By Morgan Phillips, Director of Education and Youth Engagement – Global Action Plan

In May 2024, Global Action Plan published a collection of essays under the title ‘Environmentalism in a time between education worlds’. One of the four essays provides some context, and builds on an argument put forward by several others, including Mick Waters and the late Tim Brighouse, that the education system – in England – is on the cusp of change. The school system is, according to Brighouse and Waters, ‘on the threshold of a new age’. It will be the third great age of education of the post WWII era. In ‘On the cusp of change’ we highlight five signs of change (a by no means exhaustive list) that give credibility to this argument.

The first and most obvious sign is the almost daily evidence that the current education system is failing – attendance rates, teacher recruitment and retention rates, buildings being declared unsafe, and so on. Secondly, doubt and disillusion once again reign; teachers, parents, students, politicians are airing their frustrations and despair about the education system ever more vociferously. The third sign is the rise and rise of EdTech, which is already having a transformative effect on education, and looks like to continue to do so – for better or worse. Fourthly, we are seeing a proliferation of believable, enticing, alternative visions of the education system – the sheer volume of which being a sign that all is surely not well, why else would we be proposing and searching around for an alternative system?

The fifth sign, however, is perhaps the most important… and hope-fuelling. What follows here is a lightly edited extract from ‘On the cusp of change’ where we examine this fifth sign by asking: ‘Do we live in a selfish world?’ *Spoiler alert* we don’t, and this is what fuels the hope. A collective awakening to the fact that most people are not selfish could be the thing that triggers the emergence of a new education area. This awakening is spreading, when it passes a tipping point, change will surely follow… To read the full essay, or the full collection, please visit the Global Action Plan website.


Do we live in a selfish world?

In this essay, we chart the evolution of a key paradigm shift. It is, we believe, underway and profound enough to facilitate an era-defining systemic change in education and society. The paradigm shift in question relates to the breakthroughs being made in how human nature is understood. It asks the question: ‘do we live in a selfish world?’ and instead of answering ‘yes’, it answers ‘no’ (or, at the very least, ‘not as much as you might think’). That an increasing number of people, including academics, campaigners, politicians, and think tanks are engaging in this question is key. It is a sign that change is on its way, and it hints at what might be coming.

The demise of New Public Management

Devolving power over the education system in the ways we propose elsewhere in our ‘Environmentalism is a time between education worlds’ collection would be momentous, a genuine transformation. At the heart any decision to devolve power is trust. As a society, we would be placing enormous faith in citizens assemblies, communities, teachers, and students, while at the same time stripping significant powers away from Government ministers, the Department for Education, and the leaders of large Multi Academy Trusts. The Government would be choosing to do the same thing; they would be agreeing to decentralise decision making; using their power, to empower others.

To many people, this scenario seems unlikely. Those who have power, have the power to hold onto it, and tend to do just that. However, the shift in worldview required to unlock a new power structure is looking more possible today than it has for decades.

Core to our belief that we are on the cusp of a new era in education is the unravelling of the evidence base that propped up the long dominant New Public Management (NPM) paradigm upon which the era of markets, centralisation and managerialism was built, not just in education, but across the public sector.

There is growing recognition (and acceptance) that NPM, is failing. It was originally developed as a framework to reorganise public sector management procedures. NPM was based on the idea that the public sector would be run more efficiently and effectively if it followed private-sector approaches. In the 2007 BBC documentary series ‘The Trap’, journalist Adam Curtis traced the origins of NPM. He described how, in the UK, it was seeded by Margaret Thatcher, aggressively pursued by John Major during his time as Prime Minister, and then consolidated as a modus operandi by his successor, Tony Blair… and every PM since.

The nature of ‘human nature’ – according to James Buchanan

Curtis cites Game Theory, John Nash, the Prisoner’s Dilemma, RD Laing, Friedrich Hayek, Cold War strategists, and the economist James Buchanan as instrumental in the propagation of the theories that underpin NPM. Their theories – the origins of which can be traced right back to assertions made by Adam Smith in 1776 – converged around a core assumption about human nature. They were arguing that while people can appear kind and altruistic, this is superficial. Deep down – they argued – human beings are inherently self-interested. It was upon this assumption that Buchanan and others argued that the best way to manage people – in the public sector especially – is to game their self-interest.

Buchanan became an influential figure in the Conservative party under the leadership of Margaret Thatcher. Similar to the Cold War strategists and psychiatrists like RD Laing, Buchanan held a suspicious view of human beings. He was particularly sceptical of the idea that people could be motivated by a sense of public duty. He labelled as hypocrites any politicians or public servants who claimed to be working for the public good.

From ‘good enough to great’ – unlocking intrinsic motivation

Thatcher and Major agreed with Buchanan and they set about reorientating the economy and the state around the idea that most people, most of the time, are acting in their own self-interest. This thinking, applied to the education system in England from the 1980s onwards, has led to today’s fear-based top-down approach to improving schools that places a strong emphasis on targets, competition, and financial incentives. The IPPR, however, argue that NPM’s limitations are now being revealed, especially in education:

Across the public sector NPM approaches are becoming less and less popular. This is because, while there is evidence that some of these levers (such as targets or regulation) can drive schools (and other public services) from poor to good enough, there is limited evidence they can drive them from good enough to great.

To get to ‘great’ – and great is what is needed – the IPPR argue that policymakers need to move ‘toward unlocking the ‘intrinsic motivation’ of staff and service users by moving from the low trust, skill and autonomy NPM playbook to a high trust, skill, autonomy alternative.’

In arguing for this, the IPPR are drawing on the work of Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, who drove the development of Self Determination Theory. Deci and Ryan argued that all humans have an innate need for autonomy, competence, and relatedness, and that these are critical to mental wellbeing and thriving. Unlocking the intrinsic motivation needed to turn ‘good enough’ teachers into ‘great’ teachers is not easy. The education system would need to give teachers more agency and autonomy, ensure they have high levels of competence, nurture their creativity, and make sure they develop authentic, mutually reinforcing, relationships with others.

The IPPR is arguing that extrinsic motivators (status, money, fear) are effective, but only up to a point – ‘good enough’. Teachers are ‘good enough’ when they are getting the job done, when they are hitting their targets, and efficiently carrying out all their planning, lessons, marking, and administrational tasks. What teachers in this system are being denied is the chance to excel. Time and budget constraints, and a lack of decision-making authority, mean they are not able to master their craft (as a great musician or artist might). This is demotivating, disempowering, demoralising, it prevents a teacher from fulfilling their potential. The knock-on effect is that (at best) children get a ‘good enough’ education, but are denied a ‘great’ education, which is rarely the fault of the teacher.

Things would be different if the education system was set up to tap into the intrinsic motivations of its teachers. Sadly, today – in England – it struggles to do so, in fact it can be argued that it isn’t even trying to. The result is a population of teachers who feel untrusted, incompetent, and atomised. They are compelled to ‘teach to the test’ and treated as nothing more than uncritical delivery agents of a pre-defined national curriculum.

Perceptions matter – and they are starting to shift

The failure to recognise and tap into teacher’s intrinsic motivations is a huge missed opportunity. In our essay collection propose a more democratic, lightly instrumentalised, and decentralised education system. Such an education system would seize this opportunity and take us beyond ‘good enough’. Getting there – getting to ‘great’ – won’t, however, be straightforward. It requires us to trust our teachers (and learners), give them more autonomy, more agency, and more support. This will require us – as a society – to let go of Buchanan’s bleak view of human nature, which has grown into a very powerful myth. This idea – that most people, deep down, are self-interested – has assumed a vice-like grip over our collective conscience.

The vice, however, is starting to lose its grip. Perceptions are starting to shift. People are beginning to realise, through their lived experience and exposure to new evidence, that in truth most people are kind, altruistic, cooperative. The data shows clearly, for UK adults and children, that a large majority (over 70%) of people do care about the future of the planet, they want a more socially just and compassionate world. Crucially, the data also shows that when compassionate people believe that most other people are also compassionate (rather than self-interested), they are more likely to volunteer, vote, and get involved in other civic activities to create a better world. As the Common Cause Foundation put it: Perceptions Matter.

The emerging evidence on the true nature of human nature is being popularised by increasing numbers of authors (Bregman, Hertz, Temelkuran, Hare and Woods) and organisations including Global Action Plan. It is leading to a major rethink in policymaking circles. Architects of public sector services and management are questioning whether gaming of self-interest is still a smart strategy. They are being inspired by social activists like Jon Alexander, who powerfully advocates for the embedding of a ‘citizen story’ to replace the ‘consumer story’ we tell about ourselves and wards off the danger of a ‘subject story’ taking hold; Hilary Cottam, who shines a light on the transformative effect of creating capability rather than dependency in the delivery of public services; and even ‘accidental anarchists’ like former UK Government diplomat Carne Ross, whose professional background makes him relatable to those who might normally be dismissive of those who typically advocate for radical forms of decentralisation and deliberative democracy.

Citizens assemblies, participatory budgeting, and other forms of decentralised and deliberative democracy are becoming more popular in the West and all hint at an emerging paradigm shift in how society is run. Traces of this shift – suggesting we are on the cusp of a new era – are also evident in education. In Scotland, and more recently and more deeply in Wales, the [not always smooth] trend towards trusting teachers and learners is accelerating. In Ireland, a pledge to hold a Citizens Assembly on the Future of Education was made in the Irish Government’s Programme for Government, it was due to happen in 2024 and would be groundbreaking if it did (it does however look likely to be delayed until at least 2025).

Signs exist in England too, but in more embryonic forms. For example, the growing success and popularity of EPQs and other forms of student-led learning are busting the myth that young people can’t be trusted with the responsibility of directing their own project-based learning.

A sense of public duty is a real thing

James Buchanan was wrong, we human beings aren’t nearly as selfish as he made us out to be. Altruism is a real thing, and it is perfectly possible to hold a genuine sense of public duty. Most humans are predisposed to collaboration and cooperation, and while we are – teachers included – all driven by status and money up to a point, but it is only up to a point. Most of us thrive when we are fairly paid, financially secure, but also trusted and given space to collaborate and create. We, however, shrivel when we are treated like robots, forced to compete, and motivated by fear.

Understanding and acceptance of this evidence is spreading. As reported on above, organisations like the IPPR are starting to draw on it to develop policy proposals. We expect others to follow suit. There are signs that they will in papers and reports by, for example, the Foundation for Education Development, who call for a long term plan for education and the empowerment of regional and local leaders, and the LSE who have advocated for a ‘stakeholder model of governance for all state-funded schools representing parents, staff, the local authority, and wider community’ to ‘provide local democratic accountability and greater transparency to the local community.’


Make the existing model obsolete

In this essay we have highlighted five reasons why we think the education system in England is on the cusp of an era-defining change. Given this, there is a distinct false economy in persisting with a strategy of tinkering, retro-fitting, and patching up of a broken system. As Buckminster Fuller said: ‘You never change things by fighting the existing reality.’ This is as true for politicians as it is for campaigners and teachers. Once again, a UK Prime Minister will, we think – at some point soon – come to accept this as Jim Callaghan did in 1976 (only this time – we hope – the PM will conclude that that central Government needs to cede control, rather than seize it).

Fuller famously went on to say: ‘To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.’ In this time between education worlds, this is the opportunity for a confident, visionary, and ambitious political leader – they need to be encouraged to take it. And they will if a blueprint of a believable, pragmatic, and popular new model emerges. It is into this space that activists and campaigners with big ideas rush; they are already starting to, movements and momentum are building.

If fresh visions for the education system are founded on the advancements in EdTech – they undoubtedly will be – and on new understandings of human nature, movements for change will coalesce around these visions and shake the very foundations of the current, failing, markets, centralisation, and managerialism model. With enough shaking, that model will tumble, and out of the rubble will come, perhaps, something wonderful.

However, there is no room for complacency, change will not just magically happen; the foundations of the existing system are strong, they can withstand a lot of shaking. In the introduction to his 2019 book, ‘Beyond Schooling’ David H. Hargreaves makes an important observation about the last great shift in the English education system:

The trajectory to high centralisation from its beginnings in the 1960s to the decisive and monumental reforms of the 1988 Act took over twenty years of incrementalist softening up, and these were followed by a further thirty years of consolidation for centralisation to reach its present condition. It cannot be changed overnight; indeed, it was designed and carefully nurtured so that it would be virtually impossible to reverse.

Hargreaves is right, the education system will not change overnight, it has a lot of built-in resilience. A new period of ‘incrementalist softening up’ is, however, undoubtedly in progress – foundations are being rocked. We environmentalists have a key role to play alongside our allies in the education sector to continue this softening up processes, but we also need to be there to build the new era of education that makes the old one obsolete. We need to be ‘first mate’ environmentalists.


Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash