for their work. This means the schools themselves have to provide the right environment for educators to educate. Schools cannot function like highly commercial companies where pay and performance are the sole parameters that management has to juggle with.

But do we not have schools that are private companies? And are these not considered by many to provide better education than the state system? The question we need to ask here is: when parents decide to send their child to a private school, what do they look for in any such school? They obviously have a regard to the success of the school in achieving results, but wrapped up into that question will be the way in which the school functions as a stable institution with long term values and pride in its achievements. It is not just viewed as an education factory where you put your son or daughter in one end and they come out the other. It has to be seen as an institution that creates the right environment for learning and developing and that later can be referred to with a certain amount of pride by the adult looking back on their education.

This view of the value of institutions in our society is completely alien to the politics that dominate Britain today. Gove’s proposals represent a narrow view of education as a factory like process. He has absolutely no conception of schools as institutions that have to run as communities of individuals to be successful and that the success of those communities will depend in great part on the management structure that their members find themselves in. Above all, any school has to function as a team of educators who together make up the culture and ambition of the school as an institution, with solidarity and permanence. Of course, there has to be a head teacher in charge, but to do their job properly they have to be seen as part of the team as well.

Gove’s proposals will radically undermine all that, in ways that are all too obvious

  • Everyone is going to know who has not been awarded a rise and this will confer a stigma on them
  • This will in turn lead to petit rivalries between teachers undermining the team spirit that is vital to the school functioning properly as an institution
  • The children will know or suspect who is badly paid and will show it
  • The system will be completely unfair to those working with difficult children where good performance is more difficult to achieve.
  • Who will assess the assessors? There is every chance that the decisions on pay will be considered unfair and so resentment and demoralization will creep in

In short, the school will become an unhappy place for all but a few who enjoy the rough and tumble – but these do not sound like desirable qualities in an educator. Any sense of working together to create a sound institution in which each and everyone can take a pride will disappear.

The visible costs of the teachers’ pay will be analysed in detail but we can be sure that what will never be costed will be the extra work and inefficiencies involved in all the assessment. It is certain that more forms will be filled out but doubtful that more education will result.

To someone such as Gove whose view of people is the orthodox neo-Liberal view, that is, as people motivated purely by monetary gain with no interest in doing the job for its own sake, the idea of an institution fostering values and commitment is alien. But without that education cannot succeed.

* * * * *

There is a broader economic concept that underpins Gove’s attitude and that of pretty well all of the current political establishment. This is the theory, in the economists' jargon, of the “disutility of work”. What this means is that the activity of work is only of negative value. No one works because the work means anything to them in itself but only for the pay packet it brings them. If they can they will work less and have more of the only thing they desire: leisure.

It is remarkable that this crude interpretation of human motivation has remained so prevalent for so long when practically everybody knows the untruth of it from their own experience. Few people see work purely and only as a way of making money. Of course, the money is essential in most cases but money after a certain point becomes not just a way of having more to spend on leisure but a validation of their own worth in society. Beyond the matter of money other issues come into play in our employment.

This theory of work as nothing but a “disutility” is proclaimed by all the big twentieth century economists and once again we have to go back to Marshall and his classic work of 1890, The Principles of Economics, to find an alternative view. He wrote:

… the desire for excellence for its own sake graduates down from that of a Newton, or a Stradivarius, to that of the fisherman, who … delights in handling his craft well, and the fact that she is well built and responds to his guidance

… a large part of the demand for … the best work of mechanical artisan, arises from the delight that people have in the training of their own faculties and in exercising them by aid of the most deliberately adjusted and responsive implements. (Ibid p75)

But there is far more to it than this kind of pleasure in the craft, important though it often it. Work also provides status and position in society and this is crucial for the self respect of pretty well every one. However, there is an important qualification that needs to be made to this. Jobs must command respect and confer dignity.

In the old days, for instance, park groundsmen would work for the local council, be given a smart uniform and long term commitment in the way of pensions and sickness provision. With this also went a camaraderie with the fellow workers which could lead to relationships inside and outside the workplace. Forcing people into work for fly-by-night subcontractors as the coalition seek to do is not the same thing, at all. Such jobs confer only negative status.

Work is not just functional. It gives us pleasure, satisfaction, ambition, identity and status.

These are the lessons that Gove and his coalition chums should learn. But they never will. Their view of human nature lies stuck in the short circuit between pay and the desire to not bother to work. The drilling that neo-Liberal economics has given them will not allow them to see beyond it.

Our teachers know well the subtleties of the relationships that pertain between pupil and teacher, between teacher and teacher, and between teacher and the rest of society, and how institutional design is the most important governor of all of these relationships. The Tory/LibDem fixation on a banal link between pay and performance will undermine the work of our educators and contribute nothing positive in the process

It will not even save any money. The motivation is purely ideological

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