Evan Davis on Education.

By Flickr user Steve Punter (Evan Davis on Flickr) [CC-BY-2.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Evan Davis is currently presenting a new show on BBC,  Made in Britain which accompanies the excellent book of the same name. He is a presenter on Radio 4’s Today show, BBC TV’s Dragon’s Den, as well as Radio 4’s The Bottom Line. Until 2008 he was the BBC’s chief Economics editor (see his blog).

Evan certainly takes pains to see both sides of the argument, indeed he has been criticised for being too consensual while interviewing for the Today show, when compared to John Humphrys. Over the past week he has been both lambasted for his views that international free trade has been beneficial (if painful) for the UK economy, and praised for the way he ‘exposed’ Frances Maude over the arguments over teachers’ pensions. I had the pleasure of interviewing Evan on Sunday 3rd July, to ask him for more detailed thoughts on UK education, and I began by asking him whether he had considered teaching himself.

“…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”

Evan was keen to encourage teachers to continue their careers beyond leadership, so that experienced teachers could go back to the classroom, perhaps part-time. He also thought that a part-time route may be a way to encourage people in industry and commerce to try out teaching:

“…there should be a route in to teaching for people who 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”

We moved on to the subject of universities, and Evan said that much of our success internationally could be attributed to the deregulation of university fees in the 1980s, although that wasn’t the only thing.

“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…”

“…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”

We discussed the effect of foreign students on the domestic ones, and Evan said the situation mirrors that of the Premier League in football with its expensive foreign players, in some ways:

“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.”

During the interview I had the opportunity to put a number of suggested questions from my Twitter followers, and one of these was from Aaron Porter, ex president of the NUS, about the effect of fees on students from poorer backgrounds. Evan does worry about the debate surrounding this issue, and its potential to put young people off university. Although he isn’t keen on universities getting overly reliant on marketing, he does think that it is important for school students to fully understand what is happening.

“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 towards your university degree. I think that really does need to be explained.”

One of the most fascinating insights was into the university fees market, where Evan compared the current situation to perfume and car-dealerships who set prices to signal something about how they want to be seen, rather than their absolute value, and then come up with ways of offering discounts while retaining their headline high list-price.

“I think it’s so clear that universities have fallen in to 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?”

We moved on to discuss the school system, and I challenged Evan on some statements written in both his current book, Made in Britain, and an older book, Public Spending, which he wrote in 1998. In these books he suggested our school system could be more effective than it is, and that there are lessons to be learned from supermarkets.

“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.”

“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.”

However there was a significant caveat about this:

“… 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 only good because of what it is.”

Evan is clearly a believer in the power of markets, and we discussed the consumers: in this case parents.

“…there’s no reason why a successfully functioning capitalist economy won’t deliver good schools at both ends [of the spectrum]. 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…”

I suggested that the LEA’s role had been to step in where parents were not exerting sufficient influence over a school to cause it to improve.

“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.”

However, he agreed that for capitalism to work effectively in schools, you need parents to be fully able to exert choice, and to be aiming to do the best for their children.

“You would like somebody to be ‘training’ the parents, and perhaps those difficult areas are where someone should be helping the parents help themselves.”

“[Perhaps] we can think of some ‘nudge ways’ to get parents interested in exactly which school their youngsters go to, in to shopping around, putting pressure on schools rather than leaving them be…”

Finally we talked about employability, and about the focus for the school sector to produce more successful adults. Evan stressed that the key skills were numeracy and literacy, which would never go out of date (unlike certain types of specific vocational skills, such as learning how to sell mobile phones, etc.) However he was keen to stress that no matter what the level of skill, the number-one attribute for a student was attitude and enthusiasm. Evan is, I think, a little concerned that some aspects of our school system work to destroy enthusiasm in students:

“… 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.”

“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.”

It was certainly a fascinating interview, and you can read the full transcript here. I’d be most interested to hear your thoughts about Evan’s ideas – do please leave a comment.

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