The Festival of Education Part 2: Michael Gove and Tristram Hunt in the Big Top

23rd June 2013 at 18:05


Wellington's Big Top of edu-leviathans heaved for the Grand Tsar of Promise, Mikhail Gove, in conversation with David Aaronovitch, interviewer in chief. There are few things more entertaining and edifying than watching two literate, witty men converse. And Aaronovitch was no pushover; he was friendly, but direct. 'Why do so many people hate you?' 'What do you most regret?' 'Have you ever gone full pelt?' and so on. 

Unrepentant, unashamed, at ease, here is a rare thing: a man in power who is comfortable with it. Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown, but not for Top Education Fellar Number One Boss. There is a breeziness about his responses that almost suggests carelessness; but it masks a determination that could melt a hole in steel plate. Some call it obstinacy and arrogance, but it could easily be called leadership.

Aaronovitch described Gove as the longest serving education secretary since the Saxon Heptarchy. That wouldn't be hard: since 1945 the Average tenure of an ed sec is 1.5 years, so by comparison he's the Holy Goddamn Roman Empire. He asked why he inspired such ire; Gove replied that the education debate was a field of passions, and if you pick a side (he presented the poles of child centred versus traditional) then expect debate. Aaronovitch suggested, perhaps misunderstanding the term, that had he picked the child-centred side he wouldn't experience such dissent, which generated a flutter of applause from a vein in the crowd. But all education is child centred at heart- what the term refers to is the habit of believing that the child is the principal generator of their own learning; that broadly children will default to a learning habit, and the educator is only needed to stimulate and facilitate it. Which if you've ever taught a class of challenging year 9s that you've just met, you'll know to be demonstrably false. Still, it sometimes works with small groups of very young, well behaved children, but the principle is lost when scaled.

When asked what two pieces of advice he heeded in his career (and in response to the accusation that his reforms were proceeding too quickly) he answered with Tony Blair's quip that in politics it's always later than you think. In other words, make hay while the sun shines, because it won't be long before you're scouting for consultancies with hedge fund managers and pimping on the conference circuits.

He plucked a personal note when he mentioned his own adoption, and how it often struck him that but for a chance of fate, he would have grown in another man's life. It's surely the central dilemma of the teacher: you frequently have a murky view of many paths stretching out before your children. As they proceed, you can see paths that close and new maps appear: some broad and sunny, others dark and troubled. I've taught kids that clawed into Oxford, and I've taught kids that are sitting in cells after rioting in London two years ago. It's sobering.

I have to mention this: in a surreal demolition of the fourth wall, Gove mentioned myself, Daisy Christodoulou, John Blake and Andrew Old as examples of teacher/ writers to whom he listened. I've been asked a lot what my reaction to that is. Well, I'm honest enough to say that if you give a damn about writing then you give a damn about being read, and I was raised to take my compliments where I could. Besides, the favour of the chair makes little difference when you're in front of a class of year 10s trying to get them switched on to the Enlightenment. It's interesting that he name checks a selection of teachers, none of whom could be described as instinctive Tories. Five minutes before he mentioned me, I tweeted:

Then when he actually did, I handled it with customary dignity:

Conspiracy theorists START YOUR ENGINES.

There was little new in his discussion that hasn't been forensically examined before: knowledge based curriculums, terminal assessments, raising the bar of expectation, accountability. Aaronovitch displayed an odd obsession with teaching children history through an in-depth analysis of the Peasant Uprising in a piece of course work, clearly unaware of the perils of assessing children in a manner that can be gamed in a very serious way; that children of privilege will flourish under such a method, and children bereft of tutors, anxious teachers and helpful adult hands, will perish.

The Q&A session could have been a bloodbath. Instead, he did what he always does: self-deprecate, and sympathise with his interrogator, whatever their point. I've mentioned this before: he does what many successful persuaders do: agrees, then moves immediately to his POV without the incendiary barbed wire fence of 'but' that most people fall into. Rhetorically it implies consensus, and he's the very devil for it. He left the stage to applause rather than pitchforks and burning torches. I read one odd commentator who thought that Aaronovitch was colluding with Gove, to allow him to convey bruised warmth and wit. It was no Paxo, but it wasn't The One Show either, thank Christ.

And so to Sir Tristram of Hunt. Recently induced into the Labour education team, he's very interesting. Personable, articulate and educated, he's a rare beast in Labour's first eleven: supportive of knowledge based curriculums, a non-careerist with a PhD in History rather than the greasy plumbing of professional politics, and someone who has actually taught.  And any speaker who invokes Alexis de Tocqueville in any challenge (to argue for intermediate bodies between crown and state organs as a prerequisite for democracy) reassures me that there are still people in the Labour front benches with an appetite for political history beyond Engels.

His speech was a fairly robust reiteration of Stephen Twigg's points made to the RSA last week. There was no meat left on the bone to pick from this: the trinity of academy freedoms for all, decentralisation of schools control (ie LEAs of some form), and greater cross-school collaboration. He criticised the incoherence of careers advice and vocational education, but I felt a sense that this wasn't ground that inspired him. I would have passed a hat round to hear him talk about his thoughts on history in schools, an arena where he could have planted a flag and let rip. If the Labour Party wants to steal some ground back on education, they would do well to set Hunt up as Gove's shadow, let him build his own manifesto, and involve people likeJohn Blake. Who knows what could happen? There are sensible voices within the Labour Party who could annexe the House that Gove built, free from the dogma of wooly, well meant theory. Gove's often accused of being an ideologue, but if you want to hear value-driven education, listen to the current Mandarins of orthodoxy in that party.

I spoke twice on Saturday: once as planned, and once again because I was asked. I'd like to imagine it was because of enormous demand, although the fact two speakers had pulled out might have been the issue that settled it. It was also brilliant to meet some fabulous new writers and teachers: Joe Kirby, Red or Green Pen, Tessa Matthews, and many more. It's like the bit in Tron when Jeff Bridges gets turned back into a human by the CPU: all these people whom you suspect might be virtual constructs like Max Headroom, reified; the blog made flesh.

One final note: Anthony Seldon, the Mighty Oz of Wellington mentioned to me that his father, Arthur Seldon, ex of the Institute of Economic affairs and in many ways the father of Thatcherism, was educated at my present school, many years ago. It's a powerful indicator of possibility: the long walk from the East End of London, the son of Russian Jewish refugees, to the Master of Wellington. An hour by train, a light year in a lifetime, and a moving symbol of the power of education as a transformative force for social change. It's important to be reminded of that from time to time.

Good to see Teach First, above.