Hidden Variables 1

I have been mulling over my experiences on the supply-teaching circuit over the last year. My quest – apart from basic survival – was partly existential (can I, at the age of 55, do anything useful in the modern teaching environment?), partly confessional (what could RC or Jesuit education bring to this brave new world of teaching?), and partly investigative (are there significant factors in education which are not considered when rewarding or punishing institutions and individuals – hidden variables).

The answer to the first points to hidden variables. The excellent institution that I ended up working in for the last two terms seemed genuinely appreciative of my services impersonating an English teacher. Several of the students were positive about my classes. Most of the students seem to have made some progress (though by no means all). So the simple answer to my first question was ‘yes’. Nevertheless, being brutally frank, my standards of classroom discipline (the classes I was given included some tricky characters) were not the best and in the course of my time I taught perhaps two or three lessons that OFSTED might have rated ‘good’.   The rest were what used to be satisfactory (and now require improvement) and one or two were disasters.

In order to stay even this much on top of the job, with a light teaching load of 13 – 14 hours per week (out of 25), spread over 4 KS3 classes (so no exam classes) and four days, I found it necessary to work between 40 and 50 hours a week. My colleagues, young, talented, committed and full-time were probably working one-and-a-half to twice that amount of time. They had exam classes as well. Their lessons were formally assessed on the internal inspection regime and were consistently of the highest standard: good or outstanding. From the lessons that I observed myself, this was amply deserved. They were brilliant teachers.

So how to make some sense of this mismatch? How is it that the work of a plodder like moi came to be useful in an otherwise technically top-of-the-range teaching environment?   Let me be clear, the school was deservedly rated outstanding. The commitment to the pupils (some of whom were very challenging) was unwavering. The support systems were excellent. If there is a puzzle here it is one that lies at the heart of the current state system, its model of excellence and the tools which it uses to drive up standards. See what you think about this possible account.

The inspection regime with its remorseless drive towards excellence affects the lives of salaried teachers only. Supply teachers are off the radar. Obviously a supply teacher who is a disaster will not be asked to come back the next day, but those who can get by, keep the more unruly within bounds and get a reasonable amount of quality work out of the majority are not formally monitored like the permanent staff.

In the benign version of an inspection regime, we find a collaborative system for professional development, enabling individuals to raise their game and serve the students better. In the brutal version we find (to use the sort of language favoured by some politicians and journalists) a tool for weeding out the dross. In both versions, teachers who are genuinely not coping can be given clear reasons to move on. But under the brutal version, people who might once have been considered above-average teachers discover that standards are higher now, and it may be time to go before being pushed. Yet these are just some of those who will find their way back into the game via the supply pool.

Whether the regime in a particular school is benign or brutal, the demands are intense. The requirements of formalized assessment for learning must be fulfilled (I wonder was this exactly what Black and Wiliam envisaged?), there must be measurable outcomes lesson by lesson, an eye must be kept on data – is child x meeting their target level? (more about data elsewhere). All of this together with high quality lessons appropriate to the group ability yet challenging each individual, good use of visuals and technology, the right amount of content (not too much, not too little) according to the scheme of work and excellent behaviour management of some occasionally very difficult young people. Don’t get me wrong, when it’s well done, it works and is wonderful to witness, but it is draining day on day.

Finally, from January onwards there is the exam frenzy of extra classes, including overnight subject-retreats, to drag both the willing and the recalcitrant (or sullenly slumped) over the magic CD border. This is premier league teaching. Not surprising that not all of us can keep up the pace. Nor is it surprising when premier league teachers get injured, even invalided out for a season.

Since 2010 the government has gathered its statistics (https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/440577/Text_SFR21-2015.pdf) on schools staffing in November each year. Before 2010 those statistics were gathered in January. This is significant, because, like the premiership season, in the first quarter of the academic year, when all are still fresh, the squad is nearer full strength. However, things can change. You may have a full staff on the 3rd of November. But by the 3rd of January you might well be down one or two. I replaced a schools-direct candidate who fell by the wayside at the beginning of November but that statistic will not show in either 2014 or 2015. Nor was I the only late signing. Multiply that across the system.

However, let’s explore the November figures a little more. You will probably be better at reading statistics than me, but the tables for secondary schools for 2002 – 2015 seem to suggest that the number of temporary contracts (people like me?) at the start of the year has been increasing since 2010. This is in spite of the aggressive and effective recruitment of bright young graduates into some specific difficult areas (Teach First had 186 candidates in 2003, 996 in 2012; my school readily recruited schools direct candidates). However, the figure of 1300 secondary teachers on temporary contracts last September does seem to dovetail neatly with the shortfall in recruitment to training programmes in 2013 and 2014 (539 and 1352 respectively – presumably including PGCE). Though this amounts to only 0.8% of the teaching body, which probably means about 0.6 of a teacher per school, it highlights a flaw in the premiership recruitment programme. There aren’t enough players – or at least not enough players prepared to work under these conditions for this money (see the Economist article and my comments below).

But the average school is an abstraction. What the statistics do not show, of course, is how those 1300 are distributed (it will not be 0.6 teachers per school), nor what it is like being one of the schools that is struggling to recruit staff. The important details that affect the life of real schools are invisible in the statistics. Why is it so difficult to recruit in this area? Who has resigned at Christmas or become long-term sick? Why have they got sick? Is it sheer misfortune, or is it work-related? What sort of a gap do they leave in the running of the school? What classes will spiral out of control unless properly managed and taught?

Working as a day-to-day supply teacher (presumably the cheapest sort) it is interesting to feel the atmosphere amongst students and staff of different establishments, ranging from focused, purposeful and orderly to borderline anarchic. It is also interesting to note that even beautifully equipped academies can fall in the latter category.

Then there is the life-cycle of an individual school, which is both affected by and affects its financial resources. Is it on an upswing, a new educational magnet, recruiting more students with parents committed to their education, able to attract talented and ambitious teachers? Is it cruising, with a stable trusted staff and a stable body of parents who trust the institution, riding on a good or outstanding OFSTED inspection? Is it on the frightening downward spiral, where parental confidence is eroded, numbers fall, finances become difficult, special measures lurk around the corner?

Whichever phase an individual school may be in, if they lose a premiership teacher – or a trainee premiership teacher – in the course of a year (and this will happen within the system to any quality of school and for a variety of reasons) it may well find the only people left on the bench are the championship players (to continue – if not belabour – the metaphor) who can at least work the full 90 minutes professionally, and keep the team in the game. Hence the paradox in the system: the ever-increasing pressure to perform to an ever-more-demanding standard on salaried teachers, matched by the increasing need for competent professionals (who do not necessarily meet those standards) to fill the gaps when the salaried move on, move out or go down.

And this leads to a further question: if a satisfactory/’requires improvement’ teacher can nevertheless do a recognizably useful job, what does that say about the criteria of judgment? Could it be this: the variables highlighted by the current inspection regime, important though they may be, are not the only significant ones in the teaching process. There are perhaps hidden variables (disregarded or minimalised within the current system) that also contribute to good outcomes.  Did you see that thought-provoking BBC series on the Chinese school experiment?  More anon.

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Pope Francis on the Common Home

The pope has just produced a letter, addressed to everybody who might be interested, encouraging a change of heart and a change of lifestyle, for the good of our planet.  His words will strike a chord with many and doubtless annoy a lot of people as well – particularly those who share Adam Smith’s brisk attitude to ‘whining moralists’ (see previous) and who regard the unquestioned pursuit of personal comfort and well-being as a perfectly legitimate aim in life.

I’d highlight two themes of particular interest that run through the document (there are of course many).  One is that concern for global ecology has to include human ecology – human social, political and economic activity has to be viewed as an integral part of our world’s ecosystems.  The other (following out of it) is that a new economics and a new civic culture are needed to achieve fair and balanced access to the world’s resources for all.  Green is also Red.

The stumbling block to any such transformation is, of course, the way we have been brought up, what we have got used to, what our culture has taught us to aspire to.  Here the entrepreneurial virtues of Republican Rome, espoused by Adam Smith and his (selective) admirers, run up against the monkish – or rather friarish – virtues that run through the tradition of Western Christianity.  Are we prepared to drink fewer lattes and make other sacrifices for the poor, or for the forests, and why would that really do any good?

This document will divide those who are optimistic that new technologies will ensure continuous growth and cope with any damage to ecosystems and those who believe that we need to find a new way of living, in an economy which has the structure of a sustainable ecological cycle.

At the heart of the document, though, is a vision, elements of which will be recognisable to many religious traditions and some secular ones (modern equivalents of true Epicureanism for instance): a vision of the place of humanity within the world’s systems, but with a unique responsibility for protecting a precious and wonderful gift.  It implies a contemplative love for the world, but especially for the poor and marginalised.  Only out of such a vision comes the conversion of attitude that can lead to ecologically friendly living.

As said, some will reject the idealisation of ‘monkish virtues’ as a betrayal of robust, go-getter humanity by whining moralists.  Others will question the need for, let alone the possibility of, another way of doing things.   Much of the ground, the concerns and the proposals will be familiar from other sources – this is not a document created in a vacuum as the references show (and that is as it should be).  The text is occasionally elliptic (perhaps due to the editing process).  The cultural narrative sometimes falls into a classic Vatican bounce between an over-generalised pessimism and pat-on-the-head optimism about elements of modernity.  Technology and science have brought great benefits, but have objectified our view of the world.  Economics can be reformed and business is a noble concern, yet business interests and the profit motive are destroying the planet.  Nevertheless, this is a robust and trenchant re-rooting of ecological and social concerns at the heart of the projects of at least one significant religious group, and it is an attractive and thought-provoking invitation to dialogue for anyone who is half-way prepared to share those concerns.

The whole letter runs to 77 A4 pages.  This digest, reduced to 12 pages, will give you (I hope) a reasonably authentic flavour of the whole.

Digest of Papal Encyclical on Care of the Common Home

For a richer and more detailed commentary see Damian Howard SJ on Thinking Faith

Damian Howard on ‘Laudato Si”

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Altruists, Incentives and Sustainability – thoughts on a recent Economist article on teaching.

‘Teaching ought to be a profession for hardworking altruists who want to improve children’s life prospects. But all too often school systems seem designed to attract mediocre timeservers.’

‘You can find outstanding individuals in the worst school systems. But, as lazy and incompetent teachers get away with slacking, the committed ones often lose motivation. In America and Britain surveys find plummeting morale.’

‘Jaded British teachers on online forums remind each other that it is just a few months till the long summer break-and just a few years till retirement. No wonder so many children struggle to learn: no school can be better than those who work in it.’

‘Finland pays teachers modestly but manages them well; ten graduates apply for each training place. South Korea recruits teachers from the top 5% of school-leavers and promises them fat pay cheques. In both countries teachers are revered-and results are among the world’s best.’

‘When the school’s boss (a Teach for America alumna) offered teachers much higher pay in return for less job security, their union balked.’

Economist February 14th 2015

These extracts from an Economist article titled ‘Those who can’ carry a clear implication which Adam Smith would be proud of. The great man, speaking in the 1770s claims, ‘In modern times, the diligence of publick teachers is more or less corrupted by the circumstances, which render them more or less independent of their success and reputation in particular professions.’ (WoN Oxford, 2008 p 427) In other words make attractive rewards (in particular, financial rewards) dependent on success, and you will attract the competent and ambitious, who will duly create success.   Offer people financial security irrespective of performance and the profession becomes populated with timeservers with low expectations who bunk off school at every opportunity.

This seems to be a misleading oversimplification – at least in the UK and my guess is elsewhere – in the war over teachers’ terms and conditions. The nature of the oversimplification can be seen from a critical ambiguity in the article’s third paragraph. We learn that ‘Jaded British teachers’ are around in numbers. The initial implication, following on from the prior argument is that these are altruistic, hardworking teachers who have become jaded by the fact that their lazy, timeserving colleagues are getting away with sitting in the staffroom all day, not doing their marking and going home early.   However the move at the end of the paragraph suggests instead that the jadedness itself shows that those teachers are part of just that vast mass of lazy timeservers, who are destroying students’ education.

If formerly hardworking and altruistic teachers become jaded and are destroying people’s education, it is important to ask why. But it does not seem clear, even from the evidence cited in the article, that the causes are simply to do with money v security. After all, we are supposed to be talking about altruists. It might well be that people are prepared for a good cause to take a lower salary than they would get elsewhere, and even risk job insecurity. Though it might be an act of human kindness towards altruists to offer them something of the latter, in return for the former, rather than discarding them the moment they cease to be quite so useful.   Again, according to the article, South Korea employs top school graduates and offers them high wages, yet Finland offers lower wages, but in return manages them well. It is not just about money.

For my part, I find it hard to reconcile the overall picture of classrooms populated by time-serving enemies of good teaching, dragging the reputation of the profession down, with my experience of state education over the last thirty years.   What I believe I have witnessed is actually a revolution in the expectations placed on teachers and in their accountability.   How just and reasonable all the accounting may be is another matter, of course. Nevertheless, all schools now have rigorous, demanding (and ever-evolving) management systems that slowly but inexorably put the squeeze on teachers who are failing to meet the current national, and in-school performance criteria. Time-serving teachers cannot exist at classroom level any more.   Along with the persistently disruptive student no school can afford to tolerate them. They will either change their behaviour or be moved on.

If you were to ask the jaded classroom teachers in the UK exactly why they were jaded, my guess is that very few would give as a reason, that their classroom peers were getting the same pay for less work than them.   It would have a lot more to do with the pressure of being under a scrutiny, whose critical gaze constantly finds new areas to criticize and (particularly for older teachers) implicitly rubbishes the energetic and enthusiastic work of their past. It would have much to do with the quality of management in their school, whether it was human and realistic or inhumane and unreasonable or just plain misguided; whether it respected persons or preferred to deploy psychopathic efficiency in the relentless thrust to drive up standards.   For younger teachers, there may be the issue of the exploitation of their energy and idealism in institutions desperate for the rapid real and reputational success that makes schools desirable to parents and potential teacher-recruits.

I would also note, that if there is one thing that colleagues really resent, it is the rapid promotion of those whose talent (they believe) is not obviously greater than theirs, but who have learned the rhetoric of the hour and often seem (they believe) to work less hard thereafter. Jealousy, yes, but there is a point to it. Anyone who has taught in a state school knows that success in the classroom is dependent on a huge number of hidden variables that make performance related pay almost impossible to administer fairly.

Marx has a good line in his Deutsche Ideologie which translates something like: ‘the employers have not only made themselves intolerable to the workers; they have made work itself intolerable’. It seems to me that something of this has happened in teaching in the UK in the last 15 years. A justifiable drive towards a general increase in the quality of classroom teaching and provision for students has rendered the profession unlivable for many. Among that many, I would suggest are not just the timeservers, but also a substantial number of the hard-working altruists, whose hard-work and altruism can, in difficult circumstances, fail to match the absolute demands of the local system. If this were just the voice of jaded old altruists like me – well, I suppose we’re part of the dead wood that needed to be cut away.   But the question of livability affects the dynamic twenty- somethings and thirty-somethings who are already receiving the sort of promotional incentives and TLRs that the Economist is recommending.   The drive towards success and productivity is also experienced as a drive towards early burnout and breakdown.

Finland would appear to be on to something. It’s about how we manage systems of people, not (just) about how we structure financial incentives (refer Michael Sandel’s thought-provoking What Money Can’t Buy). A friend of mine recently visited a well-known and successful academy – a type of institution promoted precisely to circumvent the national terms and conditions for state teachers and allow for performance-related pay incentives (and management prescribed working hours). As he was shown round, my friend noted that there was no staff room. His guide told him that if the staff had a place where they were allowed to talk together freely, there would be a revolution.

Currently I work in a school with a young and dynamic middle management and a young middle-aged senior leadership team. There is, by and large, an excellent working atmosphere, lots of collaborative work, lots of positive support.   There is immense generosity from the staff, who are committed to giving the students the best deal academically.   There is even a place for oldies like me – there on a supply contract.   It seems to me that this is probably about as good as the current system gets.   However, there are, even so, here as well the nagging questions about the sustainability of the system as a whole.   Perhaps these questions are also implied in the Economist article.

Let us suppose that UK schools are like football clubs. Some are in the premier league, some are in lower divisions.   All have their local fan base. The premiership schools naturally attract money, students and ambitious and able recruits. However, the premiership schools, like the football clubs, are successful, in part because they have potential recruits queuing at the door – which makes it much easier to drive up standards and move people on in the unremitting pursuit of excellence. Apparently (according to another article in the same edition of The Economist) the Teach First model (adapted from Teach America) has added to that queue and (arguably) brought rewards to London teaching.

[Caveamus: it is important to note that when Teach First teachers succeed it is probably because they are in premiership contexts with a quality of support that allows their energy, creativity and natural ability to lead, to make up (and more) for their lack of experience. There are also horror stories.]

Following this model, one question is whether all schools in the UK can become premiership schools. Or do the hidden variables of location, social context, the emotional battering from difficult children along with the limited size of pool of hardworking, competent young altruists (let alone available funding) make this unrealistic? It would be interesting to know the statistics of the proportion of supply teachers to regular teachers employed across the country at the moment or how quickly we could actually replace the population of the jaded. It would also be interesting to see what happens to Teach First applications when the wider job market picks up.

Let us suppose that it is possible. We now have a second question. Must we now say that class room teaching, for all but a few energetic geniuses, is (like footballing) a career with a natural fifteen year lifespan, after which you need either to be doing something else, or working in educational senior management?   The sophisticated demands of wider-ranging competence, creativity and flexibility in modern classroom teaching may mean that it is now no country for old men (or women).

Or we could, of course, suggest that the current work-model in schools (as elsewhere in modern working life) may possibly be deranged.   Herein lies a systemic problem, rather than a problem about the behaviour of evil individuals. The voice of Adam Smith comes in here again with a rather different tone:

‘If masters would always listen to the dictates of reason and humanity, they have frequently occasion rather to moderate than to animate the application of many of their workmen. It will be found I believe, in every sort of trade, that the man who works so moderately as to be able to work constantly, not only preserves his health the longest, but in the course of the year, executes the greatest quantity of work.’ (WoN [Oxford, 2008] p 83).

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Reading Mr Smith

Adam, that is.  And specifically the Oxford World Classics selection from The Wealth of Nations and the Online Library Of Liberty’s version of the Glasgow edition of The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759).  My reasons for reading are this.  One of the puzzles about modern economic arguments for the uninitiated (like me) is that though they are used to determine decisions that directly affect the happiness or misery of millions, they rarely refer directly to straightforwardly ethical categories.  So what are the ethical assumptions (if any) of Mr Smith himself, the father of the ideal of perfect market liberty and how do these cohere with his ideal?  Secondly, there is the concept of ‘perfect liberty’ itself.   Though WN clearly presents this as an ideal throughout, the realities of the contemporary world order are equally clearly very different.   So on what basis can we decide that this is indeed the one ideal situation which will guarantee the best outcomes for all?  That’s a puzzle for later.


For the time being I want to articulate a standard impression of the relationship between ethical language and economics, particularly for the purpose of effective argument.   I hope my impression is not too unfair.  ‘Good’ becomes a persuasive factor in ‘good for growth’ or ‘good for business’.  ‘Value’ is ‘market value’ or whatever people are prepared to pay money for.   The arguments for tough economic decisions that will foreseeably make life harsher for our fellow human beings are akin to ‘robust’ arguments for going to war.  Argument A (other-related): If we don’t do it this way, we won’t be in a position to be nice to anyone because [we won’t have any money/we’ll be dead/invaded].    Argument B (self-related) we need to protect our own national interests first before worrying about the interests of other nationals/individuals/collateral damage.  This is not to say that such pragmatic arguments mayn’t sometimes have their place amid a range of other arguments.  But it is to note that they tend to have greater force in collective decision-making than ‘let’s try and be nice to everyone arguments’. (These in turn seem to have much greater force in individual decision-making, or under conditions of collective well-being).  Get the economics right, trust the process and the best possible outcome follows. We do not need to worry about the ethical detail, which must shift for itself.

So where does Mr Smith stand on the relationship between economics and ethics?

Virtuous living

One of the most striking things about the ethical language of Smith – as indeed of Hume – is its focus on virtues, and indeed   virtues very much within the classical tradition (Roman moralists from Cicero to Marcus Aurelius are frequently cited).  These civil and civilised virtues are contrasted favourably with degraded ‘monkish virtues’, which latter (for instance) emphasise servile humility above a proper sense of self-worth and capacity to celebrate one’s abilities (the old virtue of magnanimity).

In this regard there is an important distancing from the ethical assumptions of Medieval Catholicism, with its (theoretical) idealisation of poverty and simple living.  Both Smith and Hume attempt to give a kind of ‘natural history’ of human moral sensibilities and both pick up on what they observe as an instinctive revulsion at those who are poor and our natural attraction to those who are rich and splendid.  Hume (I may be doing him an injustice here, because I have not read enough) seems to take this in his stride.  Smith, however, throughout WN and his Ethics shows concern for the plight of the poor (examples to follow later on in these reflections).

The following passage, it seems to me, reveals clearly the contrast between the universe of moral sensibilities that Adam Smith wishes to celebrate and the alternatives.

“The first are those whining and melancholy moralists, who are perpetually reproaching us with our happiness, while so many of our brethren are in misery, who regard as impious the natural joy of prosperity, which does not think of the many wretches that are at every instant labouring under all sorts of calamities, in the languor of poverty, in the agony of disease, in the horrors of death, under the insults and oppression of their enemies… this extreme sympathy with misfortunes which we know nothing about, seems altogether absurd and unreasonable…  those who affect this character have commonly nothing but a certain affected and sentimental sadness, which, without reaching the heart, serves only to render the countenance and conversation impertinently dismal and disagreeable.”  (OLL Works and Correspondence Vol 1, pp 205 – 6)

It’s not daft: being miserable about something you can’t do anything about probably is fairly pointless.  Nor is it obviously bad to be well-off.  But this does affirm a bracing attitude to the woes of others.  There is an interesting supporting observation about the global situation of humanity, which puts the reason for adjusting our sensibilities on a scientific basis:

‘Take the whole earth at an average, for one man who suffers pain or misery, you will find twenty in prosperity and joy, or at least in tolerable circumstances.’

From this observation he goes on to ask why we should weep with the one rather than rejoice with the twenty.  It seems to me that such ‘bracing’ ethical sensibility is something that we can recognise in different strands of political discourse today.  As well as the wide range of assumptions that go with the phrase ‘tolerable circumstances’.

Nevertheless, Adam Smith inhabits a recognisably virtuous universe and out of this is able to be trenchant in his criticism of the well-to-do.  He denounces the passions of avarice and ambition, in explicitly Stoic vein, as vices that lead a person to misery.  ‘[He] is not only miserable in his actual situation, but is often disposed to disturb the peace of society, in order to arrive at what he so foolishly admires’ (p 215).  We recognise the Stoic ideal of contentment with one’s circumstances as the key to happiness.  (A doctrine promoted without a trace of irony by the fabulously wealthy Seneca).

In a significant passage (which we shall return to) Smith uses phrases like these: ‘The rich only select from the heap what is most precious and agreeable… their natural selfishness and rapacity… though they mean only their own conveniency, though the sole end which they propose… be the gratification of their own vain and insatiable desires…’    There is a clear moral judgment about the motives of the rich and their behaviour, which contrasts dramatically with what Smith believes paradoxically to be the benign consequence of their actions.

Finally, there is place for correcting the imbalance of wealth and success – in favour of virtue. Though nature may allow an energetic ‘knave’ to prosper, while an indolent virtuous person may languish (p 234).  Humanity is ‘by nature directed to correct in some measure the distribution of things which she herself would otherwise have made.’

And we find an optimistic account of the human experience (with a ring of hellenistic philosophical rhetoric to it) as an empirical frame for this moral universe (p 232):

‘If we consider the general rules by which extremes of prosperity and adversity are commonly distributed in this life we shall find that notwithstanding the disorder in which all things appear to be in this world, yet even here every virtue naturally meets with its proper reward, with the recompense which is most fit to encourage and promote it.’

Most particularly, from the point of view of economics and citizenship: ‘what is the reward most proper for encouraging industry, prudence and circumspection?  Success in every sort of business.  Wealth and external honours are their proper recompense, and the recompense which they can seldom fail of acquiring.’  Note the significance of this double claim.  Wealth is a proper reward (in the moral universe) and the actual reward (in the real universe), thus the moral and the real universe naturally come together in the honest pursuit of wealth.  This is a very significant turn from aristocratic (or monkish) contempt for the commercial pursuit of worldly gain, as well as a rejection of the world view of those ‘whining moralists’ who harp on pointlessly about the human misery of an invisible 5%.  Smith notes approvingly the ‘spirit and keenness’ which ‘constitute the difference between the man of enterprise and the man of dull regularity’ (p 240).

The Paradox

In Smith’s moral order human beings are bound by an inner law, found in the moral faculties bestowed by nature, which reward or punish behaviour with tranquillity or agony of conscience (p 231).  He says:

‘By acting according to the dictates of our moral faculties, we necessarily pursue the most effectual means for prompting the happiness of mankind, and may therefore be said, in some sense, to co-operate with the Deity, and to advance as far as in our power the plan of providence’.

So there we have humanity, with humanity’s laws.  But of course, we also have nature, with nature’s laws.  Co-operation in a common end is still the key.   ‘The rules which she follows are fit for her, those which he follows, for him: but both are calculated to promote the same great end, the order of the world and the perfection and happiness of human nature.’ (p 234)

So there is a clear, shared goal, which includes the happiness of human nature.  And an indispensable factor in achieving that goal is ethical human agency.  Yet, paradoxically, when it comes to economics and generating the wealth that will benefit a nation or society, ethical intent may be irrelevant.  Paramount is self-interest.  At WN (Oxford 2008, p 291 – 2) we meet the invisible hand, which leads the entrepreneur, acting (perhaps) entirely in his own interests, to ‘promote an end which was no part of his intention.’  Smith adds, ‘By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it’.

This is most sharply put in the passage we looked at earlier from the TMS (pp 250 – 251).  Smith has been arguing that we are attracted (naturally) by the splendour and conveniences of wealth.  He grants that the attraction is illusory, but claims that the illusion is benign.  ‘It is this deception that rouses and keeps in motion the industry of mankind’ – an industry that has built cities and tamed the earth.  The relentless pursuit of wealth cannot fail to benefit all human kind.  The ‘proud and unfeeling landlord’ may be completely obsessed with his own consumption and give no thought for anyone else, however, the physical limits to the quantity of food that he can consume guarantee that others (his servants, workers etc) will be fed from his abundance.  ‘All of whom thus derive from his luxury and caprice, that share of the necessaries of life, which they would in vain have expected from his humanity or his justice’.

This belief (that a rich person’s uncompromising pursuit of wealth often/usually benefits those employed in providing services for the rich person), yoked with the abstract ideal of the free market (as the most efficient system for maximising overall wealth) abstracted from the wider context of Smith’s writing, is the foundation for economic reasoning that enjoys the luxury of being a science promoting universal well-being without the embarrassment of having to consider awkward ethical effects that don’t fit the equations.

Smith cites the Stoics (it seems approvingly) for their picture of divine and human causality in the world.  ‘[They] were of opinion that as the world was governed by the all-ruling providence of a wise, powerful and good God, every single event ought to be regarded, as making a necessary part of the plan of the universe, and as tending to promote the general order and happiness of the whole: that the vices and follies of mankind, therefore, made as necessary a part of this plan as their wisdom or their virtue; and by that eternal art which educes good from ill, were made to tend equally to the prosperity and perfection of the great system of nature.’ (TMS p 104).

Smith’s conjecture implies just such an optimistic view of the metaphysics of providence alongside an ethical realism and a realism about human behaviour.  Perhaps his free market dream is a Newtonian ideal of virtually harmonised forces, in which the nature of the forces (self- or other-centred ambitions) is irrelevant, provided only the balance is right.  Nevertheless, implicit (and occasionally explicit) is the need for human ethical action to adjust the forces when they are wrongly or unjustly aligned.  Nor is it clear that that adjustment will always be about market liberty.  But more there later…

It is worth finishing with Adam Smith’s evaluation of global human happiness c 1759 to supplement the conceptual context for his economic theory.  He has no problem with different economic ranks in society:

‘When Providence divided the earth among a few lordly masters, it neither forgot nor abandoned those who seemed to have been left out in the partition.  These last too enjoy their share of all that it produces.   In what constitutes the real happiness of human life, they are in no respect inferior to those who would seem so much above them.  In ease of body and peace of mind, all the different ranks of life are nearly upon a level, and the beggar, who suns himself by the side of the highway, possesses that security which kings are fighting for.’ (TMS p 251).  Worthy of Seneca.

What do Mr Smith’s posterity believe about the facts of human life in 2015?  Do they have a coherent anthropology and world view to frame their beliefs?  Do they make room for ethical imperatives and ‘common humanity’? And how would we be able to tell if their beliefs are true or false?

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A Social Experiment

“Good morning.  I hope 2015 is going well for you.  I want to take these pages in a slightly different direction, towards practical matters.  Happily over the last two years, the Catholic Church’s deep-rooted concern for social justice has become more of a talking point again.  The language of the common good has been resuscitated and has provided something of a conceptual basis for Christians to criticise an austerity economics that hits the economically weak hardest.  However, for that critique to have force and bite, those of us who believe that something is wrong and that it could be done better somehow, need to be able to articulate that somehow in a way that clearly and effectively engages with reality.

I am probably too middle-aged and slow-witted to gain much more than a hazy idea of what more intelligent, better informed and more engaged thinkers in economics and social sciences have created.  Nevetheless, over the coming months, I should like to cobble together a few things arising from my amateur reading that may stir your own better-informed thoughts in useful directions, and in this way make my contribution to communal thinking-aloud.

A Social Experiment in education

Alongside my reading I am engaging in a small-scale social experiment on myself.  At the age of 55 I have gone into supply-teaching, as the only generally useful function in modern British society that I am (at least on paper) qualified to serve.  I am hoping that this will achieve a number of goals, the global aim being a worm’s eye view on the world of state education, at least in London.  For someone of my background it offers a test case of the impact of free market ideas and productivity models on the lives and working conditions of ordinary mortals.  And there are of course other specific features of the work  that touch on educational theory and practice, and which I have been wrestling with (floundering with) over the last couple of decades, that I want to get my head round.

At an existential level I am exploring a couple of things.  In the teaching profession I am old, and yet (theoretically, if I were not a religious) I would have another 12 years to go before retirement.  I struggle to produce the sort of lesson that an OFSTED inspector would regard as good, let alone one that (s)he would regard as outstanding.  Can I nevertheless do a useful job in the system?  If the answer is ‘no’ then there are critical questions about the sustainability of the national education system, given the drain of committed teachers leaving the profession early at all ages, unable to cope with the pressure.  If the answer is ‘yes’, then that raises questions both about the honesty and about the real purpose of the OFSTED framework as inspectors trundle around the country ‘driving up standards’ and rewarding (often justly) schools that present well according to the criteria and punishing (sometimes unjustly) schools where the fault lines in the system are visible.  Incidentally, so far the answer appears to be ‘yes’.

 Anecdote and data

Indeed, honesty about causes, effects and realities in education seems generally hard to come by.  A simple example from my travels so far (I’ll come back to OFSTED frameworks another day).   The government’s rule that schools in special measures should be forced to become academies implies that there is a secure causal association between liberating a school from the local authority and placing it under the authority of an independent trust, and an improvement in standards.  In  a London borough where I recently worked several schools have become academies and some have been newly built as academies.  One of these, in a well-to-do part of the borough has been spectacularly successful and is heavily oversubscribed.  Another, where I did a couple of day’s supply work, in a poor part of the borough with a high number of new-migrant families, appears to be struggling and to have falling rolls.  The staff, as far as I could judge, were as committed and as able as you would want to find in any local school.   In spite of corridor patrols by senior staff my own efforts to contain the running around of the students in my charge for the lesson were hampered by the incursion of older students from other classes, who wound the situation up even more.  Very little learning took place in the supply lessons that I covered.  There were perhaps five or more supply teachers in school the days that I was there.

My point is not to make unfair judgments (I did not see enough) about the quality of teaching and learning elsewhere in the school.  It is simply to say (1) here I found a living example that being an academy does not guarantee that a school is a runaway success (2) this example suggests that the more critical factors have very little to do with school ownership or teachers’ pay scales.   This seems to be borne out by the National Audit Offices report on the effectiveness of different interventions in education (October 30th 2014, see http://www.nao.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/Academies-and-maintained-schools-Oversight-and-intervention.pdf).  On page 33 the report summarises their sample findings as follows:

“improvements in Ofsted ratings followed formal interventions in 62 (of 129) schools;

2,181 schools (of 3,696) that received no formal intervention improved (this does not mean that it is better not to intervene formally, and may be because schools received informal support, or due to other factors that our analysis could not control for);

the greatest improvement was in 1 school that became a sponsored academy and moved up 3 ratings from ‘inadequate’ to ‘outstanding’; and

of those that received formal interventions, schools with interim executive boards were the most likely to improve.”

So what are some of the critical factors in turning an unsuccessful school into a successful one?  My own observation would include ‘change local perceptions of you and become oversubscribed’.  How do you change perceptions?  I need to go and talk to some of my headteacher friends.  Then there is the further question, what are the critical factors in making a successful teacher – hmm.  More anon.


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Merry Christmas

And thanks to all of you who have cast your eye over the ramblings on this site.  I hope some of them are of some help in your own process of thinking through stuff.  Those of us who come from faith traditions have a duty to try and think well, though there is a temptation to restrict our endeavours to loyally rehearsing what we have been told.  It can, after all, be very upsetting – for us and for those around us – when we get results that don’t neatly fit official versions of truth.  But if there is a God who cares about this world that we are struggling to share together, any simple formulae for talking about him, her, them are unlikely to be the whole story.  There’s thinking with the Church and there’s thinking for the Church.  Both have their place, but the latter is a service not just to a faith community, but to humanity.  So have courage – there is a cloud of witnesses to this dynamic in every faith tradition.  Keep thinking, keep exploring and do it with compassion, wide vision, imagination and love.

Merry Christmas one and all,


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The Resurrection of the Word

After the gestation period of a woolly Mammoth, in fact, several woolly mammoths, yours truly’s contribution to 21st Century intermediate level theology is about to see the light of day.

Liz Lock has laboured hard to produce ‘The Resurrection of the Word’, a serious upgrade of ‘Beyond the Catechism’. It is longer, but (I hope) more accessible than the original and responds to some of the issues that have emerged since the first text was produced in 2004. If you’re interested you can get it via The Way Books.


As with the original text, there are a couple of guiding principals. One is to explore what happens if you approach traditional Catholic/Christian theology from the point of view of the dominant philosophical/scientific assumptions of the English-speaking world. A second guiding principle is to develop a thought-world relating areas of theology that are otherwise studied under separate headings (God stuff, apologetics, ethics, history, spirituality, etc). This is not revolutionary theology (most revolutionary theology has already been done in the 20th century) but I think there are some good ideas in it. I’m hoping it can help provide a cure for some of the intellectual schizophrenia engendered by inadequate, partisan reading of our Christian past. I’m also hoping that it offers a model of apologetics that converses with modern culture rather than moaning about how awful it is.

So it is intermediate technology. It’s the kind of text that needs to be written about every thirty years. I just happen to be one of the people who wrote it this time round.

Thanks to the many, many people who have been involved in the period of parturition…

(yours truly)


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