Oh the frustration. As a result of a complaint to the Charity Commission, I willingly agreed with RSA Trustees that I should not use this blog on this site to speculate on political strategy. Apparently, it’s not so much a problem of political bias, more that such matters have little to do with the RSA mission (‘unlike women’s sense of humour of the use of animals in advertisements?’ I hear you comment quizzically).
But I have so much to say! Sadly, I must save it for those occasional media appearances in which I insist there is no reference to the day job.
Suffice to say in this context that – amazingly – the general election is shaping up to be one in which real policy questions may feature. Whether on universalism in the benefit system, promoting marriage, the speed of deficit reduction, the form and content of schooling, immigration, Britain’s relationship with Europe, there are real differences being clearly articulated and debated.
Last week even, at the State of the Arts Conference, there were substantive differences between Jeremy Hunt and Ben Bradshaw’s view both of what is happening now in the sector and what needs to happen next.
Following the agreement of the Party leaders to TV debates, we are hoping to hold equivalent events with a departmental focus here at John Adam Street. We will be inviting the culture spokespeople and the environment leads to agree to answer questions from an audience comprising a full Great Room and thousands watching and listening on-line. And we will, of course, be hoping to do the same for education.
Which brings me to the most exciting news of the day: Michael Gove has replied to my July questions. Maybe now he has published his education manifesto I have finally, albeit momentarily, moved to the top of his priority list (joking and bad puns aside, I am genuinely flattered and grateful). And what a fascinating reply it is. I am holding back for 24 hours in case we can get some take up from the traditional media but tomorrow or the day after I will share his thoughts in full along with some of my replies to his replies.
Given that we are running at nearly 60 comments on my last education post, I am sure Michael’s views will provoke a very lively debate.
This morning, as I walked down St James Street reflecting on an excellent breakfast belatedly to mark the launch of the Times science supplement ‘Eureka’, who should I bump into but Michael Gove. Although he was engrossed in a phone conversation he put his interlocutor on hold, ‘Ah, Matthew’ said the chief intellectual architect of Cameron Conservativism ‘you are most definitely number two in my priority list’.
In this, I assume Michael was referring to the list of questions I publicly posed him after his lecture here last June. ‘Number two’ does sound hopeful as long as this list is both stable and fast moving. I fear however there have been many other top priorities over these last few months and yet more may still emerge.
Indeed it has taken so long for him to reply that I find the ground shifting under my feet. Although my questions were based on Michael’s forthright speech here, I did fall into the trap of assuming that one’s opinions on education line up neatly under two headings: traditional or progressive.
Traditionalists emphasise the importance of core knowledge, the authority of teachers, the need for schools not to be distracted from the task of academic pedagogy, the dangers of mixed ability teaching. They also tend to be sceptical of claimed improvements in standards, alleging widespread dumbing down. Progressives put more focus on the wider development of the child, they think children need to acquire competencies as well as knowledge, they see learning more as a partnership between teacher and learner, they encourage schools to engage with other agencies concerned about children and the wider community. They are more likely to argue that mixed ability teaching can be just as successful in terms of results and is better in terms of children’s self esteem and sociability.
But there are several problems with the dichotomous view:
Close up, the differences tend to become more elusive. For example, supporters of competence based curricula are not anti-knowledge; they think theirs is the best way for pupils to acquire knowledge. Traditionalists recognise the wider development of the child is important but they put more store by things like schools sport and clubs as the way to do this
Arguments about how best to teach cut across other arguments, particularly about how much of what schools do should be centrally prescribed. Is it better for progressives to have a centralising government that broadly supports their approach or a decentralising one which doesn’t?
And, of course, the killer problem with resolving this argument; good traditionalist teaching is better than bad progressive teaching and vice versa.
Almost every review of these arguments attaches the same caveat to its conclusions. Here for example is the last sentence of an article by Andrew Delbanco in the New York Review about books by arch traditionalist E.D. Hirsch (who is often quoted by Gove) and ultra progressive Mike Rose:
‘Whatever the merits of this or that testing regime or this or that curriculum, the only way to break up the impasse would be for governments and philanthropies to put in place real incentives and rewards for tenanted, well-educated, passionately committed teachers – on whom, as everyone knows, everything finally depends’.
If Michael does ever come back to me I hope his response will provide the basis not for a heated disagreement but to start to unpack a traditionalist-progressive dichotomy which, perhaps, both he and I have been guilty of exaggerating.
I spent some time yesterday evening with David Willetts, Shadow Secretary of State for Universities and Skills. I am a fan of David’s, finding him thoughtful, open minded and progressive. Indeed he was the respondent I chose for my second annual lecture. But having heard David speak about his views of higher education I wonder whether I should introduce him to another impressive Tory politician, Michael Gove. It is far from clear to me that they share the same world view.
Last night, at the dinner we were both attending, several people criticised the Government’s target of 50% of your people going into higher education. But David was eloquent in his support for the expansion of HE, even while recognising that levels of participation had gone up faster than levels of attainment. As well as saying that university has many advantages for young people in addition to gaining qualifications, he pointed out that the expansion had largely been in vocational areas and that about two out of three people at university are studying for a degree necessary for them to enter their career of choice. He also explicitly rejected the notion that the new degrees being taught in new universities were in ‘Mickey Mouse’ subjects.
This was music to my ears. At almost exactly the same time David was making his point at the dinner, I was using a very similar argument on this week’s Radio 4 Moral Maze.
But how are we to square David’s view with the thrust of Michael Gove’s lecture here last June. In referring to universities in his speech, the Conservative education spokesman spoke exclusively about the view of the elite Russell Group. He argued strongly against what he clearly saw as Mickey Mouse subjects and qualifications (although to be fair he didn’t use this phrase). Moreover, I interpreted the thrust of Gove’s speech that he was determined to raise the bar of academic attainment, something which would surely lead in the short term to lower levels of participation in higher education.
So, while David Willetts espouses a laissez faire, expansionary view of post compulsory education, his shadow cabinet colleague urges a return to a more rigidly defined set of subjects and content with progression capped by rising attainment requirements.
Perhaps there is a way of explaining this apparent tension but I’m afraid I’m not clever enough to understand it. I blame my school, or should it be my university?
Why is there such a gulf in understanding between popular discourse and the way educationalists see the world?
On Monday, a packed RSA Great Room listened to Professor Robin Alexander and a panel of experts, including Barry Sheerman MP, Chair of the Education and Skills Select Committee, discuss the findings of the Cambridge Primary Review. The report, three years in gestation and three years in researching and writing, is the most comprehensive and far reaching review of primary education since the 1967 Plowden Report. So extensive was the consultation exercise undertaken by the research team and advisory panel it is hard to imagine anyone interested in primary education didn’t have the chance to get their voice heard.
But when the report was published last week it was subject to a concerted critique by ministers, shadow ministers and most parts of the press. Not only that, but its key recommendations were systematically misrepresented. So, for example, the suggestion that English schools come into line with nearly all continental practice and not start formal teaching of a knowledge based curriculum until children are six was widely reported as being a recommendation that children don’t start school until that age. The recommendation that SATS in year six be dropped in favour of a less disruptive and narrow form of assessment was portrayed as a proposal to abandon any form of assessment, and the questioning of the utility of school league tables was seen by many as implying that schools have no external accountability, an interpretation the Review’s authors flatly deny.
So, given the largely negative coverage of the report, after Robin Alexander had spoken I asked the audience of over 200 how many of them largely agreed with what he had said. Nearly everyone put up their hand, and literally no one (apart from one person who later revealed they were just being contrarian for the sake of it) said they disagreed with the main thrust of the report.
I’m not suggesting our audience was a random sample; many were education professionals and, in line with the traditions of the RSA, there would no doubt have been a broadly progressive leaning. Nevertheless, the gulf between the view from inside and from outside the world of education is a real problem. It means, for example, that politicians can say whatever they like about schools (much of it negative) and few people outside education will believe those inside who try to give a more balanced picture.
I have written before that I am dreading the quality of debate about schools that we will have to endure in the run-up to the General Election. In an attempt to get over some of the false dichotomies, I tried unsuccessfully to engage Tory spokesman Michael Gove in a debate about the core ideas underlying his eloquent and profound critique of most modern teaching practice.
The RSA will continue to try to shed light on the complex and challenging issues facing our education system and the varied and often exciting ways schools are responding. Sadly, I fear ours will be a quiet voice drowned out in the crude and destructive slanging match we can expect to be played out on our airwaves between now and the election.
I’m feeling a bit racked off at the moment. To be honest, I’ve been feeling a bit off colour for about a decade. I put it down to my age. Surveys of contentment over the lifecycle consistently show people over 55 as the happiest, those under 30 next and the middle aged the most miserable. ‘But why’ I hear my reader ask?
A few years ago, Dan Gilbert’s wonderful book ‘Stumbling on happiness’ (the book that got me into thinking about brains and behaviour) summarised research showing we humans are bad not only at predicting what will make us happy, but even at accurately recalling how past events made us feel. Bear in mind also the evidence that we consistently exaggerate our own qualities, so, for example, 90% of motorists will say that they are ‘above average’ in their driving abilities. Then there is a type of attribution effect whereby we put down our own qualities to our inherent strengths and our failings to circumstance, but tend to do just the reverse with other people.
My theory for the lifecycle contentment valley relates to the power of self delusion. When we are young, those of us who are reasonably undamaged are very receptive to all the ways we are inclined to think we are wonderful and are bound to succeed. In middle age we are starting to see through the tricks performed by our brains; the way we are inclined to think of ourselves keeps bashing against the reality of the mistakes we’ve made, the ambitions unfulfilled. It’s very uncomfortable. Some people get depressed (more often women); some become angry and misanthropic (more often men).
Then, when older age dawns, we start to get over it. In the end what does it matter how successful we are in our jobs? There’s not much point being vain when time’s gravity is dragging down your skin, plucking your hair, and tricking your memory. What matters then are more prosaic comforts: family, food, warmth, and for the most blessed, a nice garden to tend.
What’s this got to do with Michael Gove? It’s not just that I don’t like being older than most ‘senior’ politicians. Several weeks ago, after he had spoken here at the RSA, I wrote a post asking Michael seven questions about Conservative schools policy, particularly concerning the curriculum. He promised to reply, a promise his office, and even he personally, later repeated. But no reply is yet forthcoming.
Now, were I under 40 I would see this as evidence of my brilliance. Clearly, my forensic questioning is causing great concern in the Gove camp. They have probably spent many hours in meetings wondering how on earth to deal with my questions in ways that are acceptable to the educational traditionalists but not frightening to ordinary parents. Had this been 1999, I would be out there accusing Mr Gove of running scared and hiding his true intentions for Government. Perhaps I would drop a note to Ed Balls: ‘Hi Ed, I know we’ve never exactly been pals, but I’ve got your opposite number on the run …..’
Not now. When I wake in the night with some minor ailment or other, I don’t comfort myself with the idea I am causing waves in the pond of education policy. Instead I see my blog post gradually moving down a pile on the corner of the desk of one of Mr Gove’s more junior researchers. Perhaps it is with the letters in green ink that all MPs get from people who have had their internal organs invaded by aliens or want assistance with their twenty year old quest to prove it was they who invented the internet.
Perhaps, Crispin or Jemima have looked up one morning from the cappuccino they are drinking outside a charming riverside pub in Chiswick and said to one another ‘oh gosh, we really must deal with that tiresome blog by that chap who used to work for Tony Blair, or was it Harold Wilson’. But maybe even this is a self serving fantasy.
Never mind, just a few more years and the final delusions of grandeur will become a memory, rather like the waist that used to hold up my trousers unaided (how is it that waists disappear when you age, how can the middle not be there when both ends still are?). Thank you, Michael, your silence brings the comforting balm of my dotage a little closer.