Democracy and equality: Does education matter?

Can I direct people to a really interesting set of articles published by open Democracy. The articles draw together various thinkers to discuss what the role of education is in rebuilding democracy and equality in the contemporary world.

Articles include:

I don’t agree with everything that is written in these articles, but I think that they are asking some important questions. We are living in challenging times. Times which are defined, in part, by a loose commitment to the truth and by an attempt to role back a set of ideas that many of us thought constituted permanent progress. In such times education surely has a role in making citizens who can question, explore where the truth really is and consider what society should look like.

These articles help to think through some of these questions.

Education and inequality #InequalityEd at the RSA


I spent an enjoyable evening discussing education inequality at the RSA tonight as part of the organisations’ Inequality in Education series. A passionate opener from Diane Reay was followed by a laid back and humorous contribution from Danny Dorling. Dorling asked some very good questions that I think that we all ought to talk about more.


The upshot of both contributions was that there is a lot of inequality about in the UK. Rather than combat this the education system typically exacerbates this by directing resources towards those who are already privileged. As a result we have a highly competitive system in which the competition is essentially rigged. This system encourages individualism and rewards compliance, but at the same time fails to teach us much that is actually very useful.

The best fact of the night was presented by Dorling. He put up a graph which demonstrated a correlation between inequality of income and performance in mathematics at 15. The correlation wasn’t all that strong, but it was there. He then trumped this by showing us performance in maths at 16-24 where the correlation was almost perfect. In other words unequal societies are a bit worse at getting people to pass exams but they are a lot worse at getting people to remember anything. The intense competition encourages short term performance rather than long term learning.

We then discussed what all of this meant and more importantly what to do about it. Thankfully the evening was fairly free of the usual think tanky solutions (although Diane Reay did mention the ever present Finland A LOT!).

At the end of it I was left thinking that this isn’t all that complex. So here are my conclusions for what they are worth.

  • Education cannot solve an unequal society. If we want to make society more equal we have to make it more equal. Try taxing high earners a bit more and using the money for the education system for example. However, we could…
  • Stop the state funding private schools through charitable status and various other kickbacks. Private schooling is a pretty obvious example of inequality which at the very least we shouldn’t be subsidising.
  • Reduce the capacity of schools to run various kinds of questionable admissions policies and enact policies to make going to local schools the norm for most people.
  • Reduce the use of streaming in schools as this creates middle-class enclaves in schools.
  • Reduce the amount of testing.
  • Loosen up the curriculum.
  • Increase funding to further education.
  • Increase funding for adult education to help people to move in and out of the education system throughout their life.
  • Remove higher education fees (they aren’t sustainable anyway!)
  • Bring back HE grants and the EMA.
  • And, of course, improve career education and guidance, so that everyone is better informed about how the education system works.

How does that sound? Problem solved?

Known knowns and known unknowns in my engagement with social media

I had an interesting conversation yesterday about the research that exists on career, professionalism, social media and the digital environment. All in all we agreed that there were hell of a lot of “known unknowns”, and also that there were a lot of “we think we knows, but no one has ever really proved it” floating about.

I try and keep some sort of a track of the literature in this area on my citeulike using the social media tag. However, my reading of a lot of this literature is that it is pretty fragmentary with lots of people carving out little corners to research but little systematic work. In terms of forming my own theories about the role of social media I have been strongly influenced by Clay Shirky’s work, particularly in Here Comes Everybody and Cognitive Surplus, but these books only skirt round the edges of the issues of education and employment that I’m primarily interested in.

Elsewhere on this blog I’ve looked to see what other people are advising in terms of how to manage your career online. However, these books are generally pretty limited and pretty clearly focused on how to use particular tools.

In my own work I’ve looked at various different issues: how do students use social media at university; what is the value of social media for career guidance (also with respect to policy in this area and specifically in relation to blogging); how can researchers use social media for their professional development (and for social research). I’ve also looked at how we can support students to develop their digital career literacy, written up little experiments that I’ve tried on this and tried to pull together all my thinking on the internet and career.  Hopefully this body of work (combined with my regular outpourings on this blog filed under socialmedia or social media) provides some useful starting points.  However, I’d be the first to admit that it has been developed in a rather oportunistic fashion.

So what I would like to propose is three research questions that I would really like to know the answer to. If people think that these have already been answered then please direct me to the relevant literature. If not then please direct me to the relevant pile of research funding.

  1. How do the internet and social technologies in particular change individuals experience of the education system? How are educators and educational institutions using these technologies and perhaps more interestingly how are learners using technologies in unofficial and unsanctioned ways to support their learning?
  2. How do the internet and social technologies in particular change individuals experience of transitioning from education to work? How can we use the opportunities provided by new technologies to support this process of transition?
  3. How are people using the internet and social technologies in particular to pursue their careers and develop their professionalism? What are the dangers and opportunities that this presents and how do these interface with organisational issues.

OK, so those are three fairly big issues. I don’t expect to answer all of them myself, but they represent an attempt to define a clearer research agenda in this area.

Any thoughts?

Useful links and organisations that I’ve come across in Ontario

Here is a quick brain dump of organisations, websites and documents that have been useful (or look like they might be useful) in helping me to understand the worlds of education and guidance in Ontario. I mainly put them here as somewhere to put them, but if it sparks any thoughts about what else I should be looking at, then please make other suggestions.


Careers and guidance

STEM Outreach

Vocational Education


Profession by Issac Asimov

I’ve just read Profession by Issac Asimov.  The story describes a future world in which everyone is taught to read by a machine at eight and then allocated a profession (and all of the knowledge required for that profession) based on tests at the age of 18. The story describes a world in which education is entirely functional and subservient to the needs of the economy and in which there is no room for personal creativity and individual control over your career. Critical to the world that is imagined in the story is the way in which their education system destroys the individual capacity to learn, replacing it with vast amounts of factual knowledge.

If anyone has the opportunity to send it to Michael Gove it would be well worth him reading it. In the meantime enjoy the critical perspective that good SF can give us on our own world and fear that Asimov’s might have been seeing into our futures.

Read Profession by Issac Asimov