Friday, 15 November 2013

Who Needs Capability Assessment?

You would expect a sensible government to put in place critical assessments where there is a need to manage substantial risks and dangers, but otherwise make trust and openness the norm.

By that simple logic, the British Government would insist on carrying out the most stringent capability assessment of bankers and financial traders to determine if they can be trusted to manage other people’s money. Their failings in the past have cost us almost a trillion pounds in bank bailout spending. But the government prefers to leave them to it. Even the tax on their bonuses was dropped on the grounds that they should not be troubled by the red tape of government control.

Where the government does want to see much more red tape is in the lives of vulnerable people. Take the Work Capability Assessment, for example. People who have been found by their doctors to suffer impairment, which prevents them from getting adequate paid employment, need disability allowance to survive. But they are subject to an assessment regime, notorious for its flawed criteria, run by people with no medical expertise, which to meet pre-determined targets would simply declare a large number of them as ‘fit to work’ and cut their benefits. The victims are left to starve. Some have committed suicide.

Why doesn’t the government put an end to this? Or at least recognise that if anyone’s capability sorely needs to be assessed, it is that of the contractor paid millions to do something they are manifestly incapable of doing fairly or competently.

That takes us to the heart of the matter. This government only believes in using ‘capability assessment’ to make life more difficult for scapegoat groups it wants to portray as untrustworthy. Disabled people and low income groups seeking social security; immigrants looking for an opportunity to start a new life in the country; unions trying to resort to strike actions when all else fail; they all have to jump through endless hoops and still find themselves branded negatively.

By contrast, if you are in tune with the plutocratic outlook of this government, then capability is not an issue at all. Like G4S, you can mess up the public contracts given to you, end up being investigated by the Serious Fraud Office, and still be given more work and money by this government ( Or like HCA (Hospital Corporation of America), which has been fined over $1 billion for mis-selling healthcare in the US, but is a generous donor to the Conservative Party, and it gets a lucrative NHS contract

In fact, in order to bring in more corporate ‘high flyers’ to take charge of public services such as education and policing, the government wants to get rid of capability assessment altogether. It has scrapped the requirement of a formal qualification in teaching for academies, ‘free schools’, and (since September 2013) Further Education. Business executives can soon be parachuted into the top ranks of our police forces with no experience in policing whatsoever.

Ultimately, this government’s thinking on capability assessment comes down to this. If you’re high up the corporate ladder, ready to side with/donate to the party that will look after your interests, you will be rewarded even if you’re grossly incompetent. But if you’re low down the socio-economic scale, unable to fight against the vilification and injustice directed at you, you can expect to have plenty of assessments coming your way to frustrate you.

[It is worth remembering that less than 0.9% of the social security budget is lost through fraud AND error (£3.2b), whereas £18 billion more would be spent if there were no underclaim or underpayment of benefits. See, The Lies We Tell Ourselves: ending comfortable myths about poverty (report by Baptist Union of Great Britain, Methodist Church, Church of Scotland, & the United Reformed Church, 2013)]

Friday, 1 November 2013

The Cooperative Gestalt

One of the most significant contributions of the Enlightenment is its transformative approach to learning. By shifting the focus from static authority-based teaching to progressive lifelong learning, it enabled us to think and interact with one another in a radically critical and democratic way, which opened up new opportunities to improve our lives.

But just as it has become fashionable in some quarters to dismiss the Enlightenment, the value of progressive lifelong learning has also been increasingly undermined.

So let us take stock and ask ourselves:
What exactly is distinctive about progressive lifelong learning?
What makes its cultivation of the cooperative gestalt so valuable?
Why are some people against it?
& what can we do to promote it in spite of the obstacles before us?

What is progressive lifelong learning?

Instead of accepting that one individual or group of individuals can claim that by some special privilege they alone can know what ought to be believed, and others must accept on their authority what they are told to believe, progressive lifelong learning assesses and shares ideas on what is to be believed in an on-going, provisional manner that is open to anyone to contribute, question and revise. A hypothesis, which may be upheld at one time because of the weight of probabilities supporting it, can come to be amended or altogether rejected should new evidence and interpretations cast doubt on its reliability.

The value of the Cooperative Gestalt

What makes progressive lifelong learning so valuable is not the production of new knowledge as such. The monumental Encyclopaedia produced by the leading Enlightenment thinkers in the 18th century is hardly of much value as a source of knowledge now. Neither is it special in setting out a definitive methodology for acquiring knowledge, or simply being a modernist spirit in seeking to overturn ideas of the past. Its real value lies in cultivating what may be termed the ‘Cooperative Gestalt’, a mindset that disposes those who have embraced it to:
(1) view others without prejudice as fellow human beings with whom one can collaborate on equal terms to pursue shared objectives;
(2) explore with others on what may be believed on the basis of the open exchange of evidence, testimony, and experiments that are available to public scrutiny; and
(3) involve others in making decisions on matters that are not already settled by common consent, under conditions of informed discussions and mutual respect.

Opponents of progressive lifelong learning

The more people interact with others with the Cooperative Gestalt, the more we approximate a truly inclusive society, grounded in solidarity, and helped forward with the shared deliberations of critical minds. But it is precisely because this would undermine the power of certain exclusionary groups to do as they please that progressive lifelong learning has such implacable opponents. From fundamentalists who want to be able to push their unquestionable doctrines, to ‘I’m more than alright, Jack’ plutocrats who want education to serve their narrow profiteering ends, they would like to see progressive lifelong learning fade away. The problem is compounded by muddled relativists who think nothing taught can ever be better or worse than anything else, not to mention the ‘this glass is one-tenth empty’ brigade who belittles everything about the Enlightenment because it did not achieve improvements in every sphere of life over night.

How to support the cultivation of the Cooperative Gestalt

In order to counter the attempts to marginalise progressive lifelong learning, and promote the cultivation of the Cooperative Gestalt, we need to address the needs, so to speak, of the head, the heart and the hands. The head needs to be reinforced with greater understanding. It is important to explain why it is better to learn continuously in an open and inclusive manner so that we are able to make the most of changing circumstances for the good of all. The heart needs to be stirred with passionate concern. We should explore diverse means – fiction, art, film – to fire up the desire to resist attempts to shut down the cooperative mindset. Last but not least, the hands need the practical tools to bring about changes. We should make use of the many resources available to strengthen the impact of progressive lifelong learning.

(For more information on resources available to help teach the Cooperative Gestalt, see ‘Learning more about Cooperative Gestalt')

[The above is based on the talk given by Henry Tam at the ‘Power of Adult Learning’ conference, 23 October 2013, held at the University of Edinburgh (jointly organised by WEA Scotland, Learning Link Scotland, the Scottish Community Development Centre, Dyslexia Scotland, and Lead Scotland).]