I took part in a debate on ‘What should be taught in our schools?’ in London last night - a strange affair. As one tweeter noted “Good split on the panel but audience skewed 80/20 to Eton/Tory/Oxbridge axis”. You could tell at a glance the Toby Young/Katherine Birbalsingh acolytes. Fair enough, it was her book launch.
I was last to speak and was pretty annoyed by Toby and Katherine’s torrent of anecdotes and the usual right wing obsessions with Latin and Shakespeare. But what annoyed me most of all was the assault, by both, on vocational training. You could actually hear the posh voices braying ‘Hear hear’ whenever they launched their petty attacks on kids who were learning how to be hairdressers or work in hospitality.
In any case, this was my response. First, something odd has happened to the education debate. It’s become cool for Oxbridge types to bellow out their superiority (they always mention repeatedly that they went to Oxford or Cambridge) and to see the state system as largely dysfunctional. They start with a deficit model that caricatures students as feral, teachers as feckless and head teachers as foolish liberals. They parrot this pathological view of the state system which is clearly an echo of the ‘broken Britain’ Conservative campaign.
Why does this happen? Because the education debate has a habit of descending into late night middle-class, dinner-party talk; all anecdotes and bitching. As if we didn’t have enough on our plate with the direct assault on the state system by Gove and Gibbs, the debate has been further hijacked by d-list celebrities, wannabes, actresses and a TV chef. The d-list celeb (sorry Toby you’re maybe a C), wannabe (Katherine Birbalsingh), actress (Joanna Lumley) and TV chef (Jamie Oliver), who in turn has rolled in a bunch of minor TV celebs to show us how it should be done. We have nothing to learn from these people, absolutely nothing. Why? Because they are devoid of ideas. It’s all criticism, platitudes and anecdotes. The plural of anecdote is not data.
Toby Young is obsessed with Latin. Once again, he trotted out a set of ridiculous claims and anecdotes about why Latin should be compulsory in schools. But as I’ve posted enough on this subject, with a full set of evidence against these claims, let’s put that to one side. His only other real claim was that Marc Zuckenburg was a classicist and that, apparently, was why he was one of the richest men in the world. Really! Brin and Page of Google and Besoz of Amazon, all went to Montessori schools, do my three entrpreneurs trump yours Toby? This is just crap causality. I repeat, the plural of anecdote is not data.
TV Chef thinks education is a risotto
I also had a go at the the Jamie Oliver nonsense, a TV chef, putting a curriculum together as if it were a recipe for a risotto. (I’ve submitted a brilliant idea to Channel 4; Rick Stein, now he can fillet a good fish, why not have him head up surgery for the NHS?) Was there anything more dispiriting than watching the pompous David Starkey start his lesson by saying to his class, “You are all here because you failed.” Then without the lad saying anything, Starkey pointed to Conor and said, “Come on you’re so fat you couldn’t move… With Jamie’s food there’ll be lots of dieting opportunities”. I would have applauded Conor if he had simply marched up and decked him. “You think it’s funny making jokes about me” replied Conor, rightly seething with resentment. As it was, Conor simply gave as good as he got and after the class was lucid and reasonable. “He didn’t even know my name”. Two girls after the class, got it spot on about Starkey, “He’s a bit rude.” He is more than rude, he’s a pompous, old snob who then had the cheek to write a stinging article about these young people and the state system in the Telegraph, showing his true colour. He had no remorse, because he’s a megalomaniac who can’t teach, “I have nothing but contempt for the new-style head teachers…gives you a sense of why things have gone so wrong in state education”. Typical of Starkey, everyone’s to blame but himself.
Simon Callow gets irony bypass
Simon Callow then threw Shakespeare at them, or rather some confusing and ambiguous questions, that got predictably confusing answers. When he asked them who they’d like to be in life, he didn’t like it when they mentioned Bill Gates and Katy Price. Then, suffering from a serious loss of irony, blamed ‘celebrity culture’ for the downfall in education! He can hold the attention of a paying audience, but not a roomful of kids. He was, well, hopeless. I loved the feisty girl’s final comment, “He can’t help the way he talks”. At the debate last night the headmaster from Winchester was similarly obsessed by Shakespeare. Then in rolls Rolf Harris. Good start but was too busy doing his own thing and didn’t spend enough time with the kids. He just looked lost. Robert Winston took a chainsaw to a dead pig (budget no object in this schools), but the kids saw right through his theatrical antics. Ellen McCarthur, had the advantage of a 30 foot yacht. Now how many state schools have or have access to a yacht? And next week we have Mary Beard, teaching, you’ve guessed it – Latin. This whole idea is way out of hand and nothing to do with the real world .
Inner-city London skews
Toby and Katherine are the poster boy and poster girl for these attacks on the state of state education. Note that all of them, bar none, live and work in London. The only common denominator is this ‘inner-London angst’ that every middle-class Londoner has about schools. But there’s a problem here. Inner London is not representative of the state sector as a whole.
Public and faith schools
First we have the richer kids creamed off into the public schools, second, you have the faith schools, set up to educate the poor, but largely taken over as the sharp elbows of the middle class get to work, even lying about their faith, to get in. So, as the evidence shows, from the LSE and Institute of Education, they achieve what they achieve through selection. Around 65% of Westminster’s secondary schools are faith based but the national average is only 17% and it’s less than 5% in many other areas of England. The net result is extreme social sorting. These are inner London skews.
On top of this we have an editorial class who also live in inner London and have exactly the same concerns. Toby and Katherine have no trouble in getting on radio and TV or into print, because the TV folk and journalists all live in London, and have the same worries about their kids, You can read it between the lines, the barely disguised fear of young black kids and a barely disguised fear of working class culture. In an interesting faux pas, Mary Beard revealed that neither she nor Jamie Oliver had suggested Latin, it was a member of the production team who was an Oxbridge classicist.
We’ve even had Joanna Lumley, only two days ago on the BBC, telling us how to run our schools, her only educational credentials; the Lucie Clayton Charm Academy, a finishing school and ’modelling’ agency for girls. At least it was vocational. This isn’t some ab fab, celebrity author, TV chef debate. It’s a serious business with serious outcomes and needs. And don’t think it’s not having an effect.
We end up robbing the Building Schools for the Future budget, launched in 2004, to pay for Toby’s schools of the past. A decision now judged to have been an ‘abuse of power’.
We end up recommending Latin as a compulsory subject in our schools despite the fact that the evidence points to it NOT doing what many claim it does. It doesn’t help you learn other languages, it’s a hindrance.
We end up with a class-based attack on vocational learning, long the great apartheid fracture in the English system, Rather than listen to Tomlinson we relegated vocational subjects to Diplomas and the whole thing collapsed – again. Toby and Katherine regret the fact that we teach vocational subjects in schools. In one disgusting incident Toby had a go at BTECs in hospitality and hairdressing, and oh how the coiffured, restaurant-fed ,well-to-do ladies in the front row laughed and shouted, ‘hear, hear’. It was unabashed snobbery at its worst.
Education policy should NOT be skewed by a self-selecting group of inner London types who have their own idiosyncratic concerns, backed up by an editorial class that has the same concerns. In my lifetime, we’ve seen the creation of the abolition of the 11+, that most brutal of segregation policies, the raising of the school leaving age to 16 (remember this only happened in 1972), the rise in University participation from 12% when I went to University to 45% in just this year, higher staying on rates in schools. We’ve had the Open University, Learndirect’s 2.8 million learners, both offering ‘second chances’. This is real progress. It’s not perfect but it’s progress.
PS To Miss with Love
This was Katherine’s book launch and at the end she read out a strange passage from the book that was a long rambling exchange between her and a pupil, who for some weird reason called ‘Munchkin’. Katherine has a habit of demonising the children she has taught by giving them names like ‘Gruesome’. Those at the LWF conference heard her rant against this particular student for a full half hour. As Stephen Heppell said when he took the stage “I was beginning to feel quite sorry for poor Gruesome”. And that’s her problem. For all her claims to love teaching and the state system, she is, at heart, someone who does a lot of talking and not much listening.
The whole book is written in a faux-novella style, a confusion of fact and fiction (She even makes up a husband in the book, who doesn’t exist in real life.). And maybe this is the problem. Journalists have not warmed to her because she’s so dogmatic and seems to rely on nothing more than autobiographical anecdotes. Like David Starkey, she blames everyone (Fiona Miller got a booting in her speech) and everything but herself for the problems. It wasn’t her fault that the school she taught at imploded, as prospective parents fled the scene after her Conservative Party Speech. The main problem is her outrageous claims that the state system has collapsed, with largely feral children running amok in almost every classroom, urged on by liberal teachers and hapless headmasters. This is so extreme, as to be laughable. But it was a view held by many of the people in the room last night. To be honest, I’m not sure that she’s cut out for teaching. She has this bi-polar tendency to proclaim love in one sentence then follow it up with downright bile and hatred in the next.