Have we forgotten how to live?

Our view of reality is determined by our perceptual biases. We see a world coloured by the way we look at it. For example, many citizens of Europe believe that the presence of immigrants in the classroom decreases the academic attainment of the native students – and that the higher the percentage of immigrants – the worse the effect.

This is completely contradicted by research, an example of which you can read about here.


In fact, the presence of immigrants in the classroom increases the educational achievements of both native and immigrant students – and the more immigrants the better!

If we want to change our view of reality, we do so by shifting our perspective, and the principal means of doing that is by asking questions – and paying attention to the answers.

This was the gift of the enlightenment: that we did not have to live in a world of superstition, mediated by those few with a direct line to God or the Devil, we could find out about the world ourselves, if we were willing to ask questions and record the information that came back in an impartial manner.

The world we know today has been shaped by the questions asked by ourselves and others up until today. At any time the prevailing questions about reality – and their answers – constitute our mainstream culture.

That culture is also heavily – but silently – influenced by the questions it does NOT ask! Who for example would have believed the results of the immigrant effect in the classroom, reported above? And who will take any notice of these results if they are committed to the bias that immigrants pull standards down?

The issue then is that we get a world shaped by the questions we ask and by those that we do not ask.

I believe that the questions we ask of reality have changed substantially in the past 40 years. The key questions that have driven the evolution of democracies from the late nineteenth century, up until the 1970’s were:

  1. Is it good?
  2. Is it right?
  3. Is it just and fair?
  4. Will it help bring about a better society and world?

These weren’t always in place: they were initiated by the great minds and social reformers of the Victorian and Edwardian eras, who witnessing the depredations and deprivations of inequality, came to believe that people needed to be treated less harshly, more fairly and more equally. They had too the disastrous loss of life and displacement of people from two world wars to make the case for rationality, cross-border co-operation & moderation.

These are four questions that probably drive the best policy making, even if they invite no easy answers. Their use underpinned a century of progress, marred only by our involvement in great wars.

Those are not the questions we ask today. Much more likely are:

  1. What’s in it for me?
  2. How can I be successful?
  3. How can I demonstrate how successful I am?
  4. Am I getting everything I’m entitled to?
  5. Is my stuff as good as or better than yours?

The materialistic and selfish quality of today’s world is not a natural state for human beings. Much of what appears natural today began in the 1980’s: the obsession with success, with wealth, with fame, the cult of privatization and the private sector, leading to growing inequality across those lands which most fervently embraced these ideas.

And above all, the rhetoric which accompanied these; uncritical admiration of unfettered markets, disdain for the public sector and the delusion of endless growth have led us to a situation where politicians and commentators regularly promise the impossible – and get elected upon manifestos built on false promises (c.f. £350 million per week for the NHS in the Leave campaign).

Unfortunately, the UK was one of the most susceptible of Western countries to this change in what we regarded as important, to the questions we asked of reality, resulting in an emphasis on economic measures above all others.

A trend of decreasing inequality had lasted from the nineteenth century until the 1970’s in both the UK and the USA. We saw a sudden and sustained reversal of that trend, initiated by Margaret Thatcher and her friend Ronald Reagan in the US.


[I am pleased it leveled out under Blair, even with his admiration for finance and the markets and his crazy escapade in Iraq, as we were involved in his seeking re-election in 2005. Small comfort, I’ll admit given the unrest that persists in the Middle East.]

But now the gap is growing to the point where it makes headline news each week in 2016. You can update yourself with the 2016 figures here:


For those less familiar with the inequality argument, the corrosive effect of inequality is not generated by differences between societies, between one country or state and another, but by differences within societies, where those at the bottom have daily exposure to their difficulties and comparisons with those at the top.

It is inequality that is the corrosive factor at the heart of today’s problems in the UK. But following the psychological process of splitting and projection, people prefer to single out groups of “NOT-US” people to blame for their problems. In the UK in 2016 it has been immigrants that have borne the brunt of the blame. It is manifestly unclear whether this is directed at immigrants from the EU or the much larger group of immigrants from the former British Empire.

Continual distortions driving the bias against immigrants surface in myths about them spoiling schools and straining the NHS.

The actual data show that immigrants are average users of the NHS, are more likely as a group to be taxpayers – therefore contributing to the NHS at a higher per capita percentage than the indigenous population – and that as a proportion of costs to the NHS, their effect is small:


The things bankrupting the NHS are increasing costs, an increasing elderly population with complex needs, new technology and government limitations on funding. The cost of immigrants from the EU is the smallest number here!

Now, in education too we are about to embark on an upheaval that will not produce the promised result of better standards of education. Just this week, Theresa May has backed the idea that bringing back the Grammar Schools will turn around the fall in social mobility since the 1980’s which is actually due to inequality.

It will not. The graph below shows the close relationship between income inequality and social mobility:


People at the bottom know that a few Grammar Schools will not end their poverty nor restore their opportunities. They also know that most of the places in these new schools will be taken by the relatively wealthy.

Less than 3% of current places in the nation’s 126 grammar schools are taken by children eligible for ‘free school meals’, one of two critical measures of social mobility. So the argument that these schools will increase social mobility is spurious. What they will do is provide opportunities for the middle-classes to gain extra advantages for their children at the expense of the funds drained away from comprehensives by those local authorities that support more grammars and pitch for funds to open them.

In a wide-ranging review of the impact of grammar schools during the 1950’s/60’s Dr John Goldthorpe of Oxford University concludes:

“Education systems, however they are configured, are much more likely to mirror inequalities than to challenge them.”

While Stephen Gorard, Professor of Education at the University of Durham, says “any policymaker who cares about educational effectiveness or social justice should not promote or condone selection by ability.”

“There is repeated evidence that any appearance of advantage for those attending selective schools is outweighed by the disadvantage for those who do not.”

Those who can, will remember that’s why we started the move away from grammar schools in 1965.

So fundamentally this is an ideological move, favouring selection and providing advantage to families who are already above average in terms of income and resources. Good luck for them: hard luck for the many more families who really need the leg-up that education can provide.

And the overall result? If we continue to ask the wrong questions and ignore the right answers, we will drive further increase in inequality and our social capital and national morale will decline.


There will be isolated pockets of relief, close to the new grammars, where a few children gain advantage, but even here the presence of immigrant children are likely to enhance everyone’s results!





Like a great number of Brits, while benefitting personally from a Grammar School education, I was able to see the lack of opportunity besetting my friends, the majority of whom went to Secondary Moderns. Mrs May seems unable to resist generalizing from her own experience in an unscientific manner to the whole population.


A recent YouGov poll