Mimsy Gove’s latest wheeze, following in the footsteps of his predecessor Baker, the great wheezemaster, discovers the virtues of some new ‘studio schools’ where learning is to be geared to ‘the world of work’ (differing from the normal run of schools whose pupils presumably are not expected to have regard to that banausic way of life?). He is quoted in one newspaper as “incredibly excited by the studio schools movement”.
‘Studio schools’ look to be another add-on to the chaotic array of schools Mimsy already presides over. Lost in the mire of his ideology he seems happy to stumble into anything that looks ‘exciting’. For us impotent observers bemused by his antics, however, it would be rather more exciting if he were to offer some thoughtful view of where his rag-tag school empire is heading – more strategy, less of coups de foudre.
To judge by his remarks of the moment, his studios seem designed for the gammas – to make up for our national deficit of plumbers perhaps. His lofty academic principles don’t seem to allow him so far to untangle the differences, or connections, between academic education, vocational education and vocational training. Maybe he should use some vacation time to read up on processes of learning, in all its width and depth. If he can’t find time to get as far back as Aristotle, or even to bone up on Tomlinson, he could do worse than start by casting an eye on Richard Pring’s recent Oxford-Nuffield review of ‘Education and Training for the 14 to 19s’. It has obviously escaped his attention till now.
Before we start shooting at the new regime, a last crack at the old one. It arises from a summer reading of Ben Oldacre’s ‘Bad Science’.
In this tour de force of excoriation of snake oil merchants he highlights a learning assistance programme called ‘Brain Gym’. An import from the wackier reaches of California, it was allowed to appear on the website for the Young Gifted and Talented Programme supported by the old DSCF.
‘Brain gymnastics’ purport to improve blood supply to the frontal lobes of the brain by a number of improbable contortions of hands and neck. This process, it alleges through a fog of pseudoscientific mumbo-jumbo, stimulates the brain’s seat of rational thinking. Mr Balls in his day accepted to the Commons Science & Technology Committee that ‘Brain Gym’ had “little merit”. Nevertheless, ‘Brain Gym’ was taken up apparently by many hundreds of schools, and reference to it is still to be seen on Ed’s former department’s website, as though permanently endorsed by government.
The fact that it is there demonstrates how, so casually, a thoughtless bureaucracy can impinge on the minds of earnest and credulous people – in this case teachers, all too scientifically illiterate – looking for a quick fix to a believed problem.
The ‘Brain Gym’ example is hard to beat as a study in how easy it is for central bureaucracy to fail to control itself or be controlled against making mischief in promulgating ideas.
Ideas in the hands of bureaucrats who don’t know what they are doing have the potential to be dangerous – as ‘Brain Gym’ could be if it weren’t so daft as (as thankfully a number of sceptics’ contributions to the website attest).
The new mastermind for schools, Mimsy Gove, claims he wants to see an end to his department’s fiddling with the school curriculum and its delivery. Behind his pretensions to localism, however, his essential centralism leaves him firmly in the rank of usual government suspects. We shall see soon no doubt what he’s really made of.
What a contrast! Newsnight with Paxman, in the red corner Ed Balls, the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, and in the blue corner his would be successor, Michael Gove. Two cocky little independent schoolboys in a juvenile wrangle, bandying figures and giving no sign that either of them has an informed understanding of teaching and learning or a calm or reasoning frame of mind. On the next night, Dr Maggie Atkinson, the Children’s Commissioner, graduate of Mexborough Sixth Form College and a trained teacher with vast experience of teaching, inspection and management, asked to comment on the latest care scandal: calm, thoughtful, and judicious.
Which would you trust to run the best Department?
To spread interest in the 14-19 diploma programme, Mr Balls‘s corporation has enlisted a musician of the streets, one who calls himself ‘Kano’. A certain newspaper calls him a ‘foul mouthed rapper’. If one takes time to see and hear some of his production, it is possible to imagine – just – how his limited lyrics on the theme of ’There is Another Way’ might engage the attention of some pop-engrossed young people – if they aren’t distracted by his tedious gyrations.
Mr Balls’s commissioned advertisement for his dodge, however, titled ‘Bringing Learning to Life’, scores an own goal with its ambiguity. Serves him right for adopting commercial – and ignorant – publicity whizz-kids to handle his intellectual responsibilities (if he has them).
Meanwhile, Mr Gove welcomes the aged US comedienne, Goldie Hawn, to breathe her quasi-Buddhist view of life into another of his range of funny academies. Goodness knows how a timeworn figure from transatlantic ‘stage, screen and radio’ is to add to the quality of our public education; by importing yet another piece of the now boring celebrity craze?
Are these two, leader and would-be leader of our national culture as distilled in our schools, so shallow in philosophies or even so empty of thought that they have to descend to these vulgarities to justify their policies? You could almost bring yourself to live with state control of education, if at least it were dignified.
O tempora, O mores!
The Head Poncho at the Department for Whatever It Is, Mr Balls, was questioned by a certain Keith Mitchell of Sunderland (Education Guardian 16 February): “How can you [be] true to Labour’s core principals of equality and community when you have allowed questionable individuals and organisations to take control of publicly funded schools without any collective responsibility or democratic accountability?”.
Mr Mitchell’s question has a poignant ring, coming as it does from an area infamous for its weird tale of academy sponsoring, but it has a general application too. Congratulations Mr Mitchell! Your query deserves to be put up in lights all over town and country. The Head Poncho’s reply? “All publicly funded schools are accountable”. Full stop. Next?
Either Mr Balls is so thoroughly embarrassed by the Sunderland situation or his étatism is so deeply ingrained that he doesn’t know how to respond to it at all. Either way, blankly he evades the point; doesn’t want to say anything so dangerous as concerns the little matter of local democracy? Lord help us if, as rumoured, Mr B. has ambitions to be Labour’s next prime minister. Then, citizens, look forward to total enslavement under Leviathan!
The Institute for Government has just produced an analysis of government malfunction. Featured in the Sunday Times (17 Jan 10), headlined ‘Whitehall revolts’.
Unseemly as it may be to indulge in schadenfreude, yet perhaps a vinegary smile may be forgiven at certain extracts from the IoG’s report, as for instance: ‘Whitehall and the Treasury have few tools beyond the brute force of political edict’; ‘all the worst bits of policy making come from the centre’; ‘conspicuous lack of a coherent strategy . . coupled with an obsessive attempt to micro-manage policy’; ‘what comes out of No 10 is lots of barmy ideas – here is a problem, let’s have a knee-jerk reaction to it tomorrow’. And so on.
Don’t these comments on central government in general ring a bell with all those who have fretted for twenty years on a lower plane, the condition and development of our public education?
How was it, one wonders, that the combined force of our superintelligent Whitehall mandarins didn’t wonder themselves where the centripetal tendencies they had colluded upon with control-greedy politicians in the last pre-millennium decades were leading them? Did they not realise the risk of constitutional corruption that the centralising mindset, once established, would lead to? If not so, can it be that our vaunted civil service has turned out to be after all just a covey of machine men, Soviet style apparatchiks, heedlessly ushering the country into a mire of governmental decadence that the rest of us mere citizens should be ashamed of – whenever we wake up to, and stand up to, the centralist fiasco foisted on us?
On the way to that awakening and revolt, for us who once served a purpose initiated by the ‘44 Education Act, with its ideals of localism and of advancement of the public good as a whole, let us weep for their casual effacement by the cult of central control – as we survey the incoherent wreckage of a non-system it will have left all of us.
If you find yourself scanning the pages of the NewScientist, are you baffled (as I am) when they tell us that quantum physicists and cosmologists speculate on the possibility that other universes may exist alongside our own? Then, beyond speculation and on a matter of fact, do you go along (as I do) with the philosopher author of Gray’s Anatomy arguing that there is no doubt about belief systems and ideologies having over long ages obstructed achievement of rational human progress?
For me in my reading armchair, book in one hand and periodical in the other, the coincidence of these two sets of ideas has resonated with one large aspect of the current plight of public education. As we well know, this has suffered for all too long, since the ill-named ‘88 Reform Act, from regimentation and control – under a centralist dogma with the self-imposed blinkers that stultify and confine intelligence in one, flat dimension. But now witness the two different public attitudes – both in their way scandalous – offered by actors in the pantomime we are obliged to call government to two recent education reports – both blockbusters in scope and importance. In this there appears to be little doubt but that our ‘masters’ assume they occupy a separate plane of existence from common mortals.
Consider the government’s attitude to Professor Robin Alexander of Cambridge University and Oxford’s Professor of Education, Richard Pring. Alexander’s Primary Review – the deepest enquiry in the field since the Plowden Report of 40 years ago – was blankly dismissed as ‘old hat’, while Pring’s Nuffield-funded Review of Education & Training for the 14-19s – a review of the sector never before tackled so comprehensively – has been virtually ignored. When results of explorations in such breadth and depth over many years conducted under the aegis of two of the UK’s premier universities (which also figure among the top five universities internationally) are treated as dross or simply overlooked, one can only assume that the state politicos who condemn them live in a sphere so set apart as to be extra-terrestrial. Where one world derives its substance and strength from discovery and evidence in the living world of educational practice, the other in its weary fairyland demonstrates its tenuous hold on reality by cleaving to misplaced myth, like what Richard Pring in his Nuffield review calls ‘performance management’.
Is there another government office in the civilised world that could persist in such a weird life of denial? So weird that the DCSF, lately deserving to be known as the Department of Callow Schemes and Fantasies, has evidently acquired a further outer space character, earning perhaps the title of DLGM, the Department of Little Green Men?