19 June 2007

Government and monoculture

Schools are now legally required to teach pupils to read using phonics, which involves blending letter sounds to form words. This method was already part of the [British] government's literacy strategy, but teachers had been previously encouraged to use a variety of methods. However, the [Jim] Rose review, which sought to address concerns about literacy standards among young children, concluded that phonics was crucial to raising standards. The Guardian

Government influence on health, education and housing, to take just a few huge policy areas, is now so big that when it gets things wrong, the consequences can be calamitous. That has certainly been the case with its perverse subsidies, such as those to agriculture, which have devastated the physical environment, transferred wealth from the poor to the rich, and led to the massive overcapitalization of farms in the west, rural depopulation and industry concentration. When government gets involved in something it is often well meaning; but it also imposes a uniform, top-down approach; it is incapable of adaptation and reluctant to terminate failed experiments. In agriculture the visual result is mile after mile of denuded landscape devoted to highly specialized production - or non-production - of canola, wheat or whatever government bureaucracy favours in that particular part of the world. A series of monocultures, in short.

But monocultures, in agriculture or anywhere else, are inherently vulnerable. When things go wrong, they go wrong in a big way. So the news item excerpted above worries me. The capacity to respond and adapt to changing circumstances or new research findings or new techniques is essential. That is why I advocate policy subordinated to outcomes. If Social Policy Bonds targeting literacy were issued, they would have the capacity to adapt to every type of changing event: ideology, fashion or fad - which have so often bedevilled education - would be disregarded in favour of the targeted outcome. In education, literacy as in agriculture and the environment, diversity is essential. For a short paper about Social Policy Bonds aimed at raising women's literacy in the third world click here. For a longer pdf text encouraging the private issue of bonds targeting literacy in a third world country (Pakistan), click here.

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