Bundle into Leveson

MPs of a certain type like to whip up problems which don’t exist, don’t they?

Remember when Nadine Dorries, the poster girl for Conservative MPs who don’t get out much, claimed that some of her colleagues were suicidal at the height of the expenses scandal? We didn’t get much evidence of this claim, though it underlined the reputation of some backbenchers for being ‘outliers’ of a wider unease about members of the press daring to shine lights into the Westminster village.

From Dorries to Gove, a leap of some imagination which might be hard to stomach before breakfast. The cerebral Michael Gove is the Education Secretary who talks and acts like it’s still the back to basics era 1990s Conservative Government of whom he’s a part, wanting to strengthen the national curriculum so as to introduce poetry by rote, time tables by the hour and Latin lessons from an early age. Now I’m in favour of re-introducing foreign languages in schools – it was a daft idea by Labour to scrap compulsory lessons – it’s just everything else about Gove that makes me feel uneasy. It’s conservatism with a big C and slight sneer, and when he’s not making teachers reach for the anonymous blogs, he’s making Lord Leveson reach for the coffee.

Gove and Leveson didn’t quite hit it off, to put it mildly. Just as Dorries tried to suggest that revealing the truth about expenses was somehow a bad thing because MPs were feeling their collars, Gove has tried to imply that Leveson is putting freedom of speech under trail. The Daily Mail which broke the story has followed it up with more soundbites from Tory MPs, including the self-styled libertarian Douglas Carswell. The result of all this is to add, in a drip-drip style of hints, allegations and suggestions, that the Leveson recommendations will be placed on a high shelf or within tall grass. This might not surprise more cynical readers, and “questioning David Cameron’s sincerity” isn’t exactly difficult.

I’m reminded of Tony Blair’s attitude towards Lords Reform, taking his friend Roy Jenkins’ Lords Reform and throwing it into quicksand. Cameron may well be doing the same with the press inquiry, sending out people like Gove to hint about his true intentions. As much as Leveson has been illuminating, MPs tend not to like bright lights shone amongst the darkest shadows.

Gove might think that the consequences to freedom of speech are ‘chilling’, but that’s only because he’s looking at the issue from the wrong way round. The lack of respect in this field encouraged the press to run feral and politicians to hide behind locked doors. Gove shouldn’t be criticising the process by which improvements are made to the machine; if sausages look grim whilst being made, look away until they turn up on a plate at breakfast, Mr Gove!

I’m not so fresh faced and naive to think that all will be well after Leveson. The relationship between the press, politicians and police will always be intertwined as much as before. But most people observing Leveson has seen green shoots of improvement throughout the processes, and would be knocked back further away from taking politicians seriously (and that’s not exactly registering high on any marker of late) if the end result of this is business as usual.  The press went far beyond what was expected in the pursuit of stories, and far beyond what was expected in their relationship with elected officials. If Leveson changes this attitude amongst those estates that are – and are not – answerable to voters, Mr Gove need to celebrate rather than snipe.

Remember, Gove, that freedom of speech was under threat by Labour’s constant attacks on civil liberties, and it was the formation of the Coalition which was supposed to safeguard personal freedoms. If Leveson was just a smokescreen, I fear Cameron didn’t really want you to blow so hard that we could see through the fog.  

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School haze

One vivid memory from my primary school days involves the dire warnings of the future from a traditional old sort of a teacher about the forthcoming “National Curriculum”. His fire-and-brimstone approach painted the newly created world of education would be all “format” and no “freedom”. Standards would be prescribed, classrooms would become cages for our dreams.

That was in the 1990s, and now Education Secretary Michael Gove is undertaking the most significant review since its creation. Somewhat predictably, the review and its remit is tinged with political posturing on all sides of the education debate; is the naming of anti-Slavery campaigners and the axing of Winston Churchill ideological, should children learn from rote, should children be filled with facts without opinion, why should children be forced into formal education in the first place, and so on, so on, so on…

Having been introduced to the NC at its inception, thousands of adults today retain the distant memories of learning certain subjects over and over again every other month (Oh good, the Roman Invasion again, it must be Tuesday!). The new regime was backed up with ‘attainment targets’ and ‘programmes of excellence’. Later on in the process, fake-leather ‘Records of Achievement’ would be handed out, all the better to keep our exam board certificates fresh within plastic pockets. (I have, long since, lost my ‘Record of Achievement’….).

Inevitably, subsequent political changes at Westminster have tended to dictate education reform. Nothing works on the stump more effectively than promising to shake-up the schools. The current National Curriculum document speaks in languages alien to my recollection of High School during the 1990s;

The most significant change is the development of
diploma qualifications in 14 lines of learning at levels
1, 2 and 3. The first five lines – engineering; society,
health and development; construction and the built
environment; IT; and creative and media – will be
piloted in schools from September 2008. The diplomas
combine practical skill development with theoretical
understanding, covering sector and general learning in
applied contexts.

“Society” – and “citizenship”, which now appears to have been scratched – are Labour reforms, and “practical skill development with theoretical understanding” is policy wonk speak which could only have been created by the kind of people my primary school teacher warned against. The tick-box education system did not happen on the day NC was introduced, though it certainly polluted everything else since.

Bad decisions were made in the race to be seen ‘responsive’ to education concerns – most infamously the decision to axe compulsory language education beyond Key Stage 3, effectively denying children the opportunities which come from being able to converse in either modern European languages or the new business world languages of Mandarin or Hindi. Search the current NC documents for “language” and no results are found.

Measuring standards across schools is the priority for Governments, fearful of judgements on the reading, writing and arithmetic skills of the children the State is tasked with educating. Sadly the urgency to be seen succeeding has filled most staff rooms with fog and bluster; it takes years for the education reforms of one Government to be seen “at the other end”, and the increasing impatience for instant results sees children’s educational experiences swapped and changed more times than management away-day agendas. It is hard not to feel sympathy for teachers whose lessons are built from continually changing materials; one year firm-but-fair could become freedom-and-expression. League tables, another on-high prescription for all which ills, force Local Education Authorities into a bizarre competition format within and beyond their borders, although the inability for low- and middle-income families to move children from one underperforming school to another – should they want to – means League Tables are often only useful for one partisan side of the education debate to criticise the other. Parents, children and teachers, whose work ultimately creates those Tables, are left shielding their heads from the sniping.

If Gove is serious about NC reforms, his rationale needs to be far more radical than his Department’s briefing notes suggest. It is shocking to me – as someone who relished learning the little things to keep the brain ticking over – that Ministers have highlighted omissions such as “geography curriculum does not identify any continents, rivers or mountains or name any countries apart from the UK.” If Gove is honest in his endeavour to reintroduce ‘facts’ into the classroom, this deserves support and praise. The curriculum was always ‘alien’ to Britain by its very nature; if it takes one Conservative to improve on the foundations from predecessor Conservatives, then that should be congratulated.

The wider education debate is far more involved than merely publishing new booklets explaining what can and cannot be taught to eager teenagers. The opportunities for learning and expression across younger years has been blanketed under boardroom tussles and Government grandstanding for decades, generations held within the grip of ideology and party politics. Gove is clearly an educational enthusiast, bias cut towards the schooling he received. In the wider education argument drafting prescriptive checklists and targets seem wholly inappropriate.

My teacher was concerned by how the National Curriculum would miss the specifics in its model for the wider ‘ambitions’ for education. I fear he has been proved correct. Gove should making ‘free schools’ with lowercase letters, and axe the National Curriculum entirely.