Is it even possible to discuss education policy any more?May 14, 2013
The last few days I’ve been on Twitter a bit too much, mainly arguing over the same couple of news stories. The first is the one I mentioned last time about Michael Gove’s reference to a year 11 lesson based around the Mr Men. The second is the story of the sources for something that he said in a Mail on Sunday article. Both have been treated by the Twitter masses as if they were some kind of incredible scandal. And both have left me baffled as to what is going on.
Put it simply, in both cases Michael Gove developed an argument, at one point in it expressed a particular opinion, and illustrated it with an anecdotal example. In both cases those reacting have ignored the argument, failed to challenge the opinion with any evidence, and then argued incessantly over the anecdote for not being more than an anecdote.
So in the speech we have an argument for high academic expectations. We have the opinion that some of what passes for acceptable in teaching circles is actually just patronising. And we have the example of the Mr Men lesson. There is plenty of meat here. We could argue over whether expectations do need to be raised. We could argue over whether infantalised lessons are common. Instead what I have seen (other than those who see nothing at all wrong with using the Mr Men to teach sensitive topics to 16 year olds) has been attempts to suggest the claim is misleading . There seems to be no detail of the Mr Men story that is not being presented as somehow invalidating the example. Reasons for attacking Michael Gove for condemning the Mr Men that I have heard include:
- The lesson was for revision.
- The website is run by a teacher at an independent school.
- The lesson plan involved getting year 11s to teach year 6s (although I don’t know why anyone thinks year 6s would be the right age for the Mr Men or why that would justify time in year 11 lessons being spent in this way).
- We cannot tell if the lesson has ever been implemented
- The lesson mentions IGCSE students not GCSE (although it is on the GCSE section of the website).
Now reading these points, one would expect to see some kind of explicit reference to the lesson being widely used, specifically by state schools for purposes other than revision. I assumed I must have forgotten what was actually said, because I didn’t remember any of these points coming up. if we look back at the speech Gove said:
…even at GCSE level … infantilisation continues. One set of history teaching resources targeted at year 11s – 15 and 16 year olds – suggests spending classroom time depicting the rise of Hitler as a ‘Mr Men’ story.
Now no matter how many times I look over this, I cannot see one point which contradicts this claim. Not one. Yet those who have been pointing things out have repeatedly used words like “misrepresented” or “distorted” and some have absolutely convinced themselves that they have uncovered some great dishonesty in one of these details.
It is a similar situation with the sources about the Mail on Sunday article. The article was a polemical attack on those who would defend the education status quo. Again, although full of rhetoric it rasied plenty of real issues, particularly about the low expectations and entrenched attitudes of the education establishment. Some examples are given of outcomes we should be concerned about, including historical ignorance. Now, I have repeatedly seen it claimed that Michael Gove had been dishonest by referring to surveys run by commercial organisations. Obviously such surveys are not particularly accurate. If he we to have passed such a survey off as academic research or an opinion poll then it would be dishonest. If he had quoted a result with direct policy implications from a low quality survey then it would be a concern. Again the fuss left me wondering if I’d misremembered the article. But when I read it it turned out the entire fuss is over this sentence:
Survey after survey has revealed disturbing historical ignorance, with one teenager in five believing Winston Churchill was a fictional character while 58 per cent think Sherlock Holmes was real.
Now, perhaps it was just me. When I read that originally I thought it was mainly anecdote. I didn’t give it much thought because I had already assumed the Churchill and Sherlock Holmes thing to be a silly statistic with (no direct policy implications) from a survey done for entertainment purposes that I remembered being reported a few weeks or months earlier. I took the claim of “historical ignorance” to be a vague and subjective opinion that was a matter of personal interpretation.
Now clearly I over-estimated the judgement of the Gove-watching classes. Apparently this sentence was serious business. Enough to get Freedom of Information requests made and answered. Enough to imply that he was speaking from authoritative academic research. Enough to be considered the entire evidence base of the new history curriculum. Apparently, it was not in any way a vague opinion and an amusing bit of whimsy and, if his anecdote was not based on sound quantitative evidence, it turns out that it was a scandal that throws all policy-making processes into doubt.
Now to be fair, if people want to interpret claims made by a politician to imply more than their literal content, then they can. If people, having decided that something hugely significant has been implied by a politician’s illustrative example, want to get angry about it on Twitter or in the press then they can. When, during the general election debate in 2010 David Cameron told some non-story about meeting a sailor, I was amused as anyone when people started taking the mickey.
But what gets to me is that the fuss about the anecdotes has completely buried any discussion of policy. Nobody seems to care if teenagers are massively ignorant of basic historical facts, only in the possibility that an amusing example of it did not come from the most reliable source. Nobody seems to care that many teachers see nothing wrong with pointless activities in lesson time (including getting 16 year olds to spend some of their time in history lessons learning about the Mr Men), only whether Michael Gove had fully acknowledged the context in which a particular waste of time was suggested.
If the fuss about the examples had been accompanied by some kind of evidence or arguments that the opinions they illustrated were mistaken, then perhaps there would be some sense to this. Instead, we have a situation where people are angry, furious even, at Michael Gove, not because of an identified flaw in policy; not because of any good reason to reject the opinion he expressed; not even because of any factual inaccuracy in the examples given to illustrate the opinions, but because the anecdotal examples were nothing more than anecdotes.
So what is actually meant to happen as a result of this fuss? Is Michael Gove meant to avoid anecdotes? Are people meant to convince themselves that as the anecdotes got the attention then they must be central to policy-making? As far as I can tell, all that’s happened is that it just because even harder for anyone to address the actual issues mentioned in the speech and the newspaper article. It just became even harder to try to discuss our problems with expectations or with an obstructive body of educationalists. It just became even harder to try to discuss policy and I really don’t know who has gained from this.