MDGs Post 2015

Compare Forum Special Issue on Post-2015 Education and Development Agenda  Compare 43:6 December 2013
Compare Forum Special Issue on Post-2015 Education and Development Agenda
Compare 43:6 December 2013

David Turner

Professor Emeritus, University of South Wales, Pontypridd, UK; Visiting Professor, Beijing Normal University, Beijing, China

This is an Author’s Original Manuscript of an article submitted for consideration in Compare [the exclusive right to publish residing with Taylor & Francis, copyright BAICE]. The final version can be found here.

As we move closer to the goal of Education for All, we need to be increasingly aware of what kind of education is appropriate for everybody, and especially what restrictions the wrong type of education imposes.

The end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century saw the completion of a major reform of society, with the rise of mass production, the production of consumer goods on an unprecedented scale, the reduction of labour to simple and often unthinking actions, and the rise of bureaucracy. While the “scientific management” of Frederick Taylor was an extreme example, it captured some of the feeling of the time, that mankind had to be adapted to fit the place allotted to it in the productive machinery. These changes also brought the “office culture”. A peasant farmer or a village blacksmith does not need to keep a paper record of their work; the rise of mass production, requires the coordination of many different inputs, required office workers to track those processes.

It is perhaps not accidental that our modern educational systems were born in this environment, when conformity and control were the watchwords of the productive system, and there was a growing need for literacy, albeit a minimal form of functional literacy. In all probability little harm was done so long as there were alternative routes, alternative ways to earn a living, for those who were unsuccessful in school. There were still options for messengers, artisans, cleaners, cooks and bottle washers.

However, the late twentieth century saw two developments which should give us serious pause for thought. In most countries educational systems emphasise learning the basic minimum requirements, the same for everybody, that are essential to fit into the processes of mass production and mass consumption. (Or to fit into government bureaucracies, social welfare and health systems, the requirements for which are very similar.) The first change was that this system became so pervasive that it started to shut down opportunities that previously existed for those who failed at school. The second change was that the system of mass production for mass consumption started to change, and to move towards individualized production. I shall address those two changes in turn.

First, the disappearance of jobs for the illiterate and semi-literate. Even in the last fifty years, developed economies have seen the disappearance of many jobs which involved high levels of skill, but which, generally, did not require high levels of literacy. For example, repairing motor cars used to be a job which involved a long process of induction, but once acquired those skills would provide a secure living for a lifetime. A combination of improved and automated production systems, which extend the lifespan of car components, and consequently increase the time between servicing, and the introduction of new technology, which mean that success depends less and less on manual skill and more and more on the use of on-board computers and complex diagnostic manuals, means that the job has changed beyond recognition. Fifty years ago, the person who repaired cars would depend on years of skill and experience to diagnose faults by hearing, seeing and feeling the various operations of the car. That skill and experience was not acquired in schools. Today, the person who repairs my car attends evening classes to stay up to date with the latest methods.

Similar changes have taken place in the spheres of electrical work, plumbing, construction and many other fields that would previously have been thought of as “manual work” or “blue collar” jobs. More complex units are pre-assembled in factories, and work in the field requires higher levels of literacy. Those who would once have been able to make a living after limited success in the education system now have few options in the labour market. We need to think much more seriously about the education we provide for all when success or failure may have very long-term effects on the life chances of those who experience it. There used to be a segment of the labour market where skills could be learned for life. Now, the corresponding jobs require a high level of literacy as a basis for continual re-skilling. As a consequence, we have seen the virtual collapse of apprenticeship schemes in developed economies.

At the same time as those changes occurred in the market for blue collar workers – not unskilled workers, but workers who could enter their line of work without many educational qualifications – there have been dramatic changes in the processes of mass production themselves. Initially, mass production created goods that met the needs of the masses. The mass produced car brought mobility to people who had not been able to afford a horse and carriage. Mass produced fabric provided luxury for those who could never have afforded hand-woven cloth and carpets. But once that initial phase of mass production was complete, and people in economically developed societies became wealthier, consumers no longer wanted exactly the same as their neighbour. They wanted products of distinction.

In a curious turn, there was a revival in the demand for artisans. Blacksmiths, farriers, cabinet makers and builders can now make a good living. But this is not the return of traditional craftspeople; these are blacksmiths with websites, builders who rely on social networking, and cabinet makers who can tailor their work to the needs of the individual customer. These are people who can offer an individualized service to a niche market. The major growth areas in developed economies are in the service sectors, and even where there is a product, the product has become the vehicle for the provision of high quality services. And this trend, of growth in the service sectors, will continue into the future.

We have seen, in China, the last economy that will develop through the use of mass production based on cheap labour. India is already following a different route, in terms of providing services to international businesses, servicing software and off-shoring various functions. And after a relatively short period of success as a manufacturing power, China is already feeling the need to rebalance its economy away from cheap labour manufacturing, and towards a high income service economy, so that the purchasing power of the Chinese themselves can fuel the future growth of their economy.

Consequently, the key question for the future is, what kind of education best prepares people for the highly fragmented service economy that we see developing in many countries? The answer is that nobody knows. What is clear is that the skill sets required will be as varied and various as the niches for which those individuals are destined. But it is also clear that education will have to provide something much more than the mere ability to earn a living. Education will have to provide and nourish a passion in the student. A passion for anything, so that the young adult can find his or her own niche in the service sector in something they love. Whether the bulk of employees seek to provide a service as a teacher or a waiter, as bespoke carpenter or a chef, they will need an individual passion that will give them interest and purpose, and may well also provide their profession.

If we are not careful we will set goals for the education systems of the world for post-2015 that will freeze schools as they are today, the last vestige of the mass production system of the early twentieth century. What we need is an education service which is a part of the modern, personalized service sector, depending more on intrinsic motivation than extrinsic motivation, and is to a large extent decoupled from the need to earn a living.