Sir Keith Joseph defined the goal of education as the promotion of “knowledge, skills and understanding”. Last week, in a speech to the Association of School and College Leaders, Labour’s Tristram Hunt endorsed the last two parts of Joseph’s definition, but omitted the first. This is another illustration of the gap between his personal beliefs and values, and those that, as demonstrated last week, he is promoting on behalf of Labour.
So why is he doing it? To begin with, he is probably the most knowledgeable person alive on the topic of Victorian cities. His analysis of them, including an impressive demolition of Marx’s sidekick, Engels, is made possible as much by the depth of this knowledge, as by his intellectual skill in applying it. What we know, and hold in our memory, is not a series of disconnected items, but a key part of our mental toolkit, part of the stuff of thought.
The idea that all of this is no more than a synonym for information is yet another error foisted on children by Plowden and her followers. I’m having to deal with the results of this neglect in a current pupil, whose sheer lack of knowledge, including vocabulary beyond what is needed for daily routines, is preventing him from understanding nearly everything he reads. He didn’t, for example, know which ancient civilisation built pyramids and had never heard of Latin. When prompted, he said that the Romans spoke Greek.
So, he is now working through my friend Susan Elkin’s Junior English course and reads a page of his choice from the Dorling Kindersley Children’s Encyclopaedia to his mother every night. We unpack and explain everything he doesn’t know or hesitates over. It’s beginning to work.
There is no area of human activity, from mathematics to music, that is not based on knowledge, and yet Dr Hunt’s omission of the word places him in a tradition, dating back to the early years of the last century, that condemned knowledge as an unnecessary and imposed grind. Thomas Dewey once said, somewhat sheepishly, that he did not wish to advocate ignorance. That, though, is precisely what he was doing, and what his disciples continue to do.
Returning to his Labour roots, Dr Hunt said he’d been looking up Ellen Wilkinson, organiser of the Jarrow march and Attlee’s first education secretary. He should look further. Ellen Wilkinson told the Labour Conference in 1946 that she had two guiding principles: “I was born into a working-class home, and I had to fight my own way through to the university. The first of those guiding principles was to see that no boy or girl is debarred by lack of means…the second one was that we should remove from education those class distinctions which are the negation of democracy.”
These sentiments are closer to those of Michael Gove and Nicky Morgan than to anything in current Labour policy.
Tristram Hunt’s audience, on the other hand, think that things are fine as they are, or would be if only they had more money to spend. Its response earlier this month to Ofsted’s finding that more able pupils were ill-served by the mixed ability teaching that they receive in over half of all secondary classes, was to put out a press release entitled ‘Ofsted Report On Most Able Students Fails To Recognise Schools’ Achievements’. Complacency is too mild a word for this attitude – it makes underachievement a matter of policy and cause for celebration.
Here is a key finding from Ofsted’s 2013 report on the same subject:
“Too many non-selective schools are failing to nurture scholastic excellence. While the best of these schools provide excellent opportunities, many of our most able students receive mediocre provision. Put simply, they are not doing well enough because their secondary schools fail to challenge and support them sufficiently from the beginning. In too many lessons observed by inspectors, teaching is not supporting our highest attaining students to do well.
“We know from our inspections that this is particularly the case in mixed ability groups. This survey suggests that few checks are made on whether mixed ability teaching helps the most able to achieve their potential. Although the term ‘special needs’ should be as relevant to the most able as it is to those who require support for their learning difficulties, a few of the schools visited for this survey did not even know who their most able students were.
“This is completely unacceptable. It is a serious concern that many non-selective schools fail to imbue their most able students with the confidence and high ambition that characterise many students in the selective or independent sector. Why should the most able students in the nonselective sector not have the same belief that they, too, can reach the top?
“Teaching is insufficiently focused on the most able at Key Stage 3. In over two fifths of the schools visited for the survey, students did not make the progress that they should, or that they were capable of, between the ages of 11 and 14. Students said that too much work was repetitive and undemanding in Key Stage 3. As a result, their progress faltered and their interest in school waned.”
So, why exactly does Tristram Hunt go along with all of this? He knows the economic context of education, the continuing reduction in unskilled work, and the consequent need to raise standards. He knows, though he did not say so, that the government and Lord Baker, through studio schools and University Technology Colleges, have begun to make good the gap in provision that was caused by the failure to develop the technical sector after the 1944 Education Act. Above all, he knows, from his own experience, the value of demanding intellectual work, and the contribution that it enables people to make to further learning and to society.
As one of my friends from Comment Is Free put it and response to a comment on Dr Hunt’s appointment, “What you’re saying is that he’s one of yours, but that he plays for us.” Exactly. No wonder he looks uncomfortable.