Niall Ferguson on the devolution of Education to a bigger society…

This podcast of Niall Ferguson’s last Reith lecture (transcript, h/t Nev) is well worth listening to, not least because a really sharp Scottish audience which is not prepared to let him off with anything sloppy.

There’s some very good stuff on de Tocqueville, and Democracy in America at the beginning plus a great line on technology. On education, I rather think his own rather too strident ideology gets in the way his making a good point on how devolving greater autonomy and greater ownership of schools (anticipated by another sharp itinerant Scot, John Kay), either to the governing body or indeed out of the wider educational system.

His example of the Harlem Success Academies, has some staggering figures of success, although he sort of ducks the question of academic selection when he notes that entry to these are by old fashioned lottery.

He asserts that the welfare state is somehow responsible for failing schools but removing them from the convening power of the free associative power of citizens, but does not, in the Q&A, address the first base problem of poor association in working class communities and the overwhelming capacity of the middle classes to monopolises scarce resources.

His allusion to Sweden and Denmark is instructive but he does not go into great detail on the situation where state funding follows students into the privately run Free Schools… Nor does he admit that in Denmark at least these have a long tradition and are embedded in the wider liberal tradition of Grundtvig.

Finally, it is good to hear some real conversation (even with some of its ideology side alleys) about Education for once. Our conversations on education in Northern Ireland has got stuck in an instrument (and largely pointless) argument about selection.

A larger conversation about what we think education is for, its relation to the state, its capacity to enhance social mobility and harness creativity and ambition is long overdue. Ferguson’s lecture is far from a perfect holiday, but at least it gives a glimpse of other possible ways of doing things.

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