Man walks into a column, no.26: Teachers

Let’s talk about teachers. I’m married to one. I mention this not to demonstrate any privileged insight, but in the interests of ‘full disclosure’ (a silly phrase if ever there was one: I’m not ‘fully’ disclosing at all, because I’m also friends with many teachers, had a generally good experience of being taught etc. etc.).

I’m particularly interested in discussing Michael Gove’s recent comments about teachers. Gove was first reported in the Independent on Sunday as having written to headteachers asking them to use the ‘wider school community’ to help keep schools open during tomorrow’s strike which, when asked by the BBC, he agreed should include parents ‘going in to help’.

Leaving aside the arguments against encouraging strike-breaking as a matter of principle, about CRB checks and the complex debate about public sector pensions, I think these comments display the most appalling lack of respect on behalf of the Coalition for the teaching profession. Ministers will, at the drop of a hat, trot out bland statements about the formative impact that their own teachers had on them, and how they think teachers are doing a wonderful job, but it’s only really in the white heat of confrontation that a politician’s true opinion seeps out, as here.

Can you imagine a minister suggesting that users of any other service take – even for a day – the place of a public service professional? Not doctors or nurses, for sure, but then again not bin men or postal workers, either. What is it about teaching that makes Gove think completely untrained members of the public could step in? In the course of conversation a colleague said ‘well I guess there’s the babysitting aspect’, which probably gets to the heart of it: the inference being that if you can raise a child, you can control a class of children. A class of hormonal, rebellious, disinterested, prickly, feisty children, who are treating the strike as a day off. Right.

But that’s what I think, what do the rest of the public think? There’s been widespread suspicion that Gove is simply playing to the gallery, but that assumes that there’s a chunk of voters out there who think teaching is such a sub-standard profession that any bugger can do it, given the chance. Does the vast majority essentially, when it comes down to it, still cleave to the idea that ‘those who can’t, teach’?

It isn’t as easy to tell as I thought it might be. There’s obviously the recent Ipsos MORI survey results which suggest that teachers are the second most trusted profession in the UK (81% of those surveyed said they trusted teachers to tell the truth, with only doctors scoring higher, at 88%). And then there’s been the reaction of parents themselves to MG’s statements – I’m not sure how representative it is, but the stream of vitriol and amazement on Mumsnet is wonderful. But apart from that I couldn’t find any recent data about public attitudes towards teachers (if someone out there can point me in the right direction that would be fab).

The only vaguely relevant research I came across was this Department for Education funded study from 2003 (PDF), which included a public opinion poll, but focused pretty heavily on people’s views of teaching as a career choice (the research was funded to help understand pre-recession low levels of entrance). The findings from the poll show that, in 2003 at least, the public was split down the middle, with half saying that teaching was an attractive career, the other half disagreeing with this statement. The reason most frequently given by those who didn’t fancy teaching? Having to control a class. Fat chance then, Govey.

Anyway, look at how disciplined I’ve been in leaving this to the end of the post and not making too much of a song and dance about it: I’ve reached the halfway point in Phil’s Big Blogging Challenge 2011! I realise that for those of you who post on a daily basis a consistent weekly column probably isn’t that impressive, but for me it represents a significant increase in my blogging ‘work rate’ and I’m pleased to have made it to the halfway point. Just… 26 more… to go. And can I just sign off by saying how thoroughly pleased I am to see Rich back and blogging again with a vengeance? Brilliant.


“Dad, who was Nick Clegg?”

Today’s tuition fees vote will make for an interesting bit of history in 20 years’ time.

Before I say why, here are a few (probably unpopular) thoughts on the issue of tuition fees:

  • I agree in both principle and practice with tuition fees. A university education is a choice, and something to be valued by the individual who makes that choice. Once the principle of fees had been established by the Labour government the politics of funding higher education was always going to be about where the cap on fees was, not whether there were fees.
  • I don’t happen to think of any education in the utilitarian way politicians seem to think of it – utlitarian as demonstrated by the fact it’s the responsibility of the Business Secretary and not the Education Secretary. Thus, if a higher education is valuable in its own right (whilst also having an economic benefit to the individual and the economy), it should be paid for (at least in majority part) by the individual.
  • Admitting the possibility of fees means a market will, and probably should, develop. Yes, this effectively makes it a US-type model, but I’m comfortable with that. A University Fund for young ‘uns in a family is a good idea.
  • A graduate tax is a nonsense because an individual would never stop paying it and their repayments could be more than the cost of the fees. It has elements of progressiveness in it, but it’s also a disincentive on social mobility.

Watching the Lib Dems struggle on the topic of university tuition fees has, I’ll be honest, brought me some pleasure. Their position was and is a nonsense, as follows:

  • Their position on tuition fees was pretty much the most distinctive and best-known domestic policy they had. They’ve traded that at the fist sniff of power; either that, or they knew their policy was a nonsense but had worked on the basis they would never need to implement it. (This is partly supported by the idea Nick Clegg privately urged his colleagues to drop the position.)
  • I don’t know that anyone had anticipated Clegg’s “New Politics” being the explicit reneging of a personal and party pledge to oppose not just a rise in tuition fees, but the removal of tuition fees.
  • Clegg has tried to defend the move by saying previously 1 in 7 people went to university and now it’s 1 in 3. What is that if not a huge rise in opportunity for people from a wider range of backgrounds?
  • That government ministers even considered not voting for their own policy (even if they end up doing so) tells you what an incredibly ridiculous position the Lib Dems got themselves in.

All things considered – and even taking into account the short memories and fickle nature of the British voting public – the tuition fees debacle as applied to the Lib Dems makes me think they may never in a generation or two be thought of as any sort of credible, governing force at a national level.

When the future comes and I potentially drop my one-year-old as 18-year-old off at university, I’ll think back to today and mention to him the peculiar time when a small party called the Liberal Democrats, led by a pub-quiz question politician called Nick Clegg, abandoned their policy and principles because they happened to have a bit of power.

Michael Gove: deja vu all over again

Thursday: Michael Gove’s academy plan under fire as scale of demand emerges:

Only 153 schools apply to become academies, despite education secretary’s claims that more than 1,000 had done so

Sunday: Michael Gove accused of exaggerating interest in free schools:

Education secretary under fire after it emerges there have been just 62 applications for free schools, less than a tenth of the number he said had shown interest

What’s unique about #GE10?

A good question, to which John Lanchester has the answer:

What’s unique is that it’s the first time (at least in the last hundred years or so) that both of the main parties are being led by somebody with a first-class degree. Brown got a first in history at Edinburgh, Cameron a first in PPE at Oxford. ‘Thick Nick’ Clegg only has a 2.1 (social anthropology, Cambridge).

And there’s more:

Harold Wilson also had an Oxford first in PPE. Attlee, Heath, Thatcher and Blair all had seconds from Oxford (in history, PPE, chemistry and law, respectively); Balfour got his second from Cambridge in moral sciences. Baldwin was the only 20th-century politician to earn a third (Cambridge, history). MacDonald, Churchill, Macmillan and Major either did not start or did not finish degrees, for a variety of reasons.
<br/?One oddity is that Brown is the only non-Oxbridge PM with a degree, and also the only one to have taken a PhD.