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Bury the good news

How the truth about state schools is twisted by journalists who go private

Discarded needles, enforced mediocrity, petty bullying, too much political correctness, not enough Jesus or competitive sport: New Statesman readers with children in state schools will be surprised – but perhaps not that surprised – to hear that these are common features of our nation’s schools, at least according to our press and broadcasting media, few of whose leaders use the system they so relentlessly traduce.

Last month’s offering by the Sunday Times was depressingly typical and typically depressing. Written by the paper’s “award-winning war correspondent” Christina Lamb, it posed the question: “What’s wrong with winning?” At considerable anguished length, she went on to explain why she had moved her son from state to private schooling.

The main problem, according to Lamb, was the lack of any competitive ethos within what was, by her own account, a happy primary school, led by a “firm headmistress and young, dedicated teachers”. Forced to resort to “subterfuge” in order to find out her son’s overall ranking in the class, Lamb was later horrified to find that at sports day, “instead of racing against each other, the children were put into teams with a mix of different ages . . . with each team doing different activities”.

Indignities such as these – plus scant knowledge of the Lord’s Prayer at the school – even­tually forced her to join the queue at the local oversubscribed private school, and there she was deeply gratified by the head’s open boasting about everything from sporting achievements to A grades to Oxbridge entrance successes.

Lamb makes much of her own state education and avowed abhorrence of the “two-tier” system of education in this country. This theme of reluctant conversion is a common journalistic line, most powerfully demonstrated by the novelist Will Self in the London Evening Standard last October. In his column, boldly headed “I’m a diehard lefty but my son is going to private school”, Self described his decision to take his son out of a state primary but concluded that he personally could not be labelled a hypocrite, as he had never believed that state education was an engine of social change in the first place.

Presumably both Lamb and Self will have taken comfort from the sad story of William Miller, the now middle-aged son of the theatre director Jonathan Miller, who, in the Mail on Sunday in February – under the banner headline “Atrocious lessons and daily bullying . . . why I won’t send my children to a state school” – castigated his father for “a mistaken ideology”. According to Miller, he and his two siblings were “the victims of the most cavalier of social experiments”. Yet this was, it should be pointed out, more than 30 years ago; all would agree that state schools are very different places today.

Every such story relies on unchallengeable, intimate details and anecdote. There is no place in them for the part played by parenting, individual temperament or other behind-the-scenes factors or conflicts; according to these writers, and dozens more like them, it is the school and school alone that causes a child’s lack of achievement or unhappiness.

The reader has no way to address the manifest contradictions that arise between these stories. Lamb’s son was in an admittedly happy, co-operative primary where, according to his mother, his ruthless edge was not being sufficiently sharpened. Self’s son was alleged to have been bullied and tested to the extreme. Miller blames his lack of academic education on his middle-class parents. And yet regularly other newspaper features will castigate the middle class for claiming that the state education system, rather than their own privilege and efforts, enabled them to achieve good results.

Writers and journalists who have sent their children to state schools are treated either as slightly exotic birds that have successfully contained a rare tropical disease, or as disingenuous or deceiving, as Martin Samuel in the Times has argued, because they ruthlessly exploit their own affluence and connections to cover up their children’s poor education.

The real politics of education is always placed on the back burner. Lamb declares herself impressed by “the astonishing range of facilities and activities” on offer at the private school she finally chooses for her son. Yet the resource argument, central to the privilege and achievements of the independent sector, is relegated to a marginal feature in her decision, rather than being woven objectively into the story.

A quick search on the website of the Inde­pendent Schools Council demonstrates the extent of the enduring funding gap. Keeping a secondary-age pupil in the independent sector costs as much as £9,000 a year (up to £30,000 for some boarders). Funding for state school pupils has slowly edged up, but is still only around £5,000 per annum. Yet it is easy to forget how much state education has improved over the past decade or more. There are fewer failing schools than there were ten years ago. Almost two-thirds of the state schools inspected by Ofsted last year were judged to be good or outstanding. There are more good teachers and heads; results are better than ever.

When the Labour government came to power in 1997 roughly half of all children were leaving primary school without reaching the expected levels in English and maths. Today that figure is about 20 per cent. In 1997 about 45 per cent of pupils achieved five good GCSEs. Now the figure is more than 60 per cent – more than three times the proportion that left school with five O-levels in the so-called golden age of the grammars, an era often subtly misrepresented to disparage today’s predominantly comprehensive schools.

About £3bn a year is being spent on new school buildings, ensuring that many state school pupils will have access to facilities for learning art and drama that some private school pupils can only dream of. And more young people than ever are going to university, but even that good news story is distorted by a disproportionate emphasis on the numbers of state school pupils going to Oxbridge – or not.

Even these figures can be looked at differently. How many people know that just under a third of state school pupils who apply to Oxbridge get in and just over a third of the private school applicants get accepted? Or that many Oxbridge colleges accept state school pupils in roughly the same proportion as they apply? Access to Ox­bridge may be less to do with second-rate state schools than with how, as the Sutton Trust’s research has shown, simply not enough state school pupils with the appropriate grades apply.

But the success stories have state schools, and their supporters, in a double bind. As they improve and exam results begin to creep up, new lines of attack develop from the media. Every positive message about new buildings, rising standards, more children at university, is obscured by another, more insidious news item that undermines the good work being done.

Better exam results are not a cause for celebration but an opportunity to question the value of the qualifications themselves. The independent sector and parts of the media, joining in an unholy alliance, frequently attempt to demoralise state school parents.

All of this obscures a simple, uncomfortable truth: most parents use state schools and more than 80 per cent of them are satisfied with the service they receive, according to successive polls. But those parents (and they are the overwhelming majority, as the proportion of children in private schools has remained static at about 7 per cent for the past decade) cannot count on the nation’s most powerful opinion-formers to put their weight behind an education system in which thousands of children are flourishing, learning, feeling safe, passing exams, going to university and taking part in com­petitive sport.

How can those parents maintain their belief that they, too, are doing “the best” for their children against a constant backdrop of sniping, damaging assertions, anecdotal evidence or distorted application of statistics? They may also be unaware of the complex politics behind, or the context within which, so many of these negative stories – or equally stereotypical TV programmes and films – appear.

Feature writers and columnists have at least to declare their motives, to lay bare some “human-interest” details of their apparent dilemmas. However, we know far less about the personal choices and politics of the senior presenters, editors and managers of newspapers, television and radio stations, who are responsible for commissioning, selecting, editing and presenting stories on education, day after day.

Most newspaper editors and senior broadcast executives use private schools. Yet all have strong views about state schools, which suggests they may possibly have a long-term vested interest in portraying the schools they have rejected for their own children in the grimmest light. Moreover, there is a subtle distinction in their opinions about the state education service and the National Health Service, to which many of them do entrust their families.

This goes to the heart of the matter. It is well established that what makes a public service powerful is the use of it by all ­sections of the population, not just those without choice. State schools are getting better and benefiting from huge investment, but still face challenges in their attempt to raise standards equally for children, particularly those whose home backgrounds may not automatically prepare them for learning, passing exams or going to university.

It is a great tribute to our state education system that it has continued to improve and that its prevailing ethos – that all children, regardless of family background or parental income, have the right to a free, excellent education – is still a cherished ideal among so many, despite the relentless criticisms of some of our most influential citizens. Just imagine, for a moment, how rapid educational change could be, and what spectacular steps could be taken towards a truly world-class system, if all the presenters, editors, columnists and commentators put their combined force behind improving the state system, rather than boycotting and belittling it.

Fiona Millar and Melissa Benn are writers and campaigners for state education

Fiona is the author of the recently published “The Secret World of the Working Mother” (Vermilion, £12.99)

Melissa’s latest novel, “One of Us”, is out in paperback (Vintage, £7.99)

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Campbell guest edit

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Fitter, dumber, more productive

How the craze for Apple Watches, Fitbits and other wearable tech devices revives the old and discredited science of behaviourism.

When Tim Cook unveiled the latest operating system for the Apple Watch in June, he described the product in a remarkable way. This is no longer just a wrist-mounted gadget for checking your email and social media notifications; it is now “the ultimate device for a healthy life”.

With the watch’s fitness-tracking and heart rate-sensor features to the fore, Cook explained how its Activity and Workout apps have been retooled to provide greater “motivation”. A new Breathe app encourages the user to take time out during the day for deep breathing sessions. Oh yes, this watch has an app that notifies you when it’s time to breathe. The paradox is that if you have zero motivation and don’t know when to breathe in the first place, you probably won’t survive long enough to buy an Apple Watch.

The watch and its marketing are emblematic of how the tech trend is moving beyond mere fitness tracking into what might one call quality-of-life tracking and algorithmic hacking of the quality of consciousness. A couple of years ago I road-tested a brainwave-sensing headband, called the Muse, which promises to help you quiet your mind and achieve “focus” by concentrating on your breathing as it provides aural feedback over earphones, in the form of the sound of wind at a beach. I found it turned me, for a while, into a kind of placid zombie with no useful “focus” at all.

A newer product even aims to hack sleep – that productivity wasteland, which, according to the art historian and essayist Jonathan Crary’s book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, is an affront to the foundations of capitalism. So buy an “intelligent sleep mask” called the Neuroon to analyse the quality of your sleep at night and help you perform more productively come morning. “Knowledge is power!” it promises. “Sleep analytics gathers your body’s sleep data and uses it to help you sleep smarter!” (But isn’t one of the great things about sleep that, while you’re asleep, you are perfectly stupid?)

The Neuroon will also help you enjoy technologically assisted “power naps” during the day to combat “lack of energy”, “fatigue”, “mental exhaustion” and “insomnia”. When it comes to quality of sleep, of course, numerous studies suggest that late-night smartphone use is very bad, but if you can’t stop yourself using your phone, at least you can now connect it to a sleep-enhancing gadget.

So comes a brand new wave of devices that encourage users to outsource not only their basic bodily functions but – as with the Apple Watch’s emphasis on providing “motivation” – their very willpower.  These are thrillingly innovative technologies and yet, in the way they encourage us to think about ourselves, they implicitly revive an old and discarded school of ­thinking in psychology. Are we all neo-­behaviourists now?

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The school of behaviourism arose in the early 20th century out of a virtuous scientific caution. Experimenters wished to avoid anthropomorphising animals such as rats and pigeons by attributing to them mental capacities for belief, reasoning, and so forth. This kind of description seemed woolly and impossible to verify.

The behaviourists discovered that the actions of laboratory animals could, in effect, be predicted and guided by careful “conditioning”, involving stimulus and reinforcement. They then applied Ockham’s razor: there was no reason, they argued, to believe in elaborate mental equipment in a small mammal or bird; at bottom, all behaviour was just a response to external stimulus. The idea that a rat had a complex mentality was an unnecessary hypothesis and so could be discarded. The psychologist John B Watson declared in 1913 that behaviour, and behaviour alone, should be the whole subject matter of psychology: to project “psychical” attributes on to animals, he and his followers thought, was not permissible.

The problem with Ockham’s razor, though, is that sometimes it is difficult to know when to stop cutting. And so more radical behaviourists sought to apply the same lesson to human beings. What you and I think of as thinking was, for radical behaviourists such as the Yale psychologist Clark L Hull, just another pattern of conditioned reflexes. A human being was merely a more complex knot of stimulus responses than a pigeon. Once perfected, some scientists believed, behaviourist science would supply a reliable method to “predict and control” the behaviour of human beings, and thus all social problems would be overcome.

It was a kind of optimistic, progressive version of Nineteen Eighty-Four. But it fell sharply from favour after the 1960s, and the subsequent “cognitive revolution” in psychology emphasised the causal role of conscious thinking. What became cognitive behavioural therapy, for instance, owed its impressive clinical success to focusing on a person’s cognition – the thoughts and the beliefs that radical behaviourism treated as mythical. As CBT’s name suggests, however, it mixes cognitive strategies (analyse one’s thoughts in order to break destructive patterns) with behavioural techniques (act a certain way so as to affect one’s feelings). And the deliberate conditioning of behaviour is still a valuable technique outside the therapy room.

The effective “behavioural modification programme” first publicised by Weight Watchers in the 1970s is based on reinforcement and support techniques suggested by the behaviourist school. Recent research suggests that clever conditioning – associating the taking of a medicine with a certain smell – can boost the body’s immune response later when a patient detects the smell, even without a dose of medicine.

Radical behaviourism that denies a subject’s consciousness and agency, however, is now completely dead as a science. Yet it is being smuggled back into the mainstream by the latest life-enhancing gadgets from Silicon Valley. The difference is that, now, we are encouraged to outsource the “prediction and control” of our own behaviour not to a benign team of psychological experts, but to algorithms.

It begins with measurement and analysis of bodily data using wearable instruments such as Fitbit wristbands, the first wave of which came under the rubric of the “quantified self”. (The Victorian polymath and founder of eugenics, Francis Galton, asked: “When shall we have anthropometric laboratories, where a man may, when he pleases, get himself and his children weighed, measured, and rightly photographed, and have their bodily faculties tested by the best methods known to modern science?” He has his answer: one may now wear such laboratories about one’s person.) But simply recording and hoarding data is of limited use. To adapt what Marx said about philosophers: the sensors only interpret the body, in various ways; the point is to change it.

And the new technology offers to help with precisely that, offering such externally applied “motivation” as the Apple Watch. So the reasoning, striving mind is vacated (perhaps with the help of a mindfulness app) and usurped by a cybernetic system to optimise the organism’s functioning. Electronic stimulus produces a physiological response, as in the behaviourist laboratory. The human being herself just needs to get out of the way. The customer of such devices is merely an opaquely functioning machine to be tinkered with. The desired outputs can be invoked by the correct inputs from a technological prosthesis. Our physical behaviour and even our moods are manipulated by algorithmic number-crunching in corporate data farms, and, as a result, we may dream of becoming fitter, happier and more productive.

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The broad current of behaviourism was not homogeneous in its theories, and nor are its modern technological avatars. The physiologist Ivan Pavlov induced dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell, which they had learned to associate with food. Here, stimulus (the bell) produces an involuntary response (salivation). This is called “classical conditioning”, and it is advertised as the scientific mechanism behind a new device called the Pavlok, a wristband that delivers mild electric shocks to the user in order, so it promises, to help break bad habits such as overeating or smoking.

The explicit behaviourist-revival sell here is interesting, though it is arguably predicated on the wrong kind of conditioning. In classical conditioning, the stimulus evokes the response; but the Pavlok’s painful electric shock is a stimulus that comes after a (voluntary) action. This is what the psychologist who became the best-known behaviourist theoretician, B F Skinner, called “operant conditioning”.

By associating certain actions with positive or negative reinforcement, an animal is led to change its behaviour. The user of a Pavlok treats herself, too, just like an animal, helplessly suffering the gadget’s painful negative reinforcement. “Pavlok associates a mild zap with your bad habit,” its marketing material promises, “training your brain to stop liking the habit.” The use of the word “brain” instead of “mind” here is revealing. The Pavlok user is encouraged to bypass her reflective faculties and perform pain-led conditioning directly on her grey matter, in order to get from it the behaviour that she prefers. And so modern behaviourist technologies act as though the cognitive revolution in psychology never happened, encouraging us to believe that thinking just gets in the way.

Technologically assisted attempts to defeat weakness of will or concentration are not new. In 1925 the inventor Hugo Gernsback announced, in the pages of his magazine Science and Invention, an invention called the Isolator. It was a metal, full-face hood, somewhat like a diving helmet, connected by a rubber hose to an oxygen tank. The Isolator, too, was designed to defeat distractions and assist mental focus.

The problem with modern life, Gernsback wrote, was that the ringing of a telephone or a doorbell “is sufficient, in nearly all cases, to stop the flow of thoughts”. Inside the Isolator, however, sounds are muffled, and the small eyeholes prevent you from seeing anything except what is directly in front of you. Gernsback provided a salutary photograph of himself wearing the Isolator while sitting at his desk, looking like one of the Cybermen from Doctor Who. “The author at work in his private study aided by the Isolator,” the caption reads. “Outside noises being eliminated, the worker can concentrate with ease upon the subject at hand.”

Modern anti-distraction tools such as computer software that disables your internet connection, or word processors that imitate an old-fashioned DOS screen, with nothing but green text on a black background, as well as the brain-measuring Muse headband – these are just the latest versions of what seems an age-old desire for technologically imposed calm. But what do we lose if we come to rely on such gadgets, unable to impose calm on ourselves? What do we become when we need machines to motivate us?

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It was B F Skinner who supplied what became the paradigmatic image of ­behaviourist science with his “Skinner Box”, formally known as an “operant conditioning chamber”. Skinner Boxes come in different flavours but a classic example is a box with an electrified floor and two levers. A rat is trapped in the box and must press the correct lever when a certain light comes on. If the rat gets it right, food is delivered. If the rat presses the wrong lever, it receives a painful electric shock through the booby-trapped floor. The rat soon learns to press the right lever all the time. But if the levers’ functions are changed unpredictably by the experimenters, the rat becomes confused, withdrawn and depressed.

Skinner Boxes have been used with success not only on rats but on birds and primates, too. So what, after all, are we doing if we sign up to technologically enhanced self-improvement through gadgets and apps? As we manipulate our screens for ­reassurance and encouragement, or wince at a painful failure to be better today than we were yesterday, we are treating ourselves similarly as objects to be improved through operant conditioning. We are climbing willingly into a virtual Skinner Box.

As Carl Cederström and André Spicer point out in their book The Wellness Syndrome, published last year: “Surrendering to an authoritarian agency, which is not just telling you what to do, but also handing out rewards and punishments to shape your behaviour more effectively, seems like undermining your own agency and autonomy.” What’s worse is that, increasingly, we will have no choice in the matter anyway. Gernsback’s Isolator was explicitly designed to improve the concentration of the “worker”, and so are its digital-age descendants. Corporate employee “wellness” programmes increasingly encourage or even mandate the use of fitness trackers and other behavioural gadgets in order to ensure an ideally efficient and compliant workforce.

There are many political reasons to resist the pitiless transfer of responsibility for well-being on to the individual in this way. And, in such cases, it is important to point out that the new idea is a repackaging of a controversial old idea, because that challenges its proponents to defend it explicitly. The Apple Watch and its cousins promise an utterly novel form of technologically enhanced self-mastery. But it is also merely the latest way in which modernity invites us to perform operant conditioning on ourselves, to cleanse away anxiety and dissatisfaction and become more streamlined citizen-consumers. Perhaps we will decide, after all, that tech-powered behaviourism is good. But we should know what we are arguing about. The rethinking should take place out in the open.

In 1987, three years before he died, B F Skinner published a scholarly paper entitled Whatever Happened to Psychology as the Science of Behaviour?, reiterating his now-unfashionable arguments against psychological talk about states of mind. For him, the “prediction and control” of behaviour was not merely a theoretical preference; it was a necessity for global social justice. “To feed the hungry and clothe the naked are ­remedial acts,” he wrote. “We can easily see what is wrong and what needs to be done. It is much harder to see and do something about the fact that world agriculture must feed and clothe billions of people, most of them yet unborn. It is not enough to advise people how to behave in ways that will make a future possible; they must be given effective reasons for behaving in those ways, and that means effective contingencies of reinforcement now.” In other words, mere arguments won’t equip the world to support an increasing population; strategies of behavioural control must be designed for the good of all.

Arguably, this authoritarian strand of behaviourist thinking is what morphed into the subtly reinforcing “choice architecture” of nudge politics, which seeks gently to compel citizens to do the right thing (eat healthy foods, sign up for pension plans) by altering the ways in which such alternatives are presented.

By contrast, the Apple Watch, the Pavlok and their ilk revive a behaviourism evacuated of all social concern and designed solely to optimise the individual customer. By ­using such devices, we voluntarily offer ourselves up to a denial of our voluntary selves, becoming atomised lab rats, to be manipulated electronically through the corporate cloud. It is perhaps no surprise that when the founder of American behaviourism, John B Watson, left academia in 1920, he went into a field that would come to profit very handsomely indeed from his skills of manipulation – advertising. Today’s neo-behaviourist technologies promise to usher in a world that is one giant Skinner Box in its own right: a world where thinking just gets in the way, and we all mechanically press levers for food pellets.

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge