Editors’ choices on education and health care

We asked Britain’s newspaper and news magazine editors, as well as some senior broadcasters, about t

The questions

1 If you have children, do you (or did you) send them to private

or state school?

2 Did you yourself attend private or state school?

3 Do you use private health care?

4 What is your view of our public services, especially our education system and the health service?

The answers

John Witherow at the Sunday Times

My three kids all went or go to private school. I attended both state and private schools and my wife, who is naturally influential in our children’s education, went only to state school. I use both NHS and private health care, and my view of state secondary schools is that some of them are excellent but generally they underperform and a minority of them are letting down children.

Will Lewis at the Daily Telegraph

1 State school
2 State school
3 When I have to – eg, too long to wait for an operation/treatment
4 There are some brilliant state schools, and great hospitals, but the
overall quality is not good enough given the money that has been
invested by taxpayers.

Roger Alton (below) at the Independent

1 Yes, one, sent, private . . .
2 Yes, private
3 Yes, though it’s absurdly expensive and doesn’t really deliver . . . get early access to a doctor for check-up, hand up the arse and all that . . .
4 Health service seems pretty wonderful, though difficult to get in, and infrastructure awful – rubbish carpet tiles kind of thing; but my parents were very well cared for in their last days . . . education seems absolutely ghastly most of the time, especially in London, God knows why . . . partly awful parents, the dreadful random violence and yobbery of a lot of people, hostility to thought and study, poor teachers . . . very very sad that of the western world we haven’t built a free education system that people are proud of . . . also, fucking around with the syllabus awful, no games and sports, and dismal recreation stuff . . . theatre etc . . . it’s a miracle people do so well . . . personally I would advise people to flog their widescreens and try to send their kids private.

Gareth Morgan at the Daily Star Sunday

Most of what you ask is public record: yes, I have two children and they are both in state education; I went to a state school and my family has used a mixture of both NHS and private health care in the past year.
Along with the army of Daily Star Sunday readers and millions of ordinary Britons, I have huge respect for the doctors, nurses and teachers working on the front line.
But, in equal measure, I distrust the bad management and wasteful bureaucracy that puts a brake on those people, preventing them from doing their jobs to the best of their abilities. Modern-day lions led by donkeys.

John Ryley, head of Sky News

1 Both state and private
2 Both state and private
3 No
4 The NHS is very good when the chips are down.

Alan Rusbridger at the Guardian

1 Mixture of the two
2 State primary then private
3 Generally NHS. Have health insurance
4 I would guess the Guardian would generally be perceived as the paper most supportive of investment in public services in general and which devotes the most space towards education and the health service in particular.

Michael Grade at ITV

1 All three have been or are at a private school.
2 Private
3 Yes
4 Education: underinvested, overpoliticised and under-delivering. Class sizes and schools too big. I feel for teachers having to implement endless streams of directives coming from central government. There should be an all-party consensus on the way forward. Education is too important to be a political football.
Health: brilliant service despite political classes believing they can actually run it, which results in too much investment being poured into management systems.

Mark Thompson at the BBC

Thank you very much for asking
Mark to take part in a survey of editors. I’m afraid Mark doesn’t think it appropriate to take part in this as he does not answer questions on his family or private life and as editor-in-chief cannot express personal views about public policy matters. Sorry not to be able to help on this occasion.

Matthew d’Ancona at the Spectator

Will pass on this. Many thanks for asking me.

John Mullin at the Independent on Sunday

1 We have three kids, and they all go to state schools. That, though, is not quite the full story: when we moved from Edinburgh, we did so midterm and at short notice, and our eldest went to an (excellent) prep school. He’s back in the non-private sector now, but only because we managed to get him a place at the London Oratory. If we hadn’t managed that, he’d still be private. Our two daughters are much younger, and have better state options locally.
2 I was at Seafar Primary in Cumbernauld – and have very happy memories of it. Then, my parents made a big
sacrifice for me to go to private school in Glasgow. My elder siblings had a tough time at the local comprehensive, and have fewer glowing memories. I do feel something of a hypocrite, though.
3 I do have private health care. But I have only used it for physio when my creaking body gives out.
4 The NHS has been brilliant any time I have dealt with it – like when our youngest, aged two, swallowed a pile of a visitor’s sleeping tablets. It is perhaps less so when matters are less acute. As far as London is concerned, I don’t have too much faith in state secondary education, though such a responsibility leaves me feeling nauseous.

John Mulholland at the Observer
1 State
2 State
3 Have private health insurance through work
4 The quality of NHS care will surely vary depending on which part of the service you look at. But the health service is still free at the point of care, which is wonderful.
It seems that high-technology care and acute care of adults and children are generally excellent, but care that involves collaboration with other parts of the health service or social services, the community part of medicine and some mental health services are not as sleek or well funded. Cancer services have improved dramatically. It is so hard to deal with inequalities in health.
I think the picture in education is equally complex: tremendous advances in some areas – spending on labour and capital projects has been impressive – but has this resulted in a better standard of teaching inside Britain’s schools? I don’t know. My limited experience has been generally good, but I’m sure there is variance.
It’s beyond doubt, though, that the majority of people who work in Britain’s schools and hospitals are wonderfully committed and carry out hugely demanding tasks in extremely difficult circumstances. There are times when we present an unremittingly negative image of the UK’s health and education systems – because they ought to be scrutinised – and you have to wonder whether it has a corrosive effect on the people who work there. Perhaps all of us could spend a day in an inner-city classroom, or a night in an A&E unit.

Geordie Greig at the Evening Standard

1 Three children: all at private school
2 Private school
3 I use the National Health Service but also have Bupa
4 It is an indictment of government that so many people
in Britain would choose to use private health and private education rather than rely solely on the state systems.
For decades there has been general consensus that a good school and national health system are two pretty basic goals.

Peter Wright at the Mail on Sunday
1 Private
2 Both state and private, but predominantly private
3 Occasionally, but predominantly I use the NHS
4 Where do I start? I am sure Alastair will find the answers he is looking for in the pages of the Mail on Sunday.

Jason Cowley at the New Statesman
2 State school
3 I was a member of the company health-care scheme at each of my last two jobs – at the Observer and at Granta.
It’s wonderful that our health service is free at the point of use, but I believe wealthier people should be charged a small fee for seeing a GP as they do a dentist.
4 I would prefer to send my children to state school; fortunately, our local state school is one of the best in Britain. I profoundly disapprove of our culture of educational apartheid, of the way the richest 8 per cent or so buy themselves out of the system. I believe in streaming rather than in mixed-ability teaching, but within the state system.
Members of my family have been wonderfully well served by the health service in recent years. But it also needs urgent reform: too much money has been spent and wasted during the New Labour years.

Paul Dacre at the Daily Mail

When several days of silence followed the initial request to the Mail supremo Paul Dacre (below), Alastair Campbell followed up with an email:
“I was wondering whether you had received the questions I have put to all national paper editors about their education choices for the New Statesman issue of [23] March, which I will be editing, and when, given your stated interest in freedom of information, you might be deigning to reply.”

Dacre replied the following day:

“Thank you for your (ungrammatical) email. My secretary has been away recently and I am unaware of the questions you refer to. Perhaps you’d be kind enough to reissue them.”

Having done so, and having added a question about whether Dacre felt his personal choices influenced his papers’ coverage of public services, Campbell wrote again, twice, first thanking him for his reminder about grammar, and offering him a day’s work as proofreader at the New Statesman, then saying:

“I hope you have had time to look at the questions for my guest-edited New Statesman. I know how busy you must be but hope you find the minute or under it will take to answer.”

He also posted a public request for the information on his website:

“Come on, Mr Dacre, it won’t take long. I read somewhere the other day that you were a great believer in freedom of information, or does that only apply to people deemed by you to be in ‘public life’, not people of vast wealth and some influence who peddle prejudice and poison into public life on a daily basis?”

Finally, Dacre answered (see below), followed soon afterwards by Peter Wright, editor of the Mail on Sunday. Campbell sent a further email asking Dacre to confirm that the independent school in question was Eton and asking at what point the children of public figures did become “fair game” for the media. Then the trail went quiet . . . Campbell did, however, post a message on his Facebook page that he still loathed the Mail but was grateful for the answers. This led to angry messages suggesting Campbell was being far too nice, and a debate about who would play Dacre in a film.

1 While I am fair game to be written about, my children aren’t, which is why I never talk about them. It is, however, in the public domain that they attended the same independent school to which one of them won
a scholarship. Both boys also spent some years at state primary schools.
2 I took the eleven-plus and won an assisted place to a direct-grant independent school, which took
a third of its pupils on similar scholarships paid for by the local authority. The assisted places scheme – which had given so many children from homes that couldn’t afford fees the chance of a top education – was killed by this Labour government.
3 I have used and use both the NHS and – as a member of the company’s health insurance scheme – private medicine. I am inordinately grateful to both sectors.
4 The Mail’s views of Britain’s
public services are fully outlined in our leader columns.

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?

***

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.

***

 

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?

***

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