Evan Davis on Education – full interview.

DW: Evan, thank you for agreeing to be interviewed. My colleague at school who teaches economics (Brian Rafferty, @Scotonomics) is very impressed with your new TV Series [Made in Britain] and suggested that your new book could be put on the reading for the AS-level as you explain things very clearly. He wondered whether you’ve ever considered being a teacher or lecturer?

ED: Not as a profession. You have to remember I came out of university at a time when no-one that I know thought of being a teacher. Oxbridge people had lots of career options: civil service, BBC, city, and (in a very small number of cases) industry of one kind or another. I don’t think I met anyone at the time who thought about being a teacher.

DW: Why do you think that might have been?

ED: Well at that time I think the morale was fairly low, the pay was fairly low. There’s a degree to which people all follow each other, so if a profession starts dipping in the consciousness of a university cohort – it kind of fades… success breeds success in recruiting to a profession, and failure breeds failure. It was a bad period for teaching. What is interesting is that some of my old college chums have found themselves moving in to teaching later in their careers. So, definitely, it has picked up, but it wasn’t something I considered then and I haven’t really considered it since university just as I’ve always liked my job and haven’t wanted to change. But I do think that I would enjoy teaching. I could easily imagine going in to teaching at some point, funnily enough. I think it would be good if we all thought in terms of working much later in our lives, and not thinking we’ve hit our peak until the end of our careers. So if you’re going to work at 70 you probably don’t want to be in your most stressful job. The vision would be… as teaching is a stressful job… the vision would be trying to do some teaching, rather than being a full-on teacher, later in your career.

DW: … you mean part time?

ED: Exactly, part time or something like that. Maybe teachers could do more of that. Someone who was a head in their fifties, rather than thinking you’re a head and you can’t now go back down the rungs again, and that you have to be a head until retirement, could go back and be a supply teacher. I think that’s an adjustment we have to make in our thinking.

DW: That’s an interesting thought – it would certainly take some adjustment in thinking!

ED: Working until you’re 70 does take some adjustment. There’s no reason why your career profile has to always be up, up, up and then fall off a cliff to nothing.

DW: While we’re talking about teachers’ careers, David Bradbury (@dcbcherrygate) wanted to ask you this. “My A-Level Physics teacher used to work in industry and he was very inspiring. How can more teachers be recruited from industry”. I wonder if what we’re saying here about second careers or part time could play a part?

ED: Yes, I think people have to bear those options in mind, and the teaching profession has to be receptive to those people who would like to dabble in teaching – and I know that raises all sorts of issues and raises the hackles of many professional teachers! It’s a bit like saying “I’m going to dabble in being a doctor”. But there should be a route in to teaching for people who do want to dabble where you can see if you would be a good teacher later in your career – to dip your toe in the water in ways that don’t undermine the professional integrity of teachers. Everyone know that teachers are very wise, but they may not have all the wisdom that there is, and that people who have had other careers may bring something useful to the classroom.

DW: Moving on to talk about Universities now. In your book, and I believe in tomorrow night’s episode of the TV show, you talk about UK universities being one of the country’s strongest exports. What do you think has led it to be so successful in comparison to other countries?

ED: I think there are some very basic things. English language makes it much easier. I think the fact that we started very early means we have a very big, established higher education sector. I didn’t realise this until we started putting the TV programme together, but the deregulation of overseas student fees in the 1980s put us in a very good place, because universities started thinking about getting overseas students as they were good students to have.

DW: A bit of a cash cow…?

ED: Well I think they were contributing to the fixed costs of running a university in perhaps a better way than domestic students were.

DW: Do you think they contribute anything else? Is there any other benefit from having them?

ED: Let me finish answering your first question… and then come on to that. In the science and knowledge-based industries there is a feedback mechanism of a very significant kind. The good universities attract the good people, and the ones who attract the best people become the best universities! So the early movers who get that are in a very good position, and I think the UK is there.

I think another factor is that, compared to other countries, we have tended to say “we want some excellence” rather than a lot of mediocrity. We preferred to have 10% of people at great universities and 90% of people illiterate. Other countries, such as France and Germany, would (and this is entirely anecdotal) prefer to have 90% of people quite well-educated without anyone being educated to an Ivy League or Oxbridge level. So as a country we  have had some real excellence which you see reflected in the global university league tables where we have a disproportionate number at the very top.  That might just represent our priorities that ensure there are some really good bits without necessarily being better on average than other countries, but I think that in terms of international branding it is more beneficial to have a few outstanding bits than having a lot of quite good bits. So for international branding purposes the average standard of universities matters less than the shop window of the flashiest and best – and we’ve tended to have some good examples of those.

DW: It’s an interesting point about excellence versus average standards, and I’ll probably return to that when we talk about schools later..

ED: Ok, well your next question (which I think is an excellent one) was asking whether foreign students have added anything else. I don’t know the answer, but I think it is going to be a really important question. I think the potential for our universities to continue to take foreign students, and become much more like the international schools, is enormous. I don’t know whether domestic students are going to say “hang on a second, we’re getting a second-rate education that’s aimed at people who don’t speak English – what about us?” or whether they’ll say “this is great, we’re at universities surrounded by foreign students where we learn more about life, and plug in to networks of knowledge from around the world”. I don’t know the answer to that, but I think it’s a bit like the question around the Premier League in English soccer. On the one hand, opening up the league to foreign players means our players get to play with the best in the world, but on the other hand it may mean our domestic players get a little ignored as the clubs are obsessed about getting the best players from abroad instead of thinking how to create the best players at home. I worry a bit that, in the Premier League, the ability to recruit from overseas means that they ignore the local needs, but equally I can see benefits to that.

DW: It seems that, internationally, students are very aware of the reputation of our top universities and of their ability to conduct the best research. Aaron Porter (former NUS president, @AaronPorter) wanted me to ask you whether you think enough is done by the universities to communicate this excellence to the general public in the UK?

ED: They try pretty hard actually. I know that on the Today programme university press officers try to promote their research findings, but it’s not always that easy. What catches as a new story is difficult to say, some stories make it and some don’t. I would hate to see our universities putting more and more effort into selling themselves. I do see them as businesses, but I  wouldn’t like to see the marketing departments becoming the be-all and end-all. Universities need to market themselves, of course, and they do this abroad very extensively and very well but I don’t think the British public really need much persuading that they are very important institutions for our nation.

DW: I guess the interesting part about marketing is that the UK market has opened up so much more with the expansion of tuition fees. Aaron Porter’s (@AaronPorter) second question was related to that. Now that universities have to compete with each other on fees, what do you think is going to happen? Do you think some bright students from poor backgrounds are going to be deterred from going to university no matter how much marketing they do?

ED: That’s a very complicated question. Will it deter youngsters from poor backgrounds? It might do, and that would be worrying I think. The marketing I would like to see is the marketing that explains to those people that they really should not be deterred by what sounds like a hideous fees regime. When you go to university you are making a bet about whether it is going to be worth it or not, and the government is really trying to skew the bet so that if it doesn’t work out then the taxpayer will bear most of the cost. If you end up in less than a ‘middle-class’ job, then you’re unlucky really, and unlikely to pay much toward your university degree. I think that really does need to be explained.

Of course one of the damaging things about the adversarial nature of the political debate is that if you go on about how awful the regime is, as a perfectly legitimate part of the political debate, then you might be unwittingly telling youngsters from poor backgrounds that “it is so terrible that you’d be mad to go to university”, and that would be a very bad outcome. So having had the debate about whether this a good idea or bad idea, we need to be sure that nobody is under any illusions. It should be clear that if you are in anything less than a ‘middle-class’ job starting on around £20k or so then you are unlikely to pay anything. I think that should alleviate a lot of anxiety actually.

DW: This is one of those topics where we could happily spend the entire interview on the ramifications!…

ED: But there was another part of your question… “What’s going to happen next?” and I would really like to talk about that. Within three months of this fees system starting we have already seen what I would call a significant market dysfunction. That dysfunction is around the fact that universities are very scared to pitch their prices too low, because when you pitch the price you are not just trying to affect the demand, but you are also trying to signal something about how you value your own product. We know that this happens in a lot of markets – you have to be expensive so that the consumer values you.

A very good example of a market like that is perfume, where it is just a bit of smell in a bottle with a label attached, and the manufacturers need to dress it up and make it feel like something posh – it needs to have some cachet and magic about it. Perfume makers have resisted selling their good perfumes in shops like Superdrug because they think that would undermine the cachet of their product even if it would get them extra sales. What we observe in the perfume market is that manufacturers like to have high list prices, but low actual prices. You want to say that you are expensive, but you don’t actually want to be that expensive as you’d lose customers. So you signal that your product is expensive, but then discount it. In the perfume case they sell it in duty free shops in very large amounts despite the fact there is no more duty on it than anything else, but somehow the selling of it in duty free shops validates the discount and doesn’t undermine the cachet where as selling in Superdrug does. The really interesting question to ask is that, now we’ve observed that university education has become like the perfume market, whether universities will also have high list prices, but low actual prices. The big question is whether David Willets is right – are we going to see universities chucking discounts all over the place?

DW: Like Groupon deals for universities?

ED: Yup. Well people have accused car-makers of failing to lower prices when exchange rates changed, but they didn’t want to lower prices and signal that their product was less valuable. So we saw high-list prices for cars, and saw dealers driving cars around for five miles and then selling them at a discount as second-hand. These are all ways to try and sell the cars at low prices while nevertheless not undermining the cachet associated with a high list price. I think it’s so clear that universities have fallen into that category of using price as a marketing tool. We know that in those markets we don’t want prices to be that high, and the interesting question is: how will they choose to give those discounts? What will be the mechanism? Is it going to be chucking in free accommodation?

DW: Perhaps discounting to certain schools?

ED: Yes, and it will be very opaque, and very annoying, incidentally. One of the things about this discounting against high-list price markets is that you want to hide the discount so that you’re not undermining your own product cachet, so it has to be a bit complicated, a bit hidden, a bit under the table.

DW: I look forward to some future exposé of the secret pricing systems of universities in that case! I will move on to talk about schools, as obviously it’s my personal area. In Made in Britain you wrote the line “Whatever the failings of the UK school system, our university system is highly regarded.”

ED: (laughing) I’m sorry, did I really write that?

DW: You did… What are the failings of the UK school system?

ED: Let me talk about the English school system as I don’t really know much about the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish systems… I don’t know much about the English one either really, but I think it’s fair to say that we have a tail – and I don’t know whether it’s a long tail or a short tail – but we have a tail of under-performing schools relative to the rest. There are large swathes of urban Britain where parents really care about their children’s education and really make an effort to not send their kids to some local schools, particularly in cities. I don’t think we should say our school system is failing – I’m surprised I put it quite that harshly – but I think it’s hard to deny there aren’t areas of failure in the English school system.

DW: Ok, let’s look back at an older book of yours, Public Spending [which Evan wrote in 1998]. The back cover starts with the question “Why are supermarkets so much better at selling food than most of our schools are at teaching our children?”. Firstly, is this true, and secondly, what lessons could our system learn from supermarkets?

ED: I don’t know whether it’s true, but it wouldn’t surprise me. It’s more likely to be true than the other way around. I think, if there’s an answer to that, it’s around the line we also see in the book about Schumpeter. He’s one of the hard-to-categorise economists: some people consider him a bit national-socialist and some consider him much more socialist. Essentially I think he saw capitalism as a process of beneficial creative destruction. In the schools field if one believes that the process works well, we may not have had enough of it. So the number of schools that are allowed to fail, in whatever way we want to let them, either by closing down and kids going elsewhere which is very difficult to organise, or getting taken over by someone else, was quite small at the time I wrote the book. I think in a really successfully operating sector there always has to be some failure, and some spectacular success. There should always be a mechanism to allow success to grow, and failure to contract,  and we’ve seen that in supermarkets. We’ve seen them evolve a lot from the old small-style things to larger supermarkets, and further to hypermarket-style supermarkets, to Ocado delivery, and all sorts of things. If you have a sector where new capacity and new entry is very difficult, and a sector where failure is very difficult, then it’s much less likely that you’ll have that natural evolution towards more efficient and better ways of doing things.  So that’s the logic of the comparison.

DW: It’s interesting that you picked out three things there. You said: a way to allow schools that fail to be taken over, some way to allow excellent schools to become more excellent and allow new entrants. If you think about current coalition policy then we see failing schools being taken over by sponsors, like old-style academies, and you see outstanding schools turning into academies and being freed from some constraints to let them do what they want to do to continue their success, and we have free schools entering the market. Are we entering education utopia?

ED: Well, if you believe my case (and I have much less strong support for it than people might imagine),  then it is likely that these things will help in the education system. These are cross-party ideas. The old and new governments were essentially on the same page with this. Certainly if you compare to where we were in 1998, where the Treasury dictated that in any area you couldn’t have a new school or allow a school to expand because there were surplus places in a school that nobody wanted to go to, I think it is much more likely that a little fluidity in the system is going to have positive benefits.

The reason why I’m not quite as sure about myself as I would be in, say, cinemas or in mobile phone shops, and where there is a crucial difference with supermarkets, is that if Morrisons is better than the Safeway, then it can take it over and it is unlikely that it will destroy Morrisons. But I slightly worry that when a good school expands and takes over a bad school, that instead of having two good schools, you get two bad schools – that the good school is good because of what it is. There are reasons for doubt about the capitalist mechanism of letting capacity grow where provision is good. There are good reasons for doubt, but despite that I think there is some benefit in giving it the benefit of the doubt and giving it a go, even if it isn’t applied everywhere, all the time.  But I can see both sides of the argument, that different schools can be good for different reasons.

DW: That brings me back to the point about universities earlier. School systems around the world struggle with balancing the need to produce excellence against the moral obligation to reduce inequality. Some people might say that if you allow capitalism to run-riot through the school system then you may get pockets of absolute excellence, but that the system, as a whole, will do a worse job of reducing inequality. Is it possible to do both?

ED: Well, I would have thought so. I think the mechanisms which you are talking about – in order for them to fail and produce great education for the top 30% and mediocrity for everyone else – those mechanisms do vaguely rely on there being, if you like, unmotivated parents. One of the reasons that capitalism fails is when consumers don’t know anything about what they’re buying, and don’t much care, so that consumer pressure is unlikely to be toward better and more useful products. So if in a market like mini-cabs, if consumers don’t care whether the cab is legal or insured you can have a thriving market of illegal, uninsured mini-cabs. But it comes back to the consumers. If they care there won’t be illegal ones, if they don’t, there won’t be, without enormous efforts to regulate, to catch people and fine them.

If you think of a school system as having an elite end. Perhaps having a grammar school end and a secondary-modern end then there’s no reason why a successfully functioning capitalist economy won’t deliver good schools at both ends. Whatever type of school it is, it will probably be better if there has been some parental choice. It’s whether or not you have faith in the parents…

DW: … whether you have parental aspirations or not…

ED: Exactly. So can you have both? It depends on how well you can train parents or expect them, without training, to deliver good decisions on behalf of their offspring. And we all know that not all parents are likely to do that, but it doesn’t need to be all parents. It’s whether you think there would be enough parents doing it.

DW: I suppose this is where the Local Education Authorities used to step in and say “here’s a difficult area, and we will step in and take control because, locally, not enough is happening to drive up quality here”. However, the LEAs are being ‘dissolved’ out of the picture at the moment. So who will take care of those areas where, perhaps, the parental aspirations aren’t high enough, or where their abilities to choose effectively are being hampered?

ED: That’s a really good question. The interesting question is whether the LEA really was running it for the benefit of the parents who had no voice, or whether, as in so many industries where the regulator (which in this case is effectively the LEA) becomes captured by the interest of the schools, and by bureaucratic convenience. For example saying: “Wouldn’t it be nice if more of our parents send their children to this school because it has empty desks”. I wouldn’t take it as absolutely read that LEAs were derelict in their duty toward parents, nor that they were the great guardians of parents either, it could go either way. You would like somebody to be ‘training’ the parents, and perhaps those difficult areas are where someone should be helping the parents help themselves.

DW: That’s an interesting model.

ED: It arouses all sorts of nanny-state objections, but I’m very in to these nudge-type mechanisms. Put it this way, I think we should be giving this a try before we revert to more draconian, bureaucratic and regulatory solutions. If we can think of some ‘nudge ways’ to get parents interested in exactly which school their youngsters go to, into shopping around, putting pressure on schools rather than leaving them be…

DW: That sounds like one of those questions to throw to some policy think-tank.

ED: Yep!

DW: Lastly, when you’ve been doing your radio show, The Bottom Line, or when making Made in Britain, you get to talk to lots of employers. So my last question, as suggested by Graham Carter (@GrahamCarterGC), is “What are the three most important skills that employers want schools to deliver?”.

ED: Well I can’t only think of two, but they’re so important! The basic skills are numeracy and literacy. A frustrating problem for employers is when employees just aren’t very good at writing things or are kind of “Oh I can’t do maths” when faced with some simple calculations. The great thing about those two skills are that they are very adaptable. There won’t by any jobs in the next fifty years that won’t require those. It’s not like learning how to sell mobile phones which will change dramatically in the next thirty years leaving current methods redundant.

So actually there are three important skills! Those are the first two, and they’re very important. The third one, and I don’t know how much schools can teach this, but the one that every employer I speak to agrees on, without any doubt, is that you can make-do with skills,  but ultimately you pick people on attitude, and that’s absolutely true.

So people who are keen, flexible, have good social skills, are able to work constructively with other people – these skills are enormously helpful for anyone looking for a job and I think if schools could refrain from making people unenthusiastic, or grumbling, or lazy, then that would be very, very helpful.

DW: So if that’s so important, it is interesting that exam systems don’t measure that, and there’s no incentive for schools to show that they’re good at it. Do you think there’s a way that schools could have a measure or incentive to show that some schools are good at producing these characteristics?

ED: Well it’s very hard to measure, isn’t it. Just because it’s hard doesn’t mean it’s not important. Some schools, we know, are good at fostering enthusiasm basically. Enthusiasm is what we’re talking about, engaging students. I suspect a lot of people would know those schools because they’re doing charity work, and they’re present in their communities. They have thriving drama departments, and orchestras, and a team who help old people – you know there are any number of things, but it’s very complicated and hard to define. But that’s why employers have to find those things themselves. If you could put this down on paper then employers wouldn’t bother interviewing, but there are lots of candidates whose CV is completely useless who you want to employ, and some candidates with excellent CVs where you think “Thank God I interviewed them because we might have let that one slip through”. That just tells you it’s very hard to measure.

DW: I suppose to be honest, if it was measurable, then it would be a league table or report card, and schools would be told they are unsatisfactory for not producing enthusiastic students and teachers.

ED: The worse thing, of course, is that you might find that we’re currently measuring things that currently crowd that out. Measure the exam results, and you don’t measure the enthusiasm of getting kids to take part in ‘local history day’, you haven’t left time for the history day. Not only haven’t you measured it, but you remove the time for it. That would be a very great shame.

DW: It would be a great shame, although some would argue that …

ED: … that’s where we are now, yes!

DW: Another one of those things to boot over to a think tank to come up with a suggestion I think. Anyway, thank you so much for agreeing to do this interview, it has been fascinating.

ED: It’s been a pleasure.

One Reply to “Evan Davis on Education – full interview.”

  1. Most Think Tanks are full of recently qualified Oxbridge graduates who know nothing of the world of education. Do we really want a world of education chains the equivalents of Tesco locals. I think not – localism everywhere is under threat – authenticity – epistemology and learning are being crowded out by high stakes “results” culture. This is a very myopic view of the education system and a very uniformed one.

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