Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Layer 473 . . . Politics, Labour, Liam, Ed, Education, A Mad Professor, Poor Children, and Assaults From The Right

Liam Byrne MP may well be a very decent chap, but he's a bloody useless advocate for the Labour party. He popped up on the radio this week, trying to explain what the leadership of the party is trying to do to make themselves more relevant and make the party more electable.

Gone are the days when the Labour party was led by people who could speak with passion and conviction about what the party actually stood for. Liam Byrne is like some sort of insurance salesman - a systems man, a grey man, a bureaucrat, a beige person, a dull apology of a politician. We, the people, need and deserve a lot better than this - by way of spokesmen for a party that's supposedly of the people, for the people.

As Jackie Ashley says in her column this week, these people appear responsible, reasoned, and rather bland. Which may be fine in government, but is no good in opposition.

Personally I think Ed Miliband is the best of the bunch that are now leading the Labour party, and it's a pity that the New Labour Blairites are out to get him. Sadly, however, Ed has a very long way to go to become a figure of inspiration, and a motivational speaker.


Time for a round-up of recent articles about education.

Mad professor goes global

As New Labour's backroom boy, Michael Barber had lots of influence but very little publicity. Now he has his dream job, he tells Peter Wilby, with 'the world's leading learning company'

by Peter Wilby


I love this headline. But it's not so much that Barber is completely mad - he's typical New Labour / New Tory in his world view and his ideas about education are ignorant, reactionary and destructive.

Sir Michael Barber was New Labour's mad professor and master of the flow chart, the man responsible for the literacy and numeracy strategies of the first term and, later, when he worked for Tony Blair as head of the Prime Minister's Delivery Unit, for top-down targets across the public sector. He moved in 2005 to the world-renowned management consultancy McKinsey, and its unofficial motto could be his own: "Everything can be measured, and what is measured can be managed".

If teachers hated the Whitehall commands of the New Labour era, they should blame Barber as much as Blair and his education secretaries. On the domestic front, he was the nearest thing to a New Labour guiding spirit, more consistently influential than any of the intellectual gurus Blair briefly took up with.

But Barber was the backroom boy, absorbed in graphs and charts. Newspapers hardly mentioned him, except to mock or denigrate. The columnist Simon Jenkins called him "a control freak's control freak", while the Mail's Quentin Letts compared him to the speaking clock. When he gave PowerPoint presentations on "delivery" before Blair's monthly press conferences – described by one Downing Street official as "excellent punishment for the hacks" – one journalist muttered "bullshit, bullshit, bullshit" throughout.

Now Barber and his graphs have gone global. As McKinsey's hubristically titled "head of global education practice" . . . 

Barber nearly became the top civil servant in Michael Gove's education department this year. The prospect caused panic in Whitehall, where officials feared a return of his top-down regime. But the mad professor clearly regards England as too small a laboratory for his ambitious experiments. His decision to decline the job was no reflection on Gove, he assures me when we meet just before his move to Pearson is announced. "Broadly, Gove's doing the right thing," he says . . . 

He insists that invading Iraq was "the right thing to do" – he says Quaker values still guide his life, particularly the belief that "you're on the planet to make a difference".

Despite giving off a sense of restless energy, he seems wholly comfortable, even serene, in his own skin. "What's wrong with counting beans?" is his response to those who dismiss him as a mere bean-counter.

Reflecting on the literacy and numeracy strategies, he says it was a mistake to underestimate their negative effect on teachers. "I thought being enabled to do their jobs better and see children in their classes doing better would have a transformative effect. I thought teachers would say: that's great."

Which seems an odd misunderstanding for one who worked inside classrooms for six years and spent eight years in the largest teachers' union. But though he's a good and polite listener, he is apt, I think, to hear what he wants to hear and, like many people who derive their values from religious belief . . . is a little too confident of his own rightness. "I've always enjoyed bouncing ideas around with him," says Tim Brighouse, former chief education officer of Birmingham and Barber's predecessor at Keele. "But I could never be as convinced as he is that my ideas are right."

All in all I have the greatest respect for Peter Wilby, but in this article I think he's too soft on Barber, who may be a jolly fine fellow for all I know. What you can't get away from is the fact that Barber was one of a group of New Labour bastards (including Blair, Blunkett and their pal Woodhead) who were a totally malign influence on English and Welsh education. The horrific damage wrought by their regime of bean counting, SATs tests, Ofsted terror and league tables has had the most profoundly damaging effect on children, teachers and schools in this country. What they did is unforgivable, no matter how fine their motives. Whilst the rest of the world was moving towards a more enlightened approach to education these stupid fucks were driving schools back to a Victorian model of cramming and bean counting, targets, payment by results and teaching to tests - as if ANY of this was in the best interests of schools, children and teachers. This man is unforgivably stupid and a complete arsehole for what he did in his time in government.


Poor children's life chances face a new assault from the right

New research taken up by the Tory right is sneakily reintroducing the idea of 'innate' intelligence


by Fiona Millar

Feinstein's conclusions were stark. Children's test scores at 22 months could predict, though not determine, educational qualifications at 26 and were related to family background. The offspring of educated or wealthy parents who scored poorly in the early tests had a tendency to catch up, whereas the low-achieving children of worse-off parents were unlikely to. Early high-achievers from disadvantaged backgrounds were gradually overtaken by early poor-achievers from advantaged families.

Over the years, Feinstein's graph, illustrating the last point, has been heavily used by the left and right. 

It is quoted frequently by Michael Gove; most recently, and crudely, to MPs in defence of the hasty passage of the 2010 Academies Act. Inequality, he explained, was so entrenched that "rich, thick kids" achieve more than their "poor, clever" peers even before they start school.

Schools do have a part to play in breeding academic success, vital personal skills and attributes. But money, parenting, relationships, culture and community also matter. Bright children can easily lose competitive advantage if they are battling with poverty and chaotic home lives in poor neighbourhoods. Others can develop ability and confidence if they have aspirant, supportive parents, good schools, cultural capital and (often) private tuition.

None of this is rocket science to those working with children from a range of backgrounds. The real question is why there might now be a political class searching for evidence to undermine such a powerful and widely accepted basis for more progressive policies.

My own theory is that we are moving into an era in which what Willetts once described as the "parental arms race" will be increasingly fierce and give rise to a mean, rancorous streak. The better-off already fight like tigers to protect what they perceive to be their children's right to a place at the top. What better way to up the ante than by sneakily reintroducing the idea of "innate" intelligence, subtly linked to family background, restoring the idea of a natural order, which social policy cannot interrupt.


The fierce, mean, rancorous, competitive streak that's such a strong feature of bourgeois life is something I've been thinking about a lot lately. There's a great body of basically unintelligent, though intellectually capable, spiritually barren middle class people who excel in rancour, meanness, egocentricity and aggression. I'll maybe write more about spiritual and emotional intelligence later this week, if I can be bothered.

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