The Real ‘Blob’: Ideological Lunacy and Wilful Ignorance – and another revised one

Back at the end of April, the former Schools’ Minister Nick Gibb (Conservative) wrote a piece for The Guardian called ‘Teaching unions aren’t the problem – universities are.’ I missed it at the time as I was on leave but when I returned to work everyone seemed to be talking about it. It’s a fairly standard political whinge (standard at all points on the political spectrum) but one I read as a little gurgle of bile from a (former) member of a government that can see its end in sight.

It begins with some lukewarm compliments to the teacher unions and perhaps a half-hearted attempt to build association with them. It then stomps around a bit about the strong ‘evidence’ for the importance of synthetic phonics in learning to read. (Coincidentally, Gibb was the minister in charge of bashing through the phonics agenda.) So far, so what.  Then he really tries to get his teeth into his target – university Departments of Education. Here are a few of his meagre morsels (turns out the teeth were falsies):

Within these education departments lie the proponents of so-called progressive education, which advocates that education should be child-led rather than teacher-led; many advocate a play-based classroom until children are seven years old.

Well I’m not sure who if anyone Mr Gibb has spoken to but my guess is he’s just regurgitating some prejudices here. To go with the bile. The article is full of it. But if he wants England to learn from international comparisons (he liked doing that with PISA and TIMMS when a minister) then he might ponder why some successful education systems around the world do start formal education later and do emphasises a serious, play-based curriculum. This from a man who told a colleague of mine in the back of a car that he didn’t understand why copying off the board had fallen out of favour. It had worked for him.

Clearly it did.

For decades many education academics downplayed the importance of spelling, punctuation and grammar.

Pardon me? Again, who has he spoken to? Read? Does he believe it is good enough merely to say stuff because you are getting a fee for it? Does he have such a low opinion of the public he thinks they will believe this stuff (and Guardian readers at that!). The myth of a permissive progressivism is just that – a myth. ‘Downplaying’ spelling or anything else has not been part of a grand ideological battle. Perhaps he has taken not correcting every spelling error made by a very young child as an indicator of a communist plot? Or the inability of seven year olds to discuss the merits of adverbial subordinate clauses as the thin end of the Vegan Gay Liberation wedge?

To use the label ‘progressivism’ is intellectually lazy and misleading. It detracts from the real problems in our education system in England and displays an astonishing ignorance of what progressivism is or was. ‘Learning by doing’ is one of the usual caricature slogans used by people like Mr Gibb (ironically that is OK for learning to be a teacher where ‘experience’ is everything – but for nothing else). One of the often-cited apostles of  ‘progressive’ education, John Dewey, used the word experience to mean a person’s subjective level of engagement in the world of ideas. He wrote about what subjects like English and Mathematics could offer the growing child. Mr Gibb clearly didn’t do his homework.

My hope is that Blower, Chris Keates and Mary Bousted, the leaders of the largest unions representing classroom teachers, will join this battle to liberate their members from the dominance of the education departments of the universities in how education is delivered.

Two things here. First, a reassuring thought that ‘they’ have clearly realised that universities will be around long after they have returned to working for The Times, PR companies, Policy Exchange or Domino’s Pizza. Second, didn’t he know that Mary Bousted (one of the finest leaders of any union never mind a teacher union) was a fully paid-up member of The Blob for many years, most recently as Head of the School of Education at Kingston University? And that ATL’s manifesto for education has interesting things to say about the usefulness of universities to education systems?

Referring to the 1958 science fiction B-movie, Mr Gibb’s former boss Michael Gove referred to university Education departments as The Blob in one of his speeches about the difficulties of educational reform. And he was right: it is difficult. Yes, there are vested interests who would seek to delay reforms. Those vested interests can often be experts – not always but often. Expertise is something that politicians with their eye on the next election distrust as they complicate policy delivery; they speak out to the public on things they know about. They do not allow their expertise to be mediated by the increasingly self-serving interests of the political class. The alternative would be an education system that responds abruptly and unquestioningly to one administration’s policies and then has to turn itself around like an oil tanker when another party wins an election. The purpose of such a system is to elect politicians rather than educate people. It would be a system designed to perpetuate ideological lunacy.

So whatever you think of university Education departments and the academics that inhabit them, they are an important and potentially dynamic part of a democratically accountable school system. They provoke, enable and respond to the sorts of difficult conversations necessary for what the philosopher Karl Popper called an ‘open society’. Education academics can (they don’t always) sustain a level of social criticism necessary for a liberal democracy. Trade unions do likewise. University education departments and trade unions are both there to confound the totalitarian instincts of short-termist politicians feeling their oats.

The real Blob is a political class that seeks to denigrate hard-won expertise and parade its own wilful ignorance. It is a political class that will be judged by its results. And soon. Can you hear the Trojan chickens coming home to roost?

This post was first published in abbreviated form during my trip to China. It didn’t quite make it the first time!