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The five thousand-year old question remains

Skara Brae - 2019AD
The question of how to educate our young people has been around as long as people have been organised. The evidence from the remains of the five thousand-year old community of Neolithic people at Skara Brae shows an organisation and sophistication that must have been held together by education and cooperation. How this is best achieved to ensure our futures is still being debated. Rising above the simple 'value for money' approach will be needed to bring our larger communities together to survive.

Yesterday morning I was walking around the remains of the five thousand-year old settlement at Skara Brae on the Island of Orkney. Along with others before me, I was pondering the challenges for the community of people that called this place home. Youngsters had to learn fast and did not expect to live much beyond thirty years old.  It is over 5000 years old and was occupied by Neolithic people from about 3180 BC. There is a familiar sense of  high level organisation and ingenuity. This is also seen in the symbols and structural complexity of the massive passage tomb at Newgrange in Ireland that I have treated many visitors to in the past. Now I am on a short holiday break myself and enjoying fine weather at this other remarkable site that is being preserved for the future. Both should be seen by those seeking to reflect upon our deep roots in these islands. Where boundaries and borders were the seas and rivers; but not to isolate but to be used for communications between people and ideas.
The age-old question is still asked.

The people of Orkney today must feel removed from the events in London this week where the Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation, Chris Skidmore was being quizzed by the Commons Education Committee. Although education in Scotland is devolved, the Orcadians probably even see Edinburgh as distant. But there is no doubt that events and policies in London will ripple out to affect the Orcadian people in time. The five thousand-year old question about how best to educate and equip our young people to thrive in our environment remains the same.  The root question is who organises and pays for education? Do we accede to a communal responsibility and educate all of our people equally and openly share our skills and our ideas. Otherwise, do we ask that individuals and their families seek out education to specifically give them advantage over the less favoured in a straight competition of knowledge acquisition and resources.  It seems that the latter prevails whilst the government’s rhetoric is hollow and faint.
The urgent need for education reform.

The Neolithic Orcadians appear to have worked closely within communities and solved their problems together.  We might also consider this approach to education as a more efficient option.  Yet Chris Skidmore was only now defending the government’s response to a report from the Education committee on Value for Money of Higher Education of November of last year. Unfortunately, the approach from both sides is infected by the needs of the individual and the consideration of ‘value for money’.  There is acknowledgement that our universities must publish in detail how the fees are spent so that individuals can decide what is appropriate. This is a very low target given the problems we are facing. Inflated pay packets for university leaders look like they are ending soon but will leave a vacuum of leadership if the only purpose is ‘value for money’. This has become a blinkered mantra that fails to consider the societal value of education and the pressing need to secure all of our futures.  
Augar and Higher Education.

It is likely that human society always sought to protect the wisest of their members and seek advice and wisdom from them.  It seems that a democracy has an imperative to take this approach. On higher education, Philip Augar has emerged as the wise person to give advice. Yet his deliberations within his small team have been assaulted by ideas from varying quarters in an attempt to strong arm him into recommendations that favour one group over another. The lack of respect is astounding, yet it arises from leaks that seemed to be a tactic to test the mood and reaction in advance. Chris Skidmore protests to the Education Committee that he has not seen a draft of the Augar Report and so we accept that. But maybe others have and there have been discussions.  In the immediate lead up to the education committee, yet another interest group had advice for Augar. The Education Policy Institute (EPI) produced a paper “Post-18 education and funding: options for the government review”.  Based in London, the EPI describes itself as “independent, impartial and evidence-based research institute that aims to promote high quality education outcomes for all children and young people, regardless of social background.” That sounds grand and noble as they warn against reducing fees and against setting minimum entry grade levels. But the authors rely upon their host university continuing to operate and so seek to protect their position. The EPI's main funder is the mysterious Sequoia Trust. Further conflict emerges when one considers that the forward is written by an overtly political ‘Executive Chair’ of the EPI. That is David Laws Liberal Democrat MP (independent School and Cambridge Economics graduate). The political position is evident throughout, despite some sound evidence presented therein. A political Executive Chair is perhaps a bad idea if independence is the aim.
Looking at the outputs this week from a very different perspective, and a long way from the seat of government, I get a profound sense that those considering the age-old question are out of touch with the people they try to represent. Neither David Laws nor Chris Skidmore could have any idea of the challenges that are endured by those from poorer backgrounds. Why should they since they have no experience of this and fail to ask the right questions? I like to imagine that an Orcadian of five thousand years ago would expect more of them or invite them to get back in their boat and go home.

Mike Larkin, retired from Queen's University Belfast after 37 years  teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics.


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