The Sunday Times Festival of Education Day 2: Babylon! Nuh ramp wid mi!

'Fyah fi yuh, fassy Burnham clat.'
This is part two of a feature about the 2011 Sunday Times Festival Of Education. If you’re a fan of Tintin, this is the Prisoners of the Sun to part one’s Seven Crystal Balls.

Day one was closed by the Big Banana of Education himself, Michael Gove, who took to the stage of the humid, sultry Marquis in his bluest ‘Call-me-Tony’ shirt, opened with Russell-Brandian abandon to the second button like some kind of crazy man. Clearly he was in the mood to party down, bump and grind, and engage in a meaningful and fruitful with with stakeholders. Anthony Seldon leapt up to introduce him and they bantered like old chums in a slow motion impression of Jeeves and Wooster: Michael plugged Anthony’s book on Brown; Seldon batted it right back at him with the punchline, ‘It was meant to be a comedy’. It was very convivial. And I was still wondering, where’s your tie, mate? This isn’t a Masonic initiation. Gove responded by fist-bumping Seldon, pulling one side of his shirt open, slapping his chest and shouting, ‘Cha! Yuh wan man fi dig yuh battyhall!’

No he didn’t. Unfortunately.

Seldon, possibly realising that I was in the audience (unlikely, given that I only have one brain) decided the best way to wind me up was to invoke Student Voice; ‘Here at Wellington we like students to have a voice,’ he gravely warned us, as he summoned a trio of our future masters from the wings, immaculate and presentable. And wearing ties, I’d like to add- Mr Gove, take note. 

The first one, a charming year nine, presented himself with only a hint of nervousness (pull yourself together, sonny). His question escaped me, as I was too busy boggling at his terrifying articulacy and the general thrust of his statement, which revolved around the idea that he had started up a charity to help fund a school in some third world hell-hole- probably just after he designed a way to irrigate the Sahara and harvest free  energy from starlight. He really was that good.

Gove replied in a way that simultaneously suggested that he was taking the child’s point of view very, very seriously indeed, while also adopting the  slightly sinister sing-song register of a children’s presenter, which suggested as he spoke to us that he really was addressing a room full of special needs children. It was a slightly strained dichotomy, as this nod to the Satanism that is student voice took up half of the session, and was really designed as a way for Gove to present his views in a slightly odd way, using the device of children as interrogators. 

The idea of it being in any way a student voice was of course dispelled by the way in which any stuttering or deviance from what I presume was the intended question on the part of the student, brought Seldon back into the spotlight as he prompted them back onto straight street. 

‘So what you mean to ask the Secretary, Amanda,’ he would begin, pretending it was a question on his part, ‘Was why do we focus so much on exams, isn’t it?’ And Amanda would nod, with a slightly scared look on her face as she wondered if she had missed a syllable, like the Silver Medal winner in a spelling bee. In fact, Seldon was doing no worse than many other advocates of student voice- I typed ‘vice’ there, because the silent mind understands when the conscious one does not- do already. Presumably the questions were farmed from a reservoir of questions generated by the students, which of course gives control to the person who sets the task and selects the speakers. In this way, the illusion of student voice is maintained, but in reality, it acts in exactly as coercive and prescribed manner as any teacher-led activity; only now it has the gloss of the student stakeholder. Frankly, I prefer my behaviour management to be out there in the open, not hiding behind the actions of children. It feels more honest.

Head Boy and Girl.
The second student was a young lady, and her question led Gove into an exploration of the relative value of exam systems, and why couldn’t we have one national, semi regulated board that issued and controlled them all? Gove batted cleanly, and replied that he valued diversity, and it was perfectly right that there should be a range of certifications and examinations that students could take, in line with his support of a market model of education. But he also said that he was taking very seriously the problem of grade inflation, and the ways in which he could tackle it. In common with most of his speech, there was a noticeable lack of meat on the bone; nothing new was announced, no great initiatives that would swarm their way onto the late night news or the early papers. In that respect at least, it was disappointing.

But that’s a churlish complaint in some respects. I was struck, perhaps stupidly, by his confidence and articulacy, even a hint of wit at times.  His best comment (a mistake, I sincerely, SINCERELY hope) was when at one point, he was discussing the need for teachers to have a work/ life balance, and he made the following rather beautiful admission:

‘Of course teachers need to be able to eat sleep and procreate- three things I’d like to see them doing.’

And a thousand buttocks clenched as the crowd gave a collective, ‘Aw, gross...’ It is an image I will never be able to erase from my traumatised inner eye. Thank you, Michael. You kiss David Cameron with that mouth? 

The third student voice was the greatest and most terrible of them all, like the level boss in a tripartite computer game, or the last guardian faced by an Arthurian hero in a three chambered castle from a fairy tale. His name was- actually, his name doesn’t matter, and I have no truck with picking on students, only their masters, so I’ll call him Orpheus. Orpheus was...well, if I tell you that he turned down a place at Oxford University (yes, that one) to take up a place at Harvard, I think you’ll get a pretty good impression of Orpheus. He was tall, handsome, and looked every inch the Captain of his Destiny. The next time you see him, he’ll be planting a flag on the tallest mountain of Mars and inventing a cure for Diabetes. The only correct response to encountering an Orpheus is to run away, slapping yourself on the head and wailing like a moron.

Orpheus wanted to know- and by God, he would find out- what Gove was doing to prevent people like him from being seduced by the lure of better funded and more agreeable universities like the Ivy League. And I thought, My God, that’s the first time I’ve heard  Oxford University described as underfunded and second class. Ten points to Slytherin.

Snape, sorry, Gove, fielded it with acumen, and turned the implicit criticism into a challenge for Universities to look at ways they could better fund themselves in order to provide first class (or was it world class? I forget the comparison) facilities for their clients/ students, to whom they were ultimately responsible. There was a lot of that kind of thing. A great deal of ideology, but without many specific policy attachments, merely hints and nods towards great things in the pipeline.

‘There’s a storm coming, so you’d all better watch your f*cking ‘p’s and ‘q’s,’ he said. 

OK, he didn’t.

'Crumbs! This White Paper seems a bit queer!'
It’s also telling that he reiterated that British teachers were alternatively tireless, top-quality, sensitive, caring and professional throughout his speech, by which pioint I was getting slightly teary and grateful. Interestingly enough he was talking to Andrew Marr a few hours later and telling parents to get stuck into strike-frozen schools and see if they couldn’t do any better than those pesky teachers. Funny; he didn’t mention that at the time. 

Nice question from some gallant: 'Can the speaker tell us if successful state schools will be allowed to take over failing independent schools?' Simple and straight to the bullseye, the man was a hero. Fifty years from now they'll find his skeleton buried under the new block at Wellington with a hole in his skull.

Gove also dug up the old saw about education coming from a Latin root, meaning to ‘lead out,’ implying that the education is within the child, as is apparently boundless curiosity and a desire to better oneself. This kind of child-centred witlessness stems from Rousseau, that old French trouble maker who, I am assured, used to ask his nanny/ housekeeper to tie him up and treat him like a Big Baby. You heard me. 

While that doesn’t exclude his pedagogy from the big table, it puts his value system under a slightly harsher spotlight. Besides, it rests on something absolutely unproveable either way, and therefore meaningless- the idea that this is what human nature s really like, and if we were only to remove the beastly influence of teachers and society, we would all be raised as noble savages and ideal men and women. This paints teachers as a corrupting influence, and paves the way to utopian moronism that ultimately leads to Montessori schooling and the Steiner method. Yeah, try that on a few million teenagers, and see how many of them decide that art, poetry and brotherhood are the way forward for them. 

Besides, who the Hell cares what the root of the word education is? Gove’s conversational gambit was the pedagogic equivalent of starting a wedding toast with the words, ‘Webster’s dictionary defines ‘marriage’ as...’ Man, who farted?

Education could come from the Armenian stem ‘Educaca’, meaning ‘the feeling you get when you work out how to turn string into chocolate biscuits in a dream, but forget it when you awake’, and it would have no bearing on what teaching is, or should be. It neither supports the argument, nor defines the terms of the debate. My ancestral roots may well be in Hibernia, but I’m not forced to live in a cosy olde worlde theme park, lashed to unsustainable debt. 

'Come on Snowy! Education needs us!'
Other things he mentioned, in response to the audience questions (I might add that the Wellington students were beetling around the room, efficiently dispatching microphones throughout the crowd. I was reminded of the agents in The Matrix, and feared to catch their eye): the need for successful private schools to adopt, in the manner of a benevolent Victorian philanthropist, struggling state schools, turning them into academies. The danger of this enterprise is that, as they say, when you win, they call you a winner. A successful private school might not be the best answer to a state school’s needs, at least not in any simple sense. I’ve written before about the dangers of assuming that what cures one patient will cure them all; that some of the no doubt excellent practise I’ve seen in public schools would simply turn to offal in some comprehensives- exhibit A: happiness lessons. God. Save. Us.

There was a compliment for Seldon, the Host and Master of Wellington College, when Gove slapped his back for doing exactly this with some working-class school of sooty-nosed urchins, and a back handed dig at Eton (‘the other private school, also in Berkshire’) for not doing so. Ooh, you bitch. I remember a lovely story about a Goose that laid a Golden Egg. The success of an institution might very well not be something that can be replicated by extension; in fact, over reaching might cause the whole thing to fall apart. If you stick your arm too far up the Golden Goose’s ass, eventually all you're left with is avian hand cream, a feathered bracelet and no eggs. As one private primary school teacher mentioned on the news this week, if he took over another school, the excellent staff he now has would be spread so thin he couldn't guarantee the kind of success he had previously been achieving.

Like I say, when you win they call you a winner.

And with a ‘Shucks, that’s all we’ve got time for, Gove fluttered off the stage, moist of armpit and wondering which news outlet to turn to first so he could moon at the striking teachers. The Labour wallah staggered into the spotlight like an awkward, embarrassed giant child, fully realising he wasn’t who we’d come to see, and that he had a thirty-second slot before everyone piled into the Pimm’s river being laid out behind us. It was awful. No one could even remember what he said. It was like some angry drunk, pervert uncle had insisted on taking the mike at a wedding to toast the happy couple, and no one had the heart to say no. At least he was quick.

Finally, Gove ran back in with no shirt on, threw up a gang sign and shouted, ‘Nuh ramp wid mi! We be gettin’ crunked onna lawn wit’ my man Pimms and Hennessey. Cha!’

He didn’t do that either.

And that was day one.

Next: Explorers on the Moon.