Saturday, May 25, 2013

Sir Gerald Howarth and the pendulum of history

This Tuesday got off to a bad start when I woke up to the radio replaying Sir Gerald Howarth storming to victory in the parliamentary Ignorant Bigot Championships:

“I fear the playing field is not being levelled. I believe the pendulum is swinging so far the other way, and there are plenty in the aggressive homosexual community who see this as but a stepping stone to something even further.”

Ah, the proverbial pendulum – always a sure sign that you are about to be subjected to the ill-informed chuntering of a person who really needs to check their privilege. To me it’s always seemed like a weird metaphor for debates about equal rights, as if history is somehow an endless ebb and flow between patriarchy and matriarchy, oppression of gays and oppression of straights, white rule and black rule – rather than a slow crawl towards equality for everyone who isn’t a rich, white, straight, cisgender man.

Nobody loves a good pendulum more than those men who bitterly complain that women’s rights have ‘gone too far’, that they are the new underdogs in the workplace. I wouldn’t dream of comparing my own experience as a relatively privileged woman with that of, say, the gay couple beaten up in Bromley two days before Howarth’s outburst. But I did heartily wish that those anti-feminists could have been in my shoes this Thursday.

I’d been invited to speak at a policy event. I was a bit nervous, because there were going to be some very high-powered people in the room, and I was effectively pitching my charity's policy ideas to them. I also knew there were going to be a lot of industry types there, among whom the things I had to say would almost certainly go down like a lead balloon.

What I hadn't quite realised was that the people I was addressing were basically the old boys' network personified. On taking my seat in the audience, I overheard this exchange between two other panellists:

Old white man #1: “I think you employ an old mate of mine...”

Old white man #2: “Oh yes, he's a tremendous chap!”

It was at roughly this point that I started to feel like I was in a badly-written satirical novel.

As I sat and listened to a procession of old white men, it dawned on me that I was the only woman speaking during the entire event. I had a glance down the agenda and totted up the numbers: thirteen speakers, every single one of them male except for me. In fact, in an audience of 50-odd, there were only about six or seven women in the room at all. Just think about that for a second: there were more men speaking from the platform than there were women present in the audience. And it gets worse, because, despite there being a lot of contributions from the floor, only one of those women apart from me actually spoke.

After the event, a slightly less old white man came up to me and said, “I thought you did very well on the panel.” Not 'I thought you were very good' or 'I thought you made some interesting points', but 'I thought you did very well'. I'm sure he was trying to be nice, so I smiled and said thanks (actually, come to think of it, I probably pulled a face and said something self-deprecating, which I guess makes me part of the problem) – but inside I was thinking, do you genuinely not realise how patronising that sounds? Would you honestly have said that to a man? 

None of this is unusual. Last year I was invited to a roundtable with a senior government minister at one of the party conferences. It was a fantastic opportunity - my charity is too small to get regular access to ministers at that level. I spent ages thinking about what I was going to say. Ages wasted, because I never got to say it. Of about twenty people at that event, two of us were women. And, in the course of about ninety minutes, neither of us said a word – despite my embarrassingly ineffectual waving at the chair to try and attract his attention. I left feeling angry and frustrated with myself, all the more so because I didn't even have the courage to go up to him afterwards and complain.

I’m honestly not trying to be self-pitying here. My point is that you couldn’t have been at either of those events without realising the obvious fact that this country is still run by the same clique of privileged people it always has been. The pendulum of history only exists in the bitter and fearful minds of people like Sir Gerald Howarth. All of which leaves me with a worry: next time I hear someone sounding off about the pendulum swinging too far the other way, I think my fist might end up swinging rapidly towards their face...

Saturday, May 18, 2013

In defence of penpushers: the cuts we never challenge

When politicians want to sound like they are going to cut without cutting, they almost always promise to protect ‘frontline services’. The implication is that, unlike schools or hospitals, ‘Whitehall waste’ can be cut with basically no inconvenience to anyone. A few paperclips here, a few pointless penpushers there – who’s going to notice the difference? After all, who knows what they do all day anyway?

This really bothers me. Because of course, what civil servants do all day is develop the policies and regulations that govern schools and hospitals, that keep corporations in check, that protect the environment, and so on and so forth. And the hidden consequence of these unglamorous and so largely un-noticed ‘backroom cuts’ is to accelerate the corporate capture of politics.

My day job gives me a ringside seat at this particular drama. I meet civil servants pretty regularly, and since the cuts began to bite they are in a pretty sorry state. They aren’t allowed to have business cards, so whenever I need an email address I have to pass them one of mine to scribble on the back of. When I started my job in 2010, they’d just been informed they could only serve tea and coffee in external meetings, which if nothing else made them almost embarrassingly pleased to see me. Now, they’re not allowed to serve tea and coffee at all, making them seem like the poor relation of the private sector (and, to be honest, even the charity sector). These things matter: they have a subtle but important influence on the dynamics of the relationship between officials and lobbyists.

Most importantly, officials are now so thinly stretched, and have been so disrupted and demoralised by the upheaval of departmental ‘restructurings’, that they’re in no position to resist corporate lobbying. Civil servants already have both hands tied behind their backs by the ludicrous policy of ‘one-in, one-out regulation’ (which, by the way, has now been amended to ‘one-in, two-out’ - I despair). The massive inequality of arms between them and the industries they are supposed to regulate means that the decks are, now more than ever, stacked in favour of the rich and powerful. 

The other day, I had a meeting with a couple of civil servants to discuss new quality standards for a particular product. Although the idea was at a very early stage, it rapidly became apparent that they’d already had sessions with industry representatives who’d told them that the key standard most consumer groups are calling for would be legally impossible. I was pretty sure that this was bullshit, and told them so, albeit possibly not using those exact words. In response, one of them looked uncertainly at the other and said – I kid you not – “Well, it sounded pretty convincing at the time…” 

They then admitted that they knew they ought to get some independent legal advice on this, but hadn’t been able to access departmental lawyers. Feeling a rising sense of doom, I ended up offering to get some advice from a retired lawyer who sometimes helps out my charity. Call me crazy, but I don’t think it’s a tip-top ideal scenario when the government is dependent on the mates of a tiny charity with a turnover of less than £500,000 a year to resist the demands of an industry whose executives get paid more than that just for getting up in the morning.

Another of the policy initiatives I’ve been working on – a car crash all by itself, which I may blog about properly another time – started life three years ago presided over by two longstanding and well-liked officials who knew the area inside out. At least one of them was far more business-friendly than I’d have liked, but they at least knew their stuff, and were respected by those working in the field. Since then, I’ve dealt with a string of about four different sets of civil servants, each seemingly more junior and more clueless than the last. And, surprise surprise, industry has got what it wanted: three years of consultations and deliberations have achieved a big fat nothing. 

As far as I can see, civil servants have basically been told to sit on their hands and not regulate, then denied access to the resources and specialist knowledge they need to defend the public interest, as opposed to the interests of whichever powerful lobby shouts at them the loudest. Thank God we’ve done away with all that Whitehall waste!

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Goveite Myths #2: 'Mr Men History'

Another week, another conveniently memorable but utterly misleading Goveite meme. I don’t want to deceive any new readers I might have picked up from last week’s blog into thinking I am either an educationalist or a person who routinely blogs about education policy. But, well, the incessant stream of Goveite nonsense just keeps on coming. This time, Gove himself has tried to appropriate and ruin both one of my favourite subjects and one of my favourite lines of poetry,* and I am angry.

In a speech to independent school leaders (who else?), Gove criticised history teaching that “infantilises” children, citing as Exhibit A a lesson plan encouraging GCSE students to re-tell the rise of Hitler as a Mr Men story. The phrase ‘Mr Men history’ duly appeared in headlines in almost every major paper. You’ve got to hand it to the Goveites: as a soundbite, it’s possibly even better than ‘illiterate academics’. And it’s just as wrong-headed.

The speech was chock-ful of other objectionable rubbish which I don’t have time to dissect here: praising schools for teaching Pullman and Orwell before suggesting in the next breath that twentieth-century literature is somehow inherently unchallenging; accusing a well-loved children’s author, who has introduced literally millions of kids to reading, of promoting “illiteracy”; the breathtakingly offensive implication that teachers who disagree with his reforms don’t “believe in the nobility of their vocation”. Gove laments that “proper history teaching is being crushed under the weight of play-based pedagogy”; personally, I feel like I’m being crushed under the weight of his bullshit. So let’s just stick to the history stuff for now.

First off, let’s get the inevitable tedious misrepresentation out the way. The lesson plan in question was in fact a revision exercise in which students would be asked to use the format of a Mr Men story to explain the rise of Hitler to younger pupils. It was not a tool for teaching them the topic in the first place. In fact, the first sentence of the webpage reads:  

“Prior to this activity, Year 11 students should have finished studying the Rise of Hitler.”

 Gove’s creativity with the truth was even worse with Exhibit B, in which “the Historical Association suggest students learn about the early Middle Ages by studying the depiction of King John as a cowardly lion in Disney's 'Robin Hood'”. To its credit, the BBC pointed out in its write-up that the reality was almost the diametric opposite of Gove’s implication. Far from suggesting that teachers use Disney films to impart knowledge about medieval history, the article in question was about showing young children that modern-day depictions of historical figures “may not be a true representation of the past". 

 And of course, that’s what makes this whole thing so dreadfully ironic: Gove is using this insidious rubbish to ridicule teaching that promotes critical thinking, as opposed to the uncritical acceptance of some grandiose narrative of national progress. Worse, he attempts to equate the distinction between the two with the difference between ‘high standards’ and ‘low standards’. When I studied GCSE history ten years ago, it was without question one of the most challenging subject options you could take – because it made you marshal evidence and make arguments with a rigour no other subject did. And I loved history, not just because I loved learning about the past, but because I found the critical and analytical approach so stimulating. Looking back, studying history at GCSE and A level was the single most important contribution my secondary education made to preparing me for an “elite university”. I don’t really give a stuff that it didn’t teach me King Henry IV’s vital statistics, and I don’t think my Cambridge supervisors did either.

Funnily enough, my first ever secondary school history lesson was remarkably similar to another of the exercises that came in for some of Gove’s unedifying scoffing. As he explains it,

“Students are invited to become "history detectives". Which sounds potentially promising. But the lesson plan outlined doesn’t actually involve any real history, just pretend detective work. Students are asked to investigate the death of a fictional “John Green” by drawing up a “cunning plan” which involves asking to study up to three clues.” 

All of which spectacularly misses the point. When I did this exercise, the purpose was to introduce us to the idea that the study of history is not just about learning ‘facts’ that exist somewhere out there in the ether, but about using evidence about the past to piece together your own interpretation of what actually happened. As it turns out, I too completely missed the point, and spun an elaborate yarn about a jilted ex-girlfriend born of watching too many episodes of A Touch of Frost. I got my work back with ‘assumption’ written all over it, and learned an important lesson - in fact, a lesson that was probably the foundation for much of my subsequent intellectual development. But it wasn’t a lesson involving a date, so according to Michael Gove it was actually a complete waste of time and couldn’t possibly have had anything to do with ‘real history’ at all.

The point of starting us out with that lesson was that, contrary to Gove’s bizarre assertion that “it is through the accumulation of factual knowledge that the conditions are created for creative and critical thinking”, learning the skills to think critically is a prerequisite for interpreting the facts you are given. And that’s what really worries me about Gove’s agenda for history. Learning history shouldn’t mean being spoonfed a parochial and politicised “narrative of British progress”, replete with “heroes and heroines”, but being taught the skills to construct your own narrative and decide who your own heroes are. The examples Gove has chosen to illustrate the alleged decline of educational standards show a total contempt for those skills. And, frankly, if he is so happy to use misrepresentation and distortions of fact to back up his ideological prejudices about teaching, why should I be at all confident that his new curriculum isn’t going to do the same with history itself?

UPDATE: The creator of the 'Mr Men lesson' has posted this excellent retort. Also in today's news, more evidence that Gove is incapable of using evidence appropriately. Really, the decline of standards inside the DfE is a shocking indictment of the low expectations culture of this government. Maybe we should sack Gove and bring in a super-Secretary of State to turn around his failing department?

* Keats’ “Beauty is truth, truth beauty”, which was emblazoned in block capitals above the opening section of the transcript of Gove’s speech. I am not going to attempt to describe my rage at seeing this lovely line pressed into the service of Gove’s joyless, soul-crushing view of learning.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

The Goveites behind the Bad Grammar Awards

If you turned on the radio or opened a newspaper today, you might well have come across the so-called ‘inaugural Bad Grammar Awards’. First prize went to a group of academics who wrote to Michael Gove criticising his plans for the national curriculum. Judges branded the letter “simply illiterate”, claiming the writers had “inadvertently made an argument for precisely the sort of formal education the letter is opposing”.

It’s a great story, isn’t it? Ho ho, a bunch of professors moaning about education policy who can’t even write English. What a bunch of losers, right?

Well, as it happens, wrong. 

A few things about this story set tiny alarm bells ringing for me. Let’s ignore the highly debatable question of whether the grammar prescriptivists even have a point in the first place (on which my hubby is much better placed than me to opine) and take this nonsense on its own terms. 

For a start, the letter didn’t seem to contain any remotely egregious examples of ‘bad grammar’. The ‘errors’ the judges pointed out were the kind of tedious technicalities that have no impact on sense and wouldn’t even be noticed by anyone but the most committed pedant. In fact, Nevile Gwynne – the judging panel’s ‘grammar expert’, quoted in the Guardian’s write-up – was reduced to picking the tiniest of nits in order to find something to complain about. Apparently he objected to the academics’ use of the phrase “too much too young” on the grounds that “'young' is an adjective, and cannot ever be an adverb”. Oh yeah? Tell that to The Specials, you insufferable windbag.

Then there was the rest of the judging panel, which featured Gove cheerleader and champion git Toby Young, right-wing journo and former Bullingdon Club member Harry Mount, and somebody I’d never heard of called Tom Hodgkinson. At this point I started wondering who Tom Hodgkinson and Nevile Gwynne actually were, and whether they also fell into the category of ‘people who would relish a chance to ridicule Gove’s opponents in the national press’.

So I did a bit of Googling. It turns out the Bad Grammar Awards are essentially a publicity stunt for Nevile Gwynne’s new book, ‘Gwynne’s Grammar’ – first published by the Idler Academy, an outfit run by one Tom Hodgkinson. So that’s one mystery solved. But who is this Gwynne fellow anyway?

Well, according to his personal website, he’s an Old Etonian, Oxford-educated accountant who now teaches Latin to children and adults. He's not affiliated with any academic institution and doesn’t appear to have any qualifications that particularly equip him to call himself a grammar expert, unless you count his undergraduate degree in Modern Languages. He is also incapable of using English.

Here’s a typical sentence – or, if you prefer, paragraph – from Gwynne’s ‘About Me’ page:
“He is the author of what is, by any standards, a fascinating and important book, The Truth About Rodrigo Borgia, Pope Alexander VI, which shows clearly and very readably that the reality concerning the man almost universally regarded as the infamous Borgia Pope, easily the worst of all the Popes, there have ever been [sic], is completely different from that man that one almost always reads about in books and sees represented in films and on television.”

I’m sorry, could you repeat that? Actually, on second thoughts, don’t bother – my wishy washy liberal state education has left me incapable of prolonged concentration and I’ve just been distracted by a squirrel.

Still, there’s at least one person who is a big fan of Nevile Gwynne. A whole page of Gwynne’s website is devoted to an article from the Sunday Times written by a gentleman whose children he teaches Latin (for a very reasonable £250 a month). The author enthuses about the life skills his children are acquiring from Gwynne’s rote-learning sessions, which they “claim to dread” (can’t imagine why), declaring that, “contrary to the beliefs of the anti-Latinists such as our former schools secretary, Ed Balls, Latin has myriad practical benefits.”  Interestingly, he also reveals that Gwynne is decidedly old school: not a trained teacher, he uses pre-1960s methods, because his view is that modern teaching styles do not work.” After a bit more absurd chuntering, including citing Boris Johnson as cast-iron evidence that a classical education brings genius and success, he concludes: “I await with interest Michael Gove’s new primary curriculum, but meanwhile, I recommend taking matters into your own hands. Gwynne is accepting more pupils and can be contacted at"

Really, Gwynne should be paying this guy, rather than the other way round. Then again, who knows – maybe he is, being as how the author of the piece also happens to be the guy who bankrolled Gwynne’s book. Yes, that’s right, Gwynne’s biggest fan is none other than … Tom Hodgkinson! Colour me surprised.

So basically, what we’re left with here is a bunch of wealthy, largely public school educated, middle-aged white men who seem to care quite a lot more about Latin than they do about English, and who share a fierce commitment to Gove’s educational agenda. Indeed, this commitment is the driving force behind the whole enterprise, as explained in this blog which Tom Hodgkinson has just written for Waterstones. And, quite by coincidence, they’ve decided that the worst case of bad grammar in the entire country is a perfectly lucid and coherent letter from Gove’s opponents. And, according to the Guardian, the BBC and countless others, this is news.

Now, naturally I realise there is likely to be a strong overlap between people who get their knickers in a twist about grammar and people who think Michael Gove’s ideas are the best thing since sliced bread. I’m not claiming to have uncovered some kind of shocking conspiracy here. I just don’t think it’s really good enough that so many media outlets covered this as a bona fide story rather than the exercise in political propaganda it so obviously is.