Hope, utopianism and educational renewal. In this piece David Halpin offers an analysis of the nature of hope and its significance for educational practice. He identifies three ways in which a renewed optimism of the will can be nurtured among educators, despite the current talk of professional decline. These ‘three ways’ involve taking seriously: ‘hopelessness’; ‘the moral virtues of teaching’; and ‘optimistic illusions (utopias)’.
Contents: introduction · hope as a theological virtue · hallmarks of hope: mutuality, experimentation and faith · hope and cynicism · hope and fatalism · hope and fundamentalism · putting hope back into education · taking hopelessness seriously · taking the moral virtues of teaching seriously · taking optimistic illusions (utopias) seriously · bibliography · how to cite this article
“The situation is hopeless, and the solution hopelessly simple”
If some of the stories emanating from the field are to be believed, teaching in the UK is presently a beleaguered occupation, particularly in schools serving areas of cumulative social and economic disadvantage. Many teachers working in such settings are reported to have low morale coupled, in some cases, with feelings of professional inadequacy. Indeed, a recent study conducted by a group of economists at the University of Warwick UK suggests that currently teachers in England are less content at work than any other professional group.
The factors contributing to this state of affairs are not difficult to identify. Teaching in urban environments, while it has its obvious rewards, can often be grindingly hard. Certainly teachers in many of our inner-city state comprehensive schools are required to work with the most challenging of pupils, in situations that are often less than ideal, and in circumstances in which they feel their efforts are insufficiently acknowledged and inadequately rewarded. The large amount of discontent said to permeate teaching is one reason, I suspect, why today fewer of its practitioners than in previous times think of it as a job for life. Indeed, a high number do not even start out. Figures issued by the UK Teacher Training Agency, for example, point up the disappointing extent to which graduates following PGCE secondary training courses increasingly do not seek teaching posts after achieving QTS. For those that do, a significant ‘drop-out’ rate after five years is evident. It appears too that more and more experienced teachers, including ones in senior posts, are actively seeking ways to retire early, often because of stress in the work place. (In this connection, figures recently released by the UK Government indicate that nearly half of all teachers working in state schools in England took four or more weeks off work last year because of illness.) So, although cynicism and pessimism are probably not as widespread among teachers as some might think, it remains the case that neither optimism nor hopefulness is present in super-abundance either.
But what is meant by hope in general and how does it connect with education in particular? And how can hope be put back into education in situations where it is under threat or close to being banished from the scene? Neither question is an easy one to answer, for while it is clear that vocabularies of hope crucially affect people’s thinking, emotions and achievements, and maybe teachers’ more than most, they have rarely been the centre of either theoretical attention or empirical investigation. Certainly hope is a neglected concept in philosophical studies of education.
Hope as a theological virtue
One of the chief historic roots of hopefulness, of course, is Christian theology – specifically, Pauline ethics. Saint Paul identified hope, along with faith and love, as one of the three ‘theological virtues’. Drawing on the ethical philosophy of Aristotle, Aquinas, developing this insight, articulated Paul’s taxonomy with one of his own – the four ‘cardinal or moral virtues’ of temperance, justice, prudence and fortitude, the latter of which he conceived as the necessary means for bringing about the former.
Aquinas’ cardinal virtues are human virtues. ‘Faith’, ‘hope’ and ‘charity’, on the other hand, are ‘supernatural’ ones insofar, as they are designed to raise our minds to things that are above nature. ‘Hope’ is a special case here. In Aquinas’ writings, its object is twofold: first, the future good that one desires and, second, the help by which one expects to attain it. As one would expect, God is the object of hope in Aquinas’ philosophy. Moreover, because hope in Aquinas’ schema is ultimately only realizable through divine means, it requires a modicum of humility on the part of those that practise it. As Aquinas remarks, “hope goes wrong and is mistaken when you rely on your own strengths”.
Hallmarks of hope: mutuality, experimentation and faith
Aspects of Aquinas’ theistic interpretations of hope are capable of secular, including educational, interpretation, in the sense that hopefulness entails both anticipating future happiness and trusting in present help to come to it. This is something any good educator would quickly be able to identify with, in the sense that being such a person entails having both high expectations of learners’ potential as well as faith that the educational process will realise them.
The Eighteenth Century philosopher, Immanuel Kant, appeared to recognize this as well, remarking in his magnum opus, The Critique of Pure Reason, that “all the interests of [his] reason, speculative as well as practical, combine in the following three questions: What can I know? What ought I to do? And for what may I hope?” Kant emphasizes what is at stake in this last question by claiming, in terms reminiscent of Aquinas’ earlier, that “all hoping is directed to happiness”. But, having declared that the concept of hope is central both to his thinking and living happily, Kant nowhere explicitly develops a full-blown analysis of its character. Allow me then to have a go at this on his behalf.
Hopefulness, I want to insist at the start, entails, even if only implicitly, a critically reflective attitude towards prevailing circumstances. Indeed, hope often creates discontent, inasmuch as a person’s hopes for the future may make them very dissatisfied with things as they are presently, especially if they get in the way of making progress. Consequently, discontent of this kind draws attention often to a significant absence or gap in how certain matters are experienced, allied to a wish to change them for the better. Much the same, of course, can be said of the proper practice of education, which is premised upon the hope that teaching and learning will lead to improvement. This premise explains the frustrations that frequently occasion the practice of education which often entails working against the grain of conditions that are antithetical to effective learning.
To say that someone is hopeful is thus to refer to a disposition they have which results in them being positive about experience or particular aspects of experience. Being hopeful also involves the belief that something good, which does not presently apply to one’s own life, or the life of others, could still materialize, and so it is yearned for as a result. Being hopeful, consequently, encourages outgoingness as well as a fundamental openness towards one’s environment including, crucially, the people in it. This last element of the equation cannot be stressed enough. For hope is as much a relational construct as an emotional or a cognitive possession of individuals. The social psychologist, Lionel Tiger, argues in similar vein, stating that hope is an “essential vitamin for social processes. If everybody awoke each day to announce ‘It’s hopeless’, there would soon be (he says) no plausible tomorrow and no continuous social arrangements”. The existentialist philosopher, Gabriel Marcel, concurs, arguing that hope “is only possible at the level of the us . . . and does not exist on the level of the solitary ego”.
Mutuality is then both a source for, and a potential outcome of, hope. It is also closely bound up with the willingness to experiment, to make choices, and to be adventurous. Accordingly, hope has a creative role in encouraging the development of imaginative solutions to seemingly intractable difficulties. To that extent, hope is in love with success rather than failure. Specifically, it can visualize a state of affairs not yet existing; and, more than this, it can both anticipate as well as prepare the ground for something new. Indeed, unless hope has been aroused and is alive, there can be no planning. The resonance here with the education project hardly requires elaboration, other than to remark that the wish to succeed as a classroom teacher or school leader is likely to be accompanied by a yearning hope to do well in one’s work, allied to a propensity to innovate in order to achieve the best results.
Being hopeful, I want to say, connects then with a particular kind of positive orientation to the world – one that entails an openness or readiness of spirit towards people and the future. As such, it can sometimes entail a basic, even naïve, kind of faith in progress, involving a taken-for-granted belief in the ultimate worthiness of reality and the people and things that mostly make it up. This is what Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi, seems to be getting at in his remark that being hopeful is about “retaining our sense of the underlying goodness of the world”. Thus understood, it is, in Vaclav Havel’s more poetic words, “an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart . . . It is not the conviction that something will [by definition] turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out”.
Hope and cynicism
Being hopeful, you will not be surprised to hear me say now, articulates awkwardly with modern-day cynicism. A cynic today is not the same person the Ancient Greeks meant by the term. For them the cynic was a critic of contemporary culture on the basis of reason and natural law – a revolutionary rationalist, a follower of Socrates. My impression is that many contemporary cynics seem unwilling to follow anybody in particular and appear to have no obvious criterion of truth or set of fixed values, other than to be cryptically critical of most things.
Of course, there is a role for this, inasmuch as some cynics can draw pessimistic attention in ironic, sometimes humorous, ways to the shortcomings of what for the rest of us are assumed features of the world. Additionally, being a pessimist of the intellect – that is to say, someone who subjects all significant knowledge claims to critical scrutiny – may be a necessary condition for arguing against conceptions of the future that are dangerously ambitious or narrowly conservative and reactionary. However, cynical expressions of pessimism may undermine hopefulness. The sociologist, Anthony Giddens, has it about right, I think, when he observes that cynical pessimism “is not a formula for action, and in an extreme form . . . leads only to paralyzing depression”, which I suspect is why Marcel saw “death at its heart”.
There is a sense also in which cynicism of this sort starts out from the wrong premise. Cynics are fond of telling hopeful people how silly they are to hold on to their aspirations in the face of apparently overwhelming contrary evidence. What they fail to recognize is that out of such hopefulness grows surprising novelty and success. After all, as the philosopher A C Grayling reminds us, “most of what has moved the world onwards began as hope; all of what has moved it backwards has involved its death”. Cynics might still argue that, because so much hope realizes very little or nothing by way of results, this makes it a form of mere wishful thinking. But this, as Grayling also tells us, “is to see things upside down. For the value of hope is independent of its realizations – it is in significant part an end in itself, allied [after Aquinas’ cardinal virtues] to courage, persistence and imagination”. Consequently, the state of being hopeful can reveal much about a person’s character. Grayling puts this point very well, observing that “you discover more about people when you learn about their hopes than when you count their achievements, for the best of what we are lies in what we hope to be”.
Hope and fatalism
Fatalism, on other hand, is the antithesis of being hopeful. Certainly, it paralyses the will to change objective conditions for the better because it assumes these are givens in the situation, and therefore immutable. I have sadly encountered quite a lot of this kind of fatalism in my thirty years of working in public education. In my experience, it is often relayed through a specific, often populist, way of speaking: What can one do?”; “It’s just the way things are; It didn’t work then, so why should it work now?”, for example.
Such talk can have very bad consequences if inflected along deficit lines, such as in the case of assuming that children from particular kinds of social backgrounds, usually working class ones, are, by definition, less likely to do as well at school as their middle-class counterparts. Much the same danger rears its head in statements that take for granted that schools serving areas of cumulative social and economic disadvantage are always going to fail to provide a quality education. Such fatalistic and negative expectations are the scourge of an education programme premised on hopefulness.
Hope and fundamentalism
In the same way that fatalism tends towards leaving everything as it is, fundamentalism – understood as the unthinking application of tradition to questions of how best to proceed – places severe limits on what can be hoped for. In setting out one’s hopes for the future, let’s be clear, there is nothing contradictory in appealing to a tradition or set of traditions. On the contrary, being hopeful sometimes entails a form of nostalgia in the course of which a vision of a future good is defined as much in terms derived from recollections and re-constructions of wonderful times-past – what sometimes is called ‘golden-ageism – as from notions of better future states of affairs.
My concern is that this process can sometimes lead to an unnecessary narrowing of options or, as in the case of fundamentalism, to an irrational commitment to just one course or collection of courses of action. Indeed, some forms of nostalgia or tradition-adherence can quickly become either an excuse for, or a precursor of, fatalism.
Traditions, by definition, are inscribed in ways that demarcate and exclude. Uncritical adherence to them can therefore have frustrating consequences for the educational visionary bent on applying a dose of hopefulness to the process of school reform. Wilf Carr and Anthony Hartnett spell out the double-edged implications of this very well. “Educational traditions (they write) contain ideas about what constitutes real education and real schools and they guide people’s instincts about what can and should be done . . . They provide languages, vocabularies and political repertoires which both make possible new ways of thinking and act as boundaries beyond which it is dangerous to go.”
Despite their continued influence on how education is practised, all forms of fundamentalism connect awkwardly with visionary thinking about the future of schooling. So, while I have no doubt that traditions will continue to flourish in the educational context, indeed are likely to be invented within it, my argument is that it would be better if they did so on the basis of argument and evidence, instead of appeals to their alleged internal authority and integrity.
Putting hope back into education
While cynicism, fatalism and fundamentalism may be helpful coping strategies at times of difficulty, they are useless as resources in putting hope back into education when its influence is under attack and its capacity severely diminished. Cynicism may help some educators to get by; fatalism may even offer them an excuse for inactivity; and fundamentalism may provide them with temporary psychic reassurance; but each has limited application in building up their confidence and capability to confront and overcome challenges.
In this final section of my paper I want then to suggest some ‘signposts’ – three, in fact – to ways in which hope might be restored to the many teachers and educators who presently may despair of carrying on in the work. My concern is to prompt in them a renewed sense of the importance of the work they do, as well as a fresh commitment to the manner in which they go about it.
By speaking in this way, I need speedily to stress, there is no suggestion of offering these educators ‘ready-made’ solutions to the depressive work experiences they are forced each day to endure, some of which, in any event, are not within their control or even influence. This applies particularly to those aspects of their awful work circumstances that reflect inadequacies in funding and resources generally. Also, the poor motivation sometimes evident in some students commitment to schooling (or learners to other educational situations) is not always within their power to influence for the better, however hard they try. On the other hand, being faced with such difficulties still requires of them some personal response, which takes the form of an alternative coping strategy, which in this case is about restoring a sense of purpose about and hopefulness towards the work they do.
Positive signpost (1): take hopelessness seriously
Our reaction to the tales of hopelessness emerging from education is to view their tellers as shocking complainers entirely incapable of looking on the bright side of anything in their work. Another, more positive, appreciation is to view their stories as appeals to make good situations which ought not to be. In the sense that the seeds of change are sometimes implied in current developments, such educators may already – albeit unwittingly – be helping to put hope back into their work by virtue of the fact that they have a submerged vision of what it should be like. Lurking behind their professional narratives of decline, in other words, is the broad outline of a utopia about teaching and learning; and about how schools should be run and managed. The problem is that it can all too easily be subverted by being far too reactive towards others and to the work situation at the expense of any suggestion of personal pro-activity. Criticism – if calibrated – may liberate educators to embrace modes of exciting reconstruction that in happier circumstances might not feature as even remote possibilities. As the sociologists Ulrich Beck and Elizabeth Beck-Gernsheim remark:
“Hopelessness is not exactly a comfortable foundation. But neither is it as bad as its reputation. If one’s efforts are most unlikely to have any prospects, they are also freed of much that is tied up and endangered by efforts that can barely stir themselves when the prospects are good. . . . Hopelessness [on this basis] punctures vanity. But, if the hopelessness is finely measured, even the reservations that make thought small and subservient can be broken down. . . . [Thus], in this sense, hopelessness [may be] . . . encouraging . . . [For] it is [always] possible to start something when [it seems] you have nothing to lose . . . ”
A finely measured or an ‘educated’ negativity, then, may represent a helpful resource for educators to cope better with the more negative vicissitudes of their work, chiefly by providing a means to take some control over events and other people’s actions instead of being a victim of them.
Positive signpost (2): take the moral virtues of teaching seriously
There is, secondly, an abundance of commonsense evidence to suggest that when people find themselves in dire and difficult circumstances they can help to sustain themselves by bringing to mind ideas of the Good Life. Courage, allied to persistence, is the hallmark often of such belligerence.
When we see hope seeping out of education, it is important then to remind ourselves that the latter is not only premised on the former, but also that one of the tasks of the progressive educator is to work hard to unveil opportunities for its promotion, no matter what the obstacles may be. For, without hope in the education context, both teachers and pupils lose direction and the capacity to find it. Hope, after all, buffers us against falling into apathy in the face of tough going, which arguably is why teachers cannot responsibly abdicate it in their work in schools. They not only need to take hope seriously and seek to embody it in their actions, they must also find ways of fostering it among their pupils and colleagues, and especially now given that so much in our world, privately, nationally and globally, is characterized by chronic uncertainty. I would go further and assert that to teach how to live without certainty, and yet without being paralysed by hesitation, is perhaps one of the chief things a good education offers to those who are in a position to benefit from it. Mary Warnock says much the same, stating that of all the attributes she would like to see in her children or pupils, “the attribute of hope would come high, even top of my list. To lose hope is to lose the capacity to want or desire anything; to lose, in fact, the wish to live”. Indeed, as I remarked earlier, to lack hope is to lack a vital spiritual energy and to run the danger of lapsing into lethargy and indifference.
Padraig Hogan, in terms that recall Aquinas’ earlier, adds to this analysis. Occupying a pivotal position in the list he draws up of the “virtues of teaching” are “circumspect honesty, patience and persistence, frankness, originality, a judicious faith in pupils . . . and a categorical sense of care for [them]” In creating this list, Hogan reaffirms a moral role for the teacher as a significant and influential adult figure dedicated to the business of helping pupils to realize their full potential through acquiring a hopeful disposition towards both their studies and their lives generally. Although he doesn’t say as much, I would also argue that, because education is essentially a future-oriented project concerned to bring about improvement, specifically growth in the learner’s knowledge and understanding, successful teaching requires its practitioners to teach with hope in mind.
Teaching and educating does not always reflect such a grand purpose, nor turn out well when it does. What may therefore be needed is a renewed effort of moral will on the part of educators – and their managers, employers and trainers – to revitalize that aspect of what it means to be a public educator that connects with the virtues of teaching identified by Hogan earlier, or what another commentator, David Liston, configures as the recapturing of “the love of teaching . . . [which enables its exponents] to venture [once more] into that space where hope and possibility exist.
The use of the word “love” in this context is central to Liston’s vision, as it is, you will recall, to Saint Paul’s trilogy of theological virtues which articulates it with faith and hope. Liston argues that what is currently needed is a re-moralizing of teaching that “places an understanding of the “Good” and an orientation to love at [its] very centre”. This call to a “larger love in teaching” is an appeal to teachers, and all those concerned with schooling, to recover the idea of the Good as a focal point of professional reflection.
But even this is unlikely to satisfy those pessimists of the will that hold on resolutely to the belief that teaching (and education) is by definition an exercise in futility which is incapable of being restored to the dignity I am suggesting it warrants. On the other hand, such individuals, it seems to me, are not just being fatalistic; they are also working against the grain of the educational process. For, notwithstanding the many factors that sometimes can make it difficult, even seemingly impossible, to teach effectively some students, every good teacher knows there is built into this transaction the possibility that it will realize something for the better.
To be sure, going through the motions with learners is always an option for any educator. But it is an option that has nothing to do with wanting to educate them, least of all with wanting to help them develop a positive conception of themselves and of the future. As Warnock again inspiringly reminds us, “education is particularly fitted to [encourage hope] . . . To feel competent, able to act, able to change or control things, or even to create them, these are all aspects of feeling hope . . . To find that today you can begin to do something you could not do yesterday is to begin to hope. For someone to wake up in the morning, thinking ‘Good, I can go on with it’ whatever ‘it’ is, this . . . must be the chief goal of education”.
Positive signpost (3): take optimistic illusions (utopias) seriously
Another way, thirdly and lastly, of fending off the melancholia experienced by many educators is to encourage them to draw on optimistic illusions – or what I prefer to call utopias – which not only act as spurs to new action, but also promote mental well-being generally.
The link between being hopeful and being utopian is a very close one. Indeed, if one was to ask where and what kind of ‘place’ is the place of hope, then one answer might be ‘utopia’. Although not every expression of hope requires the exercise of the utopian imagination, all utopias are driven by hope – that is to say, they express the dreams of an age, and they say something about its capacities. As such, utopias constitute important signifiers or projections of people’s desires. They also entail a form of positive escapism into a world uncontaminated by common sense where it is possible simultaneously to imagine and anticipate radical alternatives to the status quo. This description of the utopian impulse anticipates well the chief characteristics of utopias themselves. These frequently include a sense of placelessness and timelessness, allied to a perfectional emphasis, all of which are designed to redirect our conservative attentions away from the taken-for-granted towards something new and innovative and progressive.
It is for this reason alone, I suspect, that applications of the utopian imagination are able sometimes to help dissolve pessimism and introduce a degree of optimism into public discourse. They affect this by the manner in which they illustrate the principle that, no matter how bad things appear, they can be envisaged differently, and for the better. Indeed, at the core of utopian thinking is the triumph of reason over circumstance. Thus, while they do not always provide insight into precisely how things can be made better, utopias usually point up possibilities for change that normally would be either ruled out automatically or never thought about.
While utopias must always have content, it is ultimately their function in promoting the consideration of imaginative alternatives that make them utopian. Zygmunt Bauman, the social theorist, elaborating this suggestion, says that utopias relativise the present . . . [by] undermin[ing] the sense that the way things are is inevitable and immutable by presenting alternative versions of society”. The political scientist, Barbara Goodwin, concurs, arguing that the primary function of utopia is to distance us from immediate circumstances so as to develop an alternative schema that points towards change and the promotion of human happiness.
Bauman’s and Goodwin’s functional analyses of utopia complement Terry Eagleton’s, who argues that “in a great deal of utopian fiction, alternative worlds are simply devices for embarrassing the world we actually have. The point is not to go elsewhere, but to use elsewhere as a reflection on where you are”. Thus understood, utopias encourage us to ask and answer the question, ‘for what may I hope?’ As Ruth Levitas states, “they tell us in a way that we cannot directly ascertain where the felt absences are in people’s lives – the spaces, that is, that utopia offers to fill, whether in fantasy or reality”. Similarly, in her review of feminist utopias, Lucy Sargisson argues that utopian texts “break and transform societal and cultural rules. In so doing . . . they create new conceptual spaces in which radically different ways of being can be imagined”. They achieve this by encouraging the perception that the social reality of the reader is neither static nor unchangeable. This perception in turn realises a form of estrangement whereby the commonplace is rendered unusual and unfamiliar, serving to distance the reader from social reality, while at the same time engendering the idea that it could be changed in favour of a better alternative.
This interpretation of the function of utopianism links well with Ernst Bloch’s suggestion that utopias should be regarded sometimes as “wishful images in the mirror” or “daydreams of that which is not yet”. In using such graphic terms, Bloch is seeking to illustrate the way in which utopianism is not just a human creation, but a key aspect of what it actually means to be human. Utopian daydreaming, he insists, is a significant way in which people reflect on future possibilities and in which, especially, they engage positively with the heavy demands of their everyday lives, thus facilitating a degree of psychic equilibrium that helps them to resist over-deterministic interpretations of how they should live them. We all wishfully imagine our next holiday, the home we’d like to live in, the person whom we’d prefer to partner, the person we’d like to be, and the job we’d ideally like to have. Such utopian hopes sustain life and give some direction and purpose to it, providing effort is put into making them real. In the education context, of course, they enable teachers to anticipate how best to teach particular subject matter; and they also underpin the high expectations they have of what pupils can achieve.
Such illusions, however, need to be put together carefully, if they are to work the desired effect. If framed too extravagantly, they may give rise to foolish risk-taking. Thus, while optimistic illusions must be utopian, they need equally to be realistic, and therefore realizable. On the other hand, educators should not underestimate the degree to which the adoption of exaggerated perceptions of control and mastery over events can contribute to their ability better to engage in productive and creative work, even in circumstances where this is very difficult to achieve. As the psychologist Shelley Taylor writes: “Normal human thought and perception is marked not by accuracy, but by positive self-enhancing illusions about the self, the world, and the future. Moreover, these illusions appear actually to be adaptive, promoting rather than undermining mental health”. All of which connects with my earlier high estimate of the value of utopian day-dreaming. This kind of anticipatory consciousness, if conducted publicly and with others, may also provide one of the necessary conditions for initiating collective action for school and educational improvement. It also underscores the importance of keeping to the forefront of one’s mind that, however difficult things appear to be, there is likely to be a way of making progress, providing one is prepared to make the effort to imagine and act upon it. As the cultural historian, Raymond Williams, once remarked:
It is only in a shared belief and insistence that there are practical alternatives that the balance of forces and chances begins to alter. Once the inevitabilities are challenged, we begin gathering our resources for a journey of hope. If there are no easy answers, there are still available and discoverable hard answers, and it is these that we can learn to make and share.
It has been one of the arguments of this piece that such “hard answers” to the more difficult questions about education can be envisaged through exercises of the utopian imagination. Such positive imaginings, which seek to relativise and offer a critique of the present, by conjuring images of alternative futures, provide both an antidote to depressive inaction and a prompt to think progressively about and act for the better upon one’s world.
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How to cite this piece: Halpin, D. (2003) ‘Hope, utopianism and educational renewal’, the encyclopedia of informal education, www.infed.org/biblio/hope.htm. A fuller version of this paper was presented at Charterhouse School, Monday 6 January 2003.
Acknowledgement: Picture: Hope by Dareen Tunnicliff. Reproduced here under a Creative Commons cc-by-nc-nc 2 licence and sourced from Flickr. http://www.flickr.com/photos/darrentunnicliff/4232232092/.
David Halpin is Professor of Education and Head of the School of Curriculum, Pedagogy and Assessment at the Institute of Education, University of London. He is the resident editor of The London Review of Education.
© David Halpin 2003
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