Pretty. Damn. Certain.

It is a line that will live with Michael Gove for a very long time. Along with the phrase ‘enemies of promise’ (I didn’t mind that one, actually), his utterance that “people in this country have had enough of experts…” will be played, replayed and brought up regularly when the hindsight enabled story of the political mess that is Britain in 2016 is told. Johnson’s hijacking, Leadsom’s mothering, Crabb’s sexting, the lesser of two Eagles and Corbyn grimly holding to office like some greyed limpit fastened to the side of a quickly sinking vessel: that’s just the last couple of weeks. It is hard not to be depressed by the mess, whether you’re an ardent remainer or a committed leaver.

Gove’s role has been the greatest personal disappointment because I felt he was a politician of ambition (and not just for himself), talent and integrity. I thought he did a fine job as education secretary, displaying clear purpose, vision and a belief in the transformative power of education. He was not the man to lower intellectual expectations as a result of limited economic means; instead he understood that economic capital and cultural capital are two different things and that one can provide a far better future for one’s children by becoming a fully educated member of society.

His quote about experts was ill-judged, and when watching the clip back, I noted that he seems to pause for a moment to comprehend the silliness of what he has just said. However, as is the way with politicians, there was no instant retraction, just a continuation down the path of absolute certainty. Andrea Leadsom’s recent comments to The Times about motherhood is a similar case. Why can these people not just admit they have said something foolish in error and move on? After all, to err is human; to forgive, divine.

We all speak a few thousand words each day. It was be surprising in the extreme if at least some of these weren’t ill-judged, formed factually incorrect sentences or simply failed to make the point we wished to convey.

President Obama, the greatest orator of our time, says here ( ) that “it’s not cool to not know what you’re talking about…”

But how often do we ever really know what we’re talking about? Who really understood what the effect of Brexit would be on the economy, or on the national mood? How should we best address global terrorism, the rising population or the possibility of disease pandemics? We do need experts, of course, and that is why democracy should never involve giving complex decision making over to the public, especially when such a nuanced issue can be couched as such a simple in/out decision, thus setting up a classic false dilemma.

We live in a time of bombastic certainty – Iraq was all about the oil; Blair went to war simply to cosy up to the US; you only care about the future if you are a mother; let’s take back control; immigration keeps our country going; immigration is an uncontrolled shambles; the England football team lost because they didn’t have enough passion, or were overpaid, or were at the end of a long season, or we’re not technical enough, or it was the tactics, or the selection, or the injuries. There is probably a kernel of truth in all these statements, but the status updates and 140 character assertions are over-simplifications at best. To express a state of uncertainty or confusion on any issue is seen as a weakness to be pounced on by the Internet masses, so we are forced to abandon the tentative in favour of the assured, like someone stamping for all they are worth on a frozen lake. The problem being that we have no idea how thick the ice is. We can only hope it is as thick as most of the people keen to be part of the debate.

The purpose of argument and debate is to persuade, but one should also be willing to be persuaded. Social media is a poor forum for debate, given that we can never be sure who the audience is; no-one wants to look foolish in front of both their peers *and* total strangers. I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone concede an inch on Twitter, with the ‘agree to disagree’ line usually confirming a draw. More often, bold opposing statements are uttered, positions are confirmed and a stand-off is created, until such point as both protagonists become bored and search for videos of cats instead.

Arguments are not about winning and losing so much as accepting, clarifying and understanding. True certainty is far more rare than we seem to think, and living with a degree of uncertainty in all that we do is a more realistic way to behave and might even allow us to enjoy ourselves a little more, rather than seeking out the next stranger to pick an e-fight with.

I am, of course, willing to accept that I might be wrong about this.

My morning with Michael…

Unless one counts educationalists as celebrities, I rarely come across celebrities in my day to day life.  I used to teach Alison Moyet’s son, and very clever he was too.  Rowan Atkinson used to turn up to watch his son’s matches in a McLaren F1 and I’ve talked all things English cricket with Mick Jagger as he came to watch his son make a first ball duck one pleasant sunny afternoon circa 2000.  We had fun-sized mars bars at cricket tea that day and it is one of my life’s greatest regrets (thus far) that I didn’t at least raise an eyebrow as he tucked in – so many witty asides to choose from, and I chose none.

I recently spent a few days with my wife in Tel Aviv, and I managed to run in to Michael Gove and family not once but three times during the course of our first full day there.  The fact that we saw no more Gove during the next two days are probably the result of him avoiding his one and only stalker.  We had the chance to chat briefly (I cornered him in a gift shop) and I told him what a fine job I thought he had done as education secretary.  He was very pleasant (as one might expect when receiving a compliment) and though I expect he was slightly disappointed that I teach at a selective 450-year old Boarding School and not a City Academy, he didn’t let on.

Whether one agrees with Gove’s approach/ideas/philosophy or not (and it is inevitable there will be members of both camps), I don’t think anyone can argue to hard that the man is able, displayed integrity as education secretary and left people in little doubt of what he was trying to achieve (perhaps a hollow compliment, but not one that can be applied to many politicians).  I can’t have been the only person to note the irony of DC choosing to replace Gove with Nicky Morgan at the same time as declaring a ‘war on mediocrity’ in education.  Gove clearly believed in the transformative power of education; the fact that cultural capital is not the preserve of the wealthy; that great works of art and literature are for all, not to be whisked away from ‘kids like these’; that by focusing so much attention on the C/D GCSE boundary for English we adopt an overly-reductionist approach to the teaching of the subject; that it is important to pass on an educational ‘tradition’ that is strong in the key academic disciplines; that not all subjects offered at GCSE are equal and that chasing grades by offering a slew of non-academic courses does not represent valid educational practice; that attempting to gain grades by multiple re-sitting of the same papers at the expense of spending time on teaching and understanding is educationally corrupt.  

I have no idea whether literature from the C19 is beyond many children, but I do know that it is the job of teacher and parents to foster a sense of intellectual curiosity in their pupils/children and to make sure they retain an ambitious approach to learning.  I prefer to believe that you can teach virtually anything to anyone, at least at some level.  If the child is enthused, they are more likely to become an auto-didact, and learning doesn’t just take place in School.  My experience of teaching tells me that rarely are children (or adults) working at capacity, and that when the bar is raised, most people are able to jump higher.  I have been amazed at the response of 13-year old pupils to T S Eliot this year – they may not have loved The Wasteland or understood all (much?) of it, but they’ve gained plenty from the text and all of the connections (Classics, History, Art) one can make to it.

Gove clearly failed to bring the vast majority of teachers on board with him.  He will be remembered at least as much for his utterances about ‘enemies of promise’ and ‘the blob’ as he will about the rhetoric that was supposed to empower teachers and to encourage them to be ambitious personally and ambitious for their pupils.  In the end, tone matters, and lots of teachers didn’t much care for his.  It is unusual that so many teachers who can object to his combative logic consider it reasonable to launch personal attacks that are little to do with educational philosophy and more to do with their own emotional.  

I doubt that our paths will cross again, and certainly not any time soon, but the last I saw of him was enjoying a lengthy quiz with his children.  In half an hour over a family lunch, it was noticeable just how much knowledge was absorbed by the kids, and just how much they enjoyed it.  Each question from the top of his head was connected to the last, and a subtle build-up of of connected ‘grammar’ (in the Trivium sense) was palpable.  Maybe we’re all guilty of thinking the world right in front of us can be extrapolated further and applied well beyond our immediate sphere, and admittedly they were his own children, but if he ever wanted a teaching job, I’d hire him like a shot.  

The case against AS

24 hours after A level results were released to pupils, so the dust begins to settle.  Maths overtakes English as the most popular A level (re-tweeted with glee by Liz Truss), A* is up, A is down, overall passes down for the first time since 1982, many girls did a lot of jumping, someone got 11 A levels at A*/A and said their time-management was poor.  There are probably some twins who got identical results, and an 8 year old who got an A level in Computer Science, but these stories must have passed me by, at least for one year.

The legacy of Gove is being celebrated by some and damned by others.  Entries for facilitating subjects (for the uninitiated, this means hard) are up at AS, A grades are down for the A level, a record number of students are likely to go to university.  But in fact, the changes are statistically pretty minor, and that is to be expected, because the only real change this year was that pupils were not able to take/re-take their AS levels in January.  They still had the opportunity to re-take AS modules at the end of their Upper Sixth, but they didn’t have the opportunity to take some AS modules four times, which was the case previously.  The true legacy of Gove may well be noticed in a year or two’s time, when the first cohort of pupils on linear courses receive their grades in 2016.

I don’t care for modularity.  I don’t think the introduction of AS has offered breadth.  I don’t think the AS enables pupils to decide which subjects they wish to take to full A level.  I don’t think exams at the end of the Lower Sixth help to focus or to motivate.  I don’t think AS exams enable pupils to bank marks with the long term goal of higher overall grades.  I think it is patronising to suggest that pupils cannot cope with linear courses and that the material needs to be boxed up bite-sized for them.  Tristram Hunt’s popular political statement to re-introduce AS (if elected) is anti-educational and a retrograde step.  In any case, Gove never ‘banned’ AS grades, he simply de-coupled them from A levels, following consultation with universities.

I experienced linear courses when I studied in the Sixth Form, and when I first become a teacher I taught linear A levels.  I taught though the introduction of modular courses in 2000, and the new re-vamped modular A levels in 2008.  I have taught the linear Cambridge Pre-U for the last 3 years.  I have taught in four different Schools.  I do not state a preference for linearity and then seek to justify; it is evidence that bring me to this point.  I do not think this is an exact science, and there are certainly some pupils for whom a modular approach is best.  Some subjects are perhaps more modular than others, and some do not suffer so much by the compartmentalisation of knowledge.  However, in a utilitarian world, linearity wins for me.

To make a case against AS, here’s a de-bunking of the commonly quoted reasons for keeping them:

Pupils need to bank marks

Pupils in their GCSE year are well capable of learning two or three years’ worth of material for terminal examinations.  In ten subjects.  Quite why they have become unable to cope with three (or four) subjects over two years is beyond me.  It is precisely those pupils who do not need to bank marks (the top academics) who end up doing so, and those pupils who should be banking the marks that end up sitting linear A levels anyway, given their need to re-take everything.

No pupil will be more linguistically developed at the end of the Lower Sixth, compared with that same pupil a year later.  No pupil will have a more advanced problem-solving ability.  Complex ideas need time to bed in, pupils need time to mature and adapt.  Starting a School at 13 means that each pupil will have around 150 weeks of build-up to their GCSEs.  Starting in the Sixth Form leaves you with just over 20 to get the AS syllabus completed.

The ‘bad day’

The likelihood of such a ‘bad day’ is directly proportional to how well prepared you are for an examination.  The likelihood of said bad day can be nigh on eliminated by being very well prepared indeed.  All Pre-U linear courses involve four assessment modules, one of which is usually a coursework assignment.  Even accepting the fact that a pupil might mess up one of the questions (or even a whole paper), there are still three further chances (one different days) to atone.

Pupils are focussed/motivated by the AS exams

This is a fairly lazy argument, offered by the sort of teacher who attempts to gain the attention of pupils by stating that the current topic is ‘popular with the examiners’.  ‘This is a question that often comes up’ might be used as a way to raise Lower Sixth Formers from their slumbers.  But these pupils should be motivated by the subject material, after all they have rejected over half their GCSE subjects to study your course in the Sixth Form.  I want my pupils to be interested in the work for its own sake, to build up knowledge, to gain an interest (and facility) in solving problems.  I don’t want them to feel that everything is building up to this examination, occurring just 25 School weeks after they started the course in the first place.

Options are cut off

I have no problem with pupils studying four subjects through the Lower Sixth, and then dropping one at the end of the year.  They just don’t have to take an AS in that subject.  I read an article in The Independent yesterday stating that without the AS exam, the pupils will not know which subject is their weakest, and which they should drop.  Surely after 30 weeks of study, any pupil can tell which subject they have struggled with the most/enjoy the least.  You can also still give them an internal exam (which might even be an AS past paper), just in case they couldn’t tell from the 200 lessons, numerous pieces of marked work, reports, feedback etc.  How many university courses require an extra AS, on top of three grades, when that could be made up with an EPQ anyway?  Some require four grades, and an extra AS wouldn’t count towards that anyway.  

I encourage pupils to make positive choices – this is a subject I am good at, this is a subject about which I want to learn more, this is a subject I wish to study for two years.  The presence of AS can lead to a more negative mindset – if you’re asking the question: what if I want to drop it after a year, there’s a good chance you shouldn’t be picking it in the first place.  If there’s a course call Literature in English, it’s best to pick it only if you like reading books.

The pupils have nothing to show for a year’s study

Learning is generally more fun when there’s no exam at the end of it.  If a pupil has studied Art, Economics, English or Physics for a year, they have gained plenty from that year.  The fact that they have no letter on a piece of paper to show for it does not make the year’s learning worthless.  The existance of necessary knowledge (that which appears on a syllabus) and useless knowledge (about which no questions will be asked) is a fallacy.  

AS and A2 papers are completely different

This seems to be a flaw in the chosen syllabus.  If all the easy ideas are crammed into the Lower Sixth, pupils may well gain a false idea of their progress within that subject.  Incorrect information is worse than no information at all.

And if results are still all-important, and trump everything else about the educational experience, it’s worth noting that where we have moved to linear assessment, results have improved.  In every subject.

Young is wasted on the Youth

As a mild-mannered individual, there’s really very little that winds me up. There’s a whole raft of little niggles; people who describe sportsmen/sporting acts as ‘world class’ and people who look at the desserts first on a menu are just two, but I can live with that, and apart from the involuntary curl of the top lip, these gripes tend to pass me by.

I watched a little of the ‘Toby Young sets up a Free School’ programme last week, and despite the fact that I was only half watching, the man and his ideals really grated with me. The premise was that Toby (restaurant critic and occasional columnist/minor reality TV channel 5-based celebrity) had suddently become impassioned with the need to challenge the British education system, and felt that the Free Schools programme was the way to do this. In case you weren’t aware, the idea behind Free Schools is that anyone can set up a School, so long as they make their bid to the Government, have a building, a curriculum and some teachers. They are supposed to be ‘all-ability, state-funded Schools set up as a result of parental demand’. This is a classic example of the ‘idea that sounds good when sold to the man on the street’, but is in fact so flawed as to be laughable. It’s a bit like the Labour ideal of 50% of people going to university, which sounds good until you realise that there aren’t any more good jobs out there than before, except now people are required to get into heavy debt gaining meaningless degrees from the university of Luton before they are able to get out into the work place and get the same job/earn the same amount of money as they would have done before their 3 year life hiatus.

Anyway, Toby’s point was that education has lost its way. Fair enough; in many ways it has. We could attack grade inflation, oversized classrooms, untrained teachers, the irrelevance of parts od the National Curriculum. Unfortunately, in the most myopic way possible, he decided that the reason it had lost its way could essentially be summed up by his own experience, which involved being un-motivated by teachers (no word of his own or his parents’ responsibility), and achieving no real grades at all. Now most people would have said at this point that if the teachers were not motivating, we should look to either swap the teachers we have (not realistic) or invest money in making the teachers we have better (realistic, relatively cheap and emintently sensible). Incidentally, Toby, this is where the real problem lies, in the lack of quality in some areas of the teaching profession, and the lack of structure in the homes of many young people.

This may not have made such good TV however, so Toby’s point was that we needed to re-structure the curriculum so that there was more rigour, and this included harking back to what he called a ‘classical education’. Not sure if he knew what he meant by this, but it enabled him to sound knowledgable from behind his spcs. This also sounded suspiciously like the curriculum that a middle-aged man who had ballsed up his School career would like to go back to School to study, but this may be due to the fact that Toby has no experience of Schools, teaching, the education process, motivation of young minds or any research into what actually makes pupils want to learn.

No-one would ever allow the public to set up their own defence academies, or their own hospitals, thinking that having a passion and a misguided sense of what was wrong with the MOD or NHS would be a sensible idea, though with education it seems fair game. It’s the equivalent of that bloke in the pub who spends all his time criticising the England team, claiming to anyone who will listen that all we need are ‘real Englishmen with passion’. His pub team?

I did think that I might have been a bit harsh on Toby, so I went to his Free School website, which has a 7 minute clip of him on the homepage. This was his chance to change my mind, to prove to me that it was the education of the nation that he really cared about, rather than keeping his TV career away from channel 5. ‘Motivation…classical curriculum…soundbite…soundbite…3 minute story about arriving in the wrong Welsh village…end’. Toby, drop me an email, and I’ll speak to you about education. It’s something I know about. You can then tell me all about celebrity come dine with me, which is something you know about. Let’s not move too far outside our respective spheres of expertise.