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Carol Craig is the Centre's Chief Executive. She is author of The Scots' Crisis of Confidence, Creating Confidence: A Handbook for Professionals Working with Young People, The Tears that Made the Clyde: Well-being in Glasgow and The Great Takeover: How materialism, the media and markets now dominate our lives. Her latest book is Hiding in Plain Sight: Exploring Scotland's ill health. She is Commissioning editor for the Postcards from Scotland series. Carol blogs on confidence, well-being, inequality, every day life and some of the great challenges of our time. The views she expresses are her own unless she specifically states that they reflect the Centre's thinking.

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Posted 28/11/2008

I’ve been down in Birmingham at a huge  conference for secondary school head teachers run by the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust. It was a huge event with more than 2,000 there. A real feat of organisation. They are a very professional outfit and have been doing some interesting work. However, at the core of what the SSAT is now doing is ‘system redesign’ – essentially this means that ‘all assumptions about 20th century models of schooling must be challenged. Everything that has been taken for granted about schooling must be scrutinised.’

The thinking behind ‘system redesign’ is Professor David Hargreaves, a distinguished educationalist. He has taken the call from Tony Blair to put personalisation at the heart of learning and tried to make this the core of a brand new education system. I was asked to give a presentation at a break out session on the well-being implications of ‘system redesign’.

David Hargreaves, a very erudite man, wants to see student well-being as the core purpose of education. He writes: ‘Education has moral purpose only when every school educates all its students in ways that help them to find moral meaning and purpose in their lives that result in deep happiness.’

Given this, it would have been easy, and expected of me, to give ‘system redesign’ the thumbs up. I don’t.

Let’s be clear – the main challenge to our long-term well-being, particularly those of our grandchildren, is climate change, over use of resources and what is now called ‘three planet living’. This is driven by materialism, consumerism and individualism. Ironically  none of these are good for well-being. Tim Kasser in the USA has undertaken countless studies which show that pursuing a materialistic agenda – money, status, fame, looks – compromises people’s well-being. The more individualistic people are, the worse their well-being. This is the message reinforced by Oliver James in Affluenza. We know from research that once basic economic needs are met more money does not mean more happiness.

Various critiques, for example, Adam Curtis and the acclaimed tv series ‘The Century of the Self’, link the rise of individualism and rampant consumerism to marketing which encourages us to believe that we will be satisfied by our purchases; that we can create and express ourselves through consumption. In short, a consumerist mentality towards ourselves and others is part of the well-being problem. Curtis also shows convincingly how these consumerist ideas have now been adopted by politicians. Now we no longer have appeals to the public interest or the good of society but focus group politics and politicians competing with one another for who can fulfil the needs and aspirations of individual voters. This leads to bland politics and a loss of a sense of society.

So back to ‘system redesign’. This argues that what we need to do is ditch the old style ‘factory system’ of education which processed young people with no recognition of their individuality, towards a system based on business thinking. Hargreaves claims that businesses have been great at customer service because they put the customer at the centre and cater for his or her needs and wants. This is the philosophy which, ‘system redesign’ wants to underpin education. God help us! This is part of the problem, not the solution. We need to move away from consumerist individualism towards something more social and collective – not put it at the core of the education system.

Another problem is the whole concept and the language it uses. In moving away from a factory system towards one more founded on well-being, you would have expected  the use of a living systems metaphor. One that was about plants or animal biology or the ecosystem. No as its name suggests ‘system redesign’ uses mechanical or engineering or IT language.  He even talks about ‘the leader as engineer’. Elsewhere there is copious use of the idea of drivers, adjustments, leverages, even ‘spliced innovation’. Living systems evolve, they weren’t designed or redesigned from scratch the way that a machine is. So, for example, the human brain as at its core the old reptilian brain – controls functions which are necessary for survival. Our higher order thinking is undertaken by the cortex which has grown on top of the reptilian brain and works in harmony with it. Rather than ‘system redesign’ would it not be better to see schools in evolution – adapting to change, building on what’s already there and allowing certain functions to atrophy or become redundant.

For me the main well-being implication of ‘system redesign’ is how inherently stressful it is. I worked with teams for years, using the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator which looks at personality. I have run countless exercises and had countless conversations with people about how they see change. The majority finding it very stressful – and the more abstract and new fangled it is the more stressful it appears.

Undoubtedly the ‘system redesign’ approach and personalisation can and is being adapted for use by some practitioners to mean giving students more say, focusing on learning more and concentrating on building good relationships with individual students. And I have no problem with any of this. However, they really need to be aware that there is an ideology behind personalisation which might be different from theirs. They may also want to reflect on the fact that there is good research which says too much choice and freedom is debilitating; rules can be helpful and allow us to concentrate on things which are meaningful; self-discipline (rather than rules) uses up psychic energy and so we can perform less well at intellectual tasks. In other words, using rules to regulate young folks’ behaviour may often be better than trying to do it through self-control.

In this gathering, as I have found in others’ recently with teachers, there is real, albeit private, concern over the social and emotional agenda. Many are coming to see it as potentially very intrusive into young people’s lives and manipulative. At another event recently with a number of academics from round the UK there was widespread agreement that the social and emotional agenda, which aims to direct young people’s feelings and mould their personalities, is sinister and dangerous. One academic said: ‘I never thought I would say this but at least with Thatcherism you knew what you were dealing with. We are now entering into an era which is so manipulative that it is like something out of Brave new World’.

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