In July 2013, Mike Russell, the then Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning for the Scottish Government, made a speech to the Utopian Society in New Lanark, the former 18th century cotton spinning mill village, now a UNESSCO World Heritage Site. In the early 1800s, under ownership of Welsh philanthropist and social reformer Robert Owen, New Lanark became the epitome of utopian socialism and 2013 was the bicentenary of the publication of his essays on ‘A New View of Society’
Owen’s utopian socialist vision was based on the premise that “children can be trained to acquire any language, sentiments, belief, or any bodily habits and manners, not contrary to human nature”. He contended that “These principles ... direct that the governing powers of all countries should establish rational plans for the education and general formation of the characters of their subjects. These plans must be devised to train children from their earliest infancy in good habits of every description ...” Much of this appears to follow the educational teachings of Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, the Swiss pedagogue and educational reformer; he in turn had taken up the ideas of Genevan philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau who wrote “Make citizens good by training and everything else will follow.”
Moreover, children, Owen stated “may be formed collectively to have any human character. And although these compounds, like all the other works of nature, possess endless varieties, yet they partake of that plastic quality, which, by perseverance under judicious management, may be ultimately moulded into the very image of rational wishes and desires.” The problem being, however, who is doing the ‘managing’ and what they see as ‘rational’ in terms of wishes and desires.
All of this bears an uncanny resemblance to the Getting it Right For Every Child (GIRFEC) approach championed by the SNP government with its lynch-pin Named Person scheme– whereby every child in Scotland pre-birth to 18 years old is assigned a state guardian to oversee their wellbeing. The Named Person scheme was ultimately ruled unlawful by the UK Supreme Court last year., but that has not prevented the Scottish government insisting it will be rolled out later this year after minor “tweaking”
In his speech back in 2013 Russell stated that “New Lanark may not be a sacred place. But, it is no less spiritual;” words that reflect the reverence with which the ruling SNP in Scotland appear to hold this utilitarian utopian ideology.
Central to both Owen’s vision and that of the Scottish Government is education. Mike Russell pointed out that education is devolved to the Scottish Government; he claimed “our system is performing very well…By any measure we are improving in the international league tables. And good things are happening in our schools.” That, however, was not quite reflective of reality.
The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) for 2015 records that Scotland has dropped from 11th to 23rd for reading since 2006 and from 11th to 24th for maths and from 10th to 19th for science. John Swinney, Deputy First Minster and Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills, said that “these results underline the case for radical reform of Scotland’s education system.”
It is precisely what this “radical reform” may be that should be ringing alarm bells for families across Scotland.
The University of Glasgow Robert Owen Centre for Educational Change was opened in 2013 by Mike Russell with the aim to “promote more equitable education systems through theory-driven, applied research underpinned by a commitment to the principles of social justice and lifelong learning.”
Alongside this, Mike Russell unveiled the new Robert Owen Award created in honour of the social reformer. This award, which is in the personal gift of Scottish Ministers, was announced as realising New Lanark’s Educational vision in recognising inspirational educators from around the world. Dr Avis Glaze from Canada was presented with the inaugural Robert Owen Award in the same year. Coincidently, or not, Dr Glaze is now one of ten members of the Scottish Government’s new International Council of Education Advisers (ICEA) established in 2016 to “advise on the Scottish Government’s priorities for education”
Amongst the other nine members is Professor Chris Chapman, who “established the Robert Owen Centre for Educational Change”; Professor Graham Donaldson a previous recipient of the Robert Owen Prize; Dr Pasi Sahlberg, the second recipient of the Robert Owen Prize in 2014 and Professor Hargreaves who received the award shortly after the council first met last year.
It came to light earlier this month that members of the ICEA had been partaking of five-star luxury at the expense of the Scottish taxpayer for its first meeting in 2016. The Ferret, an independent investigative journalism platform along with the Sceptical Scot forum) published information showing not only the £36, 000 spent on accommodation, flights and hospitality for the ten-member ICEA group for two days but also the “friendly and admiring relationship” the council has with ministers. Despite the fact that members of the ICEA hail from around the world, it would appear that “several have worked closely, in the past or present, with the Scottish Government and its agencies.”
In fact, the Sceptical Scot paints a very worrying picture of this being “not so much a range of external scrutineers bringing a rich variety of challenging perspectives, but more a high-powered consultancy team with strong shared values, some of whom have already played a role in developing the Scottish system as it is. That is relevant to how their statements are interpreted.”
The second meeting of the council was held on the 27th and 28th of February. Professor Hargreaves is recorded in the minutes of the first meeting as suggesting it be held at New Lanark. Furthermore, he put forward the idea that it should include public presentations in the evening by the four Robert Owen award holders. As it turned out, the meeting was held in Edinburgh and attended by both the Deputy First Minister and the First Minister.
Earlier this month teachers’ unions in Scotland “reacted with alarm” to news that the Scottish Government had held secret meetings with the Hometown Foundation, a Scottish registered charity founded in January 2009 which has links to the New Lanark Trust, another registered charity established in 1974 to restore and regenerate the former cotton mill village of New Lanark as a living and working community.
Hometown’s stated purpose includes the advancement of education through “Co-op schools”, that is schools “wholly owned by parents and funded by the government…” This is a statement which offers the lie of educational freedom for parents but in reality binds them to subordination under the purse-strings of central government.
According to the Hometown Foundation it has already assisted parent and teacher groups to prepare and submit business plans for these so-called state-funded autonomous schools to the Scottish Government. However, Hometown recently publicly vented its frustration at the Scottish Government’s inaction over the past two years over its proposals. Perhaps the Scottish Government has decided that Hometown is an unnecessary middle-man in the implementation of its co-operative socialist reform of education; far easier, and manageable, to have a direct line from central government to schools.
There can be no doubt that Robert Owen and his ideas on utopian socialism have struck a chord with the SNP government. Robert Owen opened his Institute for the Formation of Character at New Lanark on the 1st January 1816 and, as with GIRFEC and the Named Person legislation, his “New System” was a universal provision founded on principles of prevention to improve “wellbeing” and increase “happiness”. He recognised the challenge of changing people on a fundamental basis, and admitted to “Acting, although unknown to you, uniformly and steadily upon this system.” This bears a remarkable similarity to the Scottish Government’s intent revealed through minutes from the now scrapped GIRFEC Implementation Board which state it “had been a conscious decision to focus first on embedding GIRFEC in the professional practice […] before raising awareness in the general public”.
Owen’s Institute for the Formation of Character was “devised to afford the means of receiving your children at an early age, as soon almost as they can walk” in order to prevent the children “from acquiring any bad habits.”
Robert Owen’s new view of society was not concerned with the individual needs of each of his employees. Rather, like GIRFEC and the Named Person, it was an attempt to mould the collective, particularly the young, to meet the behavioural, moral and civic expectations of the ruling management – be that mill owner or central government.
Just what this ‘radical reform’ of our education system will entail remains to be seen. Recently the education secretary, John Swinney, announced that he would be delaying his education reform plans. Given the SNP Government’s obvious infatuation with the New Lanark model we are left to contemplate the further entrenching of ‘practical utopianism’ within our society; where the state, as paternalistic mill owner, seeks only to release the people “from its state of darkness” and their “early taught prejudices” through secretly implemented social engineering processes.
This is not education, this is subjugation – GIRFEC style.