The vital educational message of 'It's A Wonderful Life!'

Francis Gilbert's picture
Went to see the great Christmas film, It's A Wonderful Life, at the BFI yesterday and was struck by how this old American film is a devastating critique of privatisation. The Coalition and Michael Gove should all watch it over Christmas. It tells the story of a man, George Bailey, played brilliantly by Jimmy Stewart, who battles against a rapacious and evil capitalist, Potter, in his small town. Just as Bailey is about to commit suicide, he is visited by a second-class angel, Clarence, who shows him what life would have been like if he had never been born. Without Bailey there would be no one to battle against the privatising power of Potter. In a bleak nightmarish sequence, the non-existent Bailey sees the town has become a horrid slum, full of bitterness, monopolised by Potter's companies. I won't tell you the ending -- in case by any remote chance you haven't seen it! -- but suffice to say, it ends happily because the "co-operative" spirit wins out.

It struck me that it's important Christmas message for those who seek to privatise education and create an unbridled free-market amongst our schools; the system will be taken over by the Potters of this world who will seek their own personal profit and gain above the needs of our children. As the film shows, it's the co-operative spirit that creates happiness, purpose and achievement in our society; we need to foster that. Time again, we see in research and our personal lives, that when people pull together and help each other, then success flows for everyone, not just a greedy few.

Oh, and Happy Christmas everyone! Thanks to everyone who's made this site should a vibrant place for discussion about our nation's schools. xx
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Andrew Old's picture
Fri, 24/12/2010 - 13:35

I'm sure it's a feature of a masterpiece that it is open to more than one interpretation, but I can't resist pointing out that both cirector and star were staunch Republicans.

Francis Gilbert's picture
Fri, 24/12/2010 - 17:10

Andrew, you should teach Media Studies! (Only joking, I'm sure you're too keen on it). I'm quite keen on Roland Barthes' "Death of the Author" theory of reading texts; I certainly saw it as a fable about the importance of co-operation but I do know Capra/Stewart were indeed Republicans. Being married to an American, I do find increasingly that American politics though is not very much like ours...

Here's a challenge: what films should our politicians be watching this Christmas?

Melissa Benn's picture
Sun, 26/12/2010 - 13:19

I too went to see 'It's a Wonderful LIfe' on Christmas Eve and came away thinking what a vivid and moving film it is ( although perhaps just a touch too long and laboured in parts) but also what a political allegory it is. For those who care only about money and profit, comes unhappiness and isolation; money should be used to make things that are of benefit to people rather than just to make more money: life is best when lived co-operatively... As a hymn to the enduring values of small town America, I can see the Republican appeal of it, although hard to see how anyone to the political right could really approve of its anti materialistic message. I'm sure that part of its appeal to modern audiences is the values that it propagates, albeit in pure story form; particularly relevant right now, with today's Boxing Day papers full of the latest piece of government vandalism with the slashing of the Bookstart scheme.

Nick Cowen's picture
Sun, 26/12/2010 - 23:29

I am afraid you can just as easily get rapacious public sector monopolists, keen to expand their compensation without delivering a better education to children too. As the actual evidence seems to suggest, having the choice of provider makes both types (for-profit and non-profit) more accountable to the interests of children.

Francis Gilbert's picture
Mon, 27/12/2010 - 11:24

Ultimately though, it's "values" that count. Bailey's "Savings and Loans" bank didn't have the profit motive at the heart, but was about serving the community. That's what the best local schools do; they're accountable to their local communities in a way that many privately run schools are not. The great local school's core value is to serve the community, not itself.

Nick Cowen's picture
Mon, 27/12/2010 - 12:38

I don't see it as an either / or. Otherwise how could a teacher in a non-profit school justify seeking a higher salary when they were already comfortable.

Successful enterprise of any sort is about combining your own ends (including to live well) with the ends and needs of others. In fact, it is very difficult to succeed in a Market that works within the law without putting the needs of others at the centre of your thinking. It is certainly how I think when I am trying to sell textbooks.

Nigel Ford's picture
Mon, 27/12/2010 - 16:06

Nick, there are some services where the market doesn't work eg health insurance where "adverse selection" and "moral hazard" conspire against market principles.

Similarly in schools where those parents with financial resources can buy a private education not available to those on a more limited budget means consumer choice is severely restricted, or where a popular state school with extra government funds has to expand to meet pupil demand then loses its ethos and logistic dimensions so the market also fails. A voucher scheme will not obviate the scenario of oversubscribed schools where they are forced to choose the pupil and deprive others on a subjective basis.

That is where the essence of supporting a local school within the state sector is to be revered and promoted as the central feature of this excellent site.

Francis Gilbert's picture
Mon, 27/12/2010 - 19:07

Thank you, Nigel! I really couldn't have put it better myself; I think your point about schools expanding is important. It is so difficult to "bottle" the essence of a school and impart that "essence" to other schools. I think Wilshaw's difficulties with Haggerston school are a good case in point. Sir Michael did a great job with Mossbourne Academy, making it one of the top performing state schools in the country, but he's really struggling to impose his vision upon Haggerston school, where the teachers are thinking about striking:

Nick Cowen's picture
Tue, 28/12/2010 - 01:14

How do you know that modern healthcare doesn't work in a market setting, since it has never been tried? But in areas where markets are permitted, they tend to work better than the alternative: like dentistry and laser eye surgery.

I think the main problem with health insurance is that an awful lot of healthcare costs over the course of a lifetime are not really insurable since most people require expensive healthcare at some point. That means a better approach is health savings with a bit of insurance for especially expensive diseases.

In any case, I understand there are plenty of theoretical issues with markets in these areas which is why we should be vigilant. It is also why I dont support allowing voucher schools to select pupils. Pupils should select schools instead and oversubscribed schools should allocate places randomly or on first come first served. That avoids the potentisl problem of adverse selection in that instance.

Incidentally this doesn't really touch my point that everyone (even a teacher in a non-profit school) seeks 'profit' in the sense of generous compensation for their work and that we function in all forms of cooperation whether public or private by aligning our interests with those of others, not by totally ignoring our own interests.

Emma Bishton's picture
Tue, 28/12/2010 - 12:02

I'd like to see the evidence that the market in dentistry has increased services to all those who need them. I feel increasingly frustrated with the dogma of 'choice', and the effect that pursuing 'choice' at all costs is having on the restructuring of health and education services. Choice is, after all, only available to those who have the opportunity to exercise it.

'Choice' is the rationale quoted by Tim Yeo, our local MP, for supporting our local free school applications in Clare and Stoke by Nayland. These proposals (one currently with DfE and the other due to submit its business plan) would result in new 11-16 high schools in premises currently occupied by middle schools due to close due to Suffolk reorganising from a 3-tier to a 2-tier system. However providing additional schools here will only be to the detriment of existing good schools which will suffer due to loss of pupils and therefore income. In this scenario, promoting choice of school for a few can only result in reducing choice for everyone else currently enjoying a good broad educational curriculum and range of non-curricular activities.
Quite apart from the restrictions in curriculum and wider opportunity the relatively small free schools will be able to afford for their pupils.

Whose choice is expanded, in this scenario?

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