Why can’t we do this?! Making strong arguments about education in the public sphere (and being funny too)

When you have 18 minutes to spare, watch this video. It will tell you more about the state of public education in the US and the ways in which it is being privatised and reshaped for corporate ends and naked profiteering than attending any worthy conference or reading any rigorous academic paper. It may also make you feel depressed. So I’d watch it when you can bang your head against the wall in private.

Several things struck me as I watched this clip. First, it illuminates the appalling state of educational journalism in the UK. I can’t think of a single British reporter or columnist who could communicate such a complex argument about the destructive impact of standardised testing on the quality of education so well or so widely. This is comedy but it is also a carefully substantiated political argument of the highest quality; it takes no prisoners and doesn’t sacrifice critical power for a cheap laugh. When the ‘funky monkey’ comes on for the second time, you can feel the colour draining from your own face and the studio audience’s.

Second, although Last Week Tonight follows in a great, modern American tradition of political satire, John Oliver is British, for heaven’s sake. I simply can’t imagine him ever being given the chance to do similar work on British TV. Charlie Brooker is the nearest we have in terms of satire and he simply wouldn’t be interested enough in an educational issue to do the preparatory work. A few (carefully worded and very funny) knob gags would take priority. And then he would wheel on the marvellous Philomena Cunk to display stupendous ignorance of the issues with disarmingly comic pride. Political satire in the UK takes it as read that teachers are simply stupid people who couldn’t do anything else with their lives and who get to enjoy long holidays. Think about the education-based comedy you’ve seen recently. David Walliams. Jack Whitehall. It’s just one long sneer by a bunch of posh boys.

Third, can you imagine any political satire in the UK that would take such a sharp and unforgiving aim at a corporate entity such as Pearson? If you mention Pearson to educationists in the US, you might be lucky to escape with your front teeth. When I mentioned to some teachers at a dinner in the US a few years ago that my then university was employing a professor of assessment funded by Pearson, some of them nearly walked off in disgust. Contrast that to England where Pearson (if anyone has heard of them) is sometimes even regarded as a benign partner in the improvement of public education, completely uninterested in questions of profit. Oliver’s sharp analysis of the Pearson assessment culture in the US (where sometimes the questions are so poorly designed you can never get the ‘right’ answer) is a warning to us all in England over the next few years when the newly elected majority Conservative government is likely to look to private enterprises like Pearson to deliver public services such as schooling.

This segment of Oliver’s show is also interesting for the way it refers to the growing movement among American parents of opting their children out of these standardised tests. Powerful arguments like Oliver’s speak directly to Americans who don’t want their kids crushed by the system and don’t want them denied opportunities to learn simply because the testing economy needs to meet certain data benchmarks to retain a veneer of credibility. Can you imagine a scenario in England where such powerful arguments persuaded parents to withdraw their children from early years baseline testing, phonics screening and grammar testing? No, neither can I.

We should aspire to the level of critical public discourse about educational questions that circulates in the US. And we should switch off Walliams and the rest who can’t be bothered to think and treat the public like idiots.