A Vile Ingenuity

So Very Tired (2)

In a previous post regarding the strangely airless Liberal Conspiracy blog, we saw how the obligation to substantiate political claims with logic and evidence induced fatigue in contributor Zohra Moosa. Ms Moosa told us she was “tired” and “distracted” by defending her assumptions and wished instead to “actualize” her beliefs, unhindered by ethical challenges or reference to harsh realities:

What I need is a safer space where I don’t lose so much energy justifying why social and environmental justice are worth spending a lot of society’s money on.

Another item, by Guardian contributor and Fabian Society mouthpiece Sunder Katwala, is noteworthy insofar as it too makes assumptions that are grand, fairly commonplace and oddly unanalysed. Mr Katwala has written at length about “equality” and “social justice”, which appear to be regarded as synonymous, though neither term is defined in any satisfactory sense. In his Liberal Conspiracy piece, titled How Do We Get a Fairer Society?, Katwala argues,

In Britain today, where we are born and who our parents are still matters far too much in determining our opportunities and outcomes in life. And so our own choices, talents and aspirations count for too little. The vision of a free and fair society would be one which extends to us all the autonomy to author our own life stories... This ‘fight against fate’ - breaking the cycle of disadvantage to make life chances more equal - could provide the lodestar to guide future action and campaigns for equality.

If one strips away the tendentious phrasing, questions soon begin to occur, most obviously regarding “who our parents are” and why it so often matters. Does the “fight against fate”, so conceived, acknowledge the role of parental agency – specifically, the efforts made by many parents, not least by working class parents, to optimise their children’s “choices, talents and aspirations”? How do Katwala’s assumptions of “social justice” and “equality” - as ill-defined yet unassailable virtues - relate to the foresight, care and sacrifice which some parents demonstrate, often heroically, and which others, alas, do not?

If what parents do for their children “matters far too much”, would Katwala prefer the efforts of conscientious parents to be thwarted in the interests of “equality” and “social justice”? In Mr Katwala’s ideal, corrected, society, would the role of parenting in the outcome of a child’s prospects be rendered trivial, perhaps irrelevant? And, if so, is that really for the greater good? Unfortunately, such questions hang in the air, unanswered. Katwala is, however, keen to “deepen” this egalitarian agenda “within and beyond the education system.” To which end, he lists four points to “narrow the gaps in life chances” - all of which sideline parental responsibility and presuppose even greater interference by the state:

1. Ending child poverty.
2. Get family policy right.
3. Target increased resources on disadvantage.
4. Start a rational debate about the impact of private education.

Some readers may, of course, wonder why it is we have a “family policy” to “get right”, and others may have views on the role played by parents’ values and decisions in their children escaping poverty. Most will note that Katwala, like Ms Moosa, is keen to spend even more of “society’s money” on those deemed “disadvantaged”. But Katwala’s fourth point is perhaps the most telling. Note that Mr Katwala is far more interested in the (implicitly negative) “impact” of private education on those who don’t experience it. Much less concern is expressed for the rather more obvious, and much more negative, impact of state education - specifically the Socialist ideal of comprehensive education – which is, after all, where the “disadvantaged” tend to be schooled.


R. Sherman

It is no secret that the left abhors "private" education, even if those who take advantage of it nonetheless pay tax dollars to support a public system from which they receive no benefit. The left simply cannot bear the thought that there are those parents and educators who refuse to follow the "party line" but rather espouse genuine achievement, personal responsibility, good citizenship, etc. even if some poor child's self-esteem is vexed for a moment or two. Thus, such educational choice is deemed to be "elitist" and contrary to the wishes of the god of equality and must be eliminated in favor of a program approved society at large. Of course, all of this is just camouflage for the left's reel beef: They don't have power over the masses if there are those who are allowed to refuse to submit.



R Sherman,

I have less-than-fond memories of my own comprehensive schooling. I remember the continual background disorder and the demoralised atmosphere, both so common to comprehensive schools. I have particularly vivid memories of two of my left-leaning teachers lecturing me on the “selfishness” of my complaints regarding my substandard education. It was, apparently, “wrong” of me to assume that my education was for my own benefit, rather than society’s.

Yet an “inclusive” comprehensive education is still presented as a credible, even righteous, model – despite decades of failure and frustration. The belief seems to be that a failed experiment can somehow be made to work by demonizing the alternatives, or by measuring its failure in increasingly tendentious ways. And when pro-comprehensive pundits say, “All children should be able to fulfill their potential,” there seems to be little recognition of what that might actually entail. For instance, a couple of days ago I heard a leftist educator insisting that the most able pupils should be “obliged” to academically “mingle” with the less competent for the sake of “social cohesion” – and regardless of what effect this might have on the able children’s own preferences and academic performance.

John West

A couple of thoughts on this ...

The Left is most abhorred by the thought of torture. What do think they are doing to smart kids in public schools?

When the competent mingle with the incompetent, quite often the competent get the crap beat out of them by the incompetent.

That is why public transit will never be a complete success.

That is also the reason society has police paid for by the competent.

Peter Horne

What Mr. Katwala means by "equality" and "social justice" is homogeneity and equality of outcomes. People being what they are this is of course impossible. He is on a fool's errand and would bankrupt us all spending "society's money" on an impossible fantasy.



Katwala’s argument, such as it is, is somewhat unclear and perhaps deliberately so. He’s much too fond of using loaded terms, such as “social justice”, which sounds difficult to oppose but is never quite defined in any meaningful way. Though he seems to be assuming a befuddled formulation of “positive liberty” in which a comfortable income is a default “liberty” that everyone “ought” to have, irrespective of their own actions and choices, and irrespective of how this would impinge on the liberties of others.

Peter Horne

Yes indeed. I've read his article again and I still don't know what it means.

For example what does this mean?

"To make enough progress, and protect it being reversed, we will need a 21st century public settlement on equality just as deeply embedded as that which underpins the NHS today."

Is this an argument for the abolition of private education? (Except for the children of the political class, of course!) No idea.

If the man was in the least bit interested in improving the life chances of children of the least well off he would be seeking to expand independent schools, surely. I, myself am the beneficiary of the direct grant Grammar School System and went to public school by passing the entrance exam, the local authority paid the fees for the first three years until my parents could afford it. Most of the pupils in my house were bright working class kids who did the same. (Barnard Castle School...great rugby team!) This system has now disappeared and you can now only attend if you can afford the fees. Where's the equality and social justice in that?

But the article isn't about social justice. It is about power and posturing.


For some reason this came to mind. From Frederich Hayek’s Road to Serfdom:

“From the fact that people are very different it follows that, if we treat them equally, the result must be inequality in their actual position, and that the only way to place them in an equal position would be to treat them differently. Equality before the law and material equality are therefore not only different but are in conflict which each other; and we can achieve either one or the other, but not both at the same time.”


I've thought a lot about education. Having two children focusses the mind wonderfully.

First, there is no such thing as non-selective education. It's never existed and never will. There are different criteria of selection, that's all. In the UK right now the two dominant forms of selection within the state sector are:

1. The price of houses in the catchment area of the school. It's reckoned that houses in the catchment area of a "good" state school are priced around a third higher than they would be otherwise.

2. The professed religious affiliation of the child's parents.

Why these forms of selection are so much fairer than selection by academic achievement I don't understand.

I think that a lot of time, when parents talk about wanting to get their kids into schools with better teachers or better facilities or whatever, what they really want is to surround their kids with a "better" peer group. If I had to choose between a school with fantastic facilities and a "rough" peer group, or one with basic facilities and a "good" peer group, I'd choose the latter. That's really what the parent who pays the crippling mortgage in the "good area" is doing - it's not the school, it's the other kids. We may wish that parents weren't like this, but they are. I don't see how any imaginable government in the UK could thwart this parental determination. In extremis these parents will defend their children by sheer distance, relocating to remote areas of the countryside or even abroad if necessary.

I despise sectarian religious schools, and would like them to be made illegal. Why the government wants to increase their number I don't understand. Opinion polls show that most of the UK population agrees with me. But I also think the people who want them do so because they want a controlled peer group for their kids as well.



“…what they really want is to surround their kids with a ‘better’ peer group.”

Sounds reasonable enough. And I suppose this brings us to an important issue, perhaps the most important one. You’ll notice that parental values (and values generally) are oddly overlooked by Katwala, who seems much more animated by the prospect of “redistributing” other people’s money. Perhaps Mr Katwala assumes that values don’t play a significant role in practical outcomes. Perhaps he thinks that rewarding inferior values doesn’t actually perpetuate disadvantage. Maybe he believes a person’s values shouldn’t matter, in the name of “fairness” and “social justice”. Again, it isn’t clear.

Peter Horne

"Equality before the law and material equality are therefore not only different but are in conflict which each other; and we can achieve either one or the other, but not both at the same time.”

Unfortunately, material equality is not possible, ever. Even at the expense of equality before the law. As the great Henry Sumner Maine said of attempts to promote this type of equality:

"How will it affect human motives? What motives will it substitute for those now acting on men? The motives, which at present impel mankind to labour and pain which produce the resuscitation of wealth in ever increasing quantities, are such as infallibly to entail inequality in the distribution of wealth."

Remove ordinary human motives by guaranteeing equality of outcomes and human society ceases to exist. Our own society is disintegrating for precisely this reason.The ruling class, now completely divorced from the real world and any form of commercial pressure, vote themselves and their clients, those who work for the state and those dependent on state subsidy, more and more money for less and less work. The results will be catastrophic.

Tin Drummer

I despise cold toast and bus stations...but no-one's ever offered to ban those, although I've seen far more misery caused by both than by CofE or RC schools.


The most obvious and best way to lower child poverty is of course to stop poor parents from reproducing in the first place...


I believe the root of socialism is Envy.



Hi The Drummer

I was looking for a primary school for my eldest son a few years back. The school nearest our home had a 79% Muslim intake. It was a de facto Muslim school, with halal meat for everyone, even though not officially a "Muslim School". The head explained that there had been a "white flight", in which white non-religious parents opted for C of E and Catholic schools as a way of putting distance between their kids and the non-white kids. The process was self-reinforcing, and I reluctantly became part of it. Because, even though I was very happy for my son to go to school with kids of Albanian, Kosovan, Somali and Pakistani origin, I wasn't happy to have his whole schooling oriented around Islamic ritual and requirements. So I too would try and keep him out of it.

As a "died again" Atheist I really wanted my son to go to a school without religious affiliation. There was a state school which fitted the bill perfectly. Unfortunately we weren't quite in the catchment area, and that catchment area has the highest property prices in the UK. So a C of E school became the least bad option. Each Sunday I went to church with my Jewish friend - who was also trying for this particular C of E school - and our boys sang hymns until the priest signed the form. We never went back after our kids were enrolled in the school.

This C of E school was very good, very well run, and wore its Christianity relatively lightly. I really can't complain about the school itself. In the days when England was a preponderantly Anglican country with small minorities of Catholics, Jews and nonconformists such a system might have been fine. But in modern multi-ethnic, multi-faith Britain I really fear that "faith schools" will only reinforce segregation - much as they have done in Northern Ireland. Sarfraz Manzoor authored a Radio Four programme making exactly this argument. There is abundant evidence that communities in Bradford and other northern cities already separate into "two solitudes". Faith schools are bound to reinforce that.

If you allow Anglican schools, you have to allow Muslim schools. But, where non-Anglicans have historically been happy for their kids to attend Anglican schools, I can't imagine non-Muslims being happy for their kids to attend Muslim schools. Maybe it's bigotry, maybe it's "Islamophobia", but the feeling is real, and it will be acted upon.

So I see no option but a rigorously enforced "laicite".



I’m feeling a little, um, frayed from yesterday’s festivities, but with regard to religious schooling I’ll raise just one philosophical objection. It seems to me that, epistemologically speaking, it’s not a great idea for people who pretend to know things they cannot possibly know to teach children in their care to also pretend to know things they cannot possibly know. Parents are, of course, free to fill their children’s heads with whatever ideas they see fit, and they’re free to entrust others to do the same on their behalf. But the point remains that it’s generally a good thing to know *how* one knows what one claims to know, not least in matters of supposedly cosmic importance. This is generally a problem - perhaps the problem - of religious education.

That said, I’m not sure why one should assume that all forms of religious schooling are equally good or bad in their intellectual, moral and political ramifications. Even for an avowed atheist, there may be eminently sensible reasons to view, say, Anglican schooling differently from Islamic schooling. There’s a Catholic school near where I live and it simply doesn’t raise many of the issues that would be raised if it were an Islamic school. One shouldn’t assume all theologies are equal and interchangeable just for the sake of appearing “fair”. Discrimination is not the same thing as bigotry. In fact, discrimination is what bigots generally fail to do.


Good points well made, David. I recently read that one head of an Islamic school has said that the non-Muslim girls he has promised to educate in return for government funding must of course nonetheless wear Islamic religiously mandated dress - Hijabs etc. I don't see how any non-Muslim parent could accept that.

In terms of practical politics, I don't think a government can say we will accept Catholic schools, Quaker schools, Jewish schools, but not Islamic schools, even if it is only the latter that is really problematic.

The comments to this entry are closed.