Yesterday, Tristram Hunt gave a speech in which he urged schools to teach "character", by which he meant skills like perseverance, resilience and self-control. Nothing new here. Anthony Seldon, the Master of Wellington College, has been banging this particular drum for years (see here, for instance) and Michael Gove, in urging state schools to duplicate the extra-curricular offers of independent schools, often talks about the link between sports clubs, orchestras and choirs, cadets and debating competitions and traits like grit and the ability to bounce back from failure. There's a growing body of literature out there on the subject of character education, the latest being Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld's The Triple Package which I write about in my Spectator column today. In the past, I've even emphasised these soft skills myself and at the West London Free School we insist that all children stay behind for an hour after school every day to participate in one of our extra-curricular activities.
But the evidence that "character" can be taught is threadbare, at best. (To read more, click here.)
Two new books have been published recently on the thorny issue of social mobility, one optimistic, suggesting various things parents can do to maximise their children’s chances of success, the other pessimistic, concluding that a child’s fate is more or less sealed at birth. Paradoxically, the optimistic book is incredibly depressing, while the pessimistic one is quite reassuring.
The first book is The Triple Package by the husband and wife team of Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld. The authors, who are both law professors at Yale, identify three characteristics that American’s most successful cultural groups have in abundance: a superiority complex, insecurity and impulse control.
The message is essentially the same as Chua’s previous book, The Battle Cry of the Tiger Mother, which is that if you want your child to do well you have to duplicate the kind of upbringing Chau had at the hands of her Chinese immigrant parents. First, you must instil them with a sense of ethnic or religious pride – in Chau’s case, her parents told her that their civilisation was greater than any other. Second, drum into them that unless they work hard and do well they’ll bring shame upon their families and, ultimately, their tribe. Third, use every opportunity to teach them the benefits of delayed gratification. That means no sweets, no television and no sleepovers, at least not until they’ve done their daily 90 minutes of piano practice. (To read more, click here.)
For a teenage skateboarder back in 1976, there was only one place to go on Saturday mornings – the South Bank. Not the pedestrianized area that runs alongside the Thames, which didn’t exist back then, but a paved section beneath the Queen Elizabeth Hall known as “the undercroft”. With it’s sloping banks that were perfect for practising 180-degree turns, it looked as if it had been designed with skaters directly in mind.
I spent some of the happiest years of my life in the undercroft. I expect every generation believes it is present at the birth of a new subculture, but I really was.
Back then, there were only a handful of skaters in the country and because there was nowhere else for us to go we all hung out at the South Bank. The undercroft wasn’t merely a good place to practise our art, it was pretty much the only place. It was ground zero, the birthplace of British skateboarding. (To read more, click here.)
Oh dear. Miliband must be getting desperate. Later today, he's going to unveil a brand new education policy – his first ever, as far as I can tell. Under Labour, disgruntled parents will be able to call in a "hit squad" of troubleshooters to deal with the problems at their children's school, including sacking the head teacher. "Parents should not have to wait for somebody in Whitehall to intervene if they have serious concerns about how their school is doing whether it is a free school, academy or local authority school," he's going to say. "In all schools there should be a parent call-in."
Trouble is, it's not a new policy. "Miliband's speech will unveil a hitherto hidden public service reform agenda," claims the Guardian, but the exact same policy was in Labour's 2010 manifesto. (To read more, click here.)
Earlier this week, Mike Smithson posted a blog on PoliticalBetting.com about how many teachers have deserted the Conservatives for Labour since 2010. A YouGov poll in March 2010 showed teachers splitting CON 33, LAB 32, LD 27 and UKIP 3, whereas a similar poll conducted last December found them splitting CON 16, LAB 57, LD 8 and UKIP 8. On the face of it, that looks bad for the Secretary of State for Education. Smithson concludes: "The Tories might have to pay an electoral price to pay for Mr. Gove."
But if you drill down into this polling data, it becomes clear that Smithson has been taken for a ride. Both polls were carried out for YouGov on behalf of the NUT – a fact omitted in Smithson's post. The March 2010 poll was a straight voting intention survey, whereas the December 2013 poll asked teachers a number of leading questions before asking them how they intended to vote, such as, "To what extent do you feel valued as a professional by politicians?", "Do you think publicly funded schools should be run for profit?" and "What impact are public sector cuts and austerity measures having on the children you teach and their families?" Hardly surprising, then, that such a large number said they'd vote "Labour". In the business, this is known as "push polling" – you push people towards making the choice you want them to make by asking them leading questions beforehand.(To read more, click here.)
Last month, the Daily Mail published a piece by an anonymous contributor that revealed "the shocking truth" about the Baftas – that some of the judges vote for films they haven't seen. No doubt that's true, but it isn't true of me. As a member of Bafta, I got sent approximately 60 "screeners" in December – the films judged to be worthy of awards by their distributors – and have been doggedly working my way through them during these long winter nights. Having already voted in round one, I'm due to cast my final votes in round two next Wednesday, with the winners being announced on February 16th.
Okay, on to the runners and riders. Gravity leads the pack with 11 nominations, followed by American Hustle and 12 Years A Slave, both with 10, Captain Philips with nine, Behind the Candelabra with five and Saving Mr Banks, also with five. (To read more, click here.)
There was a great exchange on Newsnight last night between Fiona Millar, the Left-wing education campaigner, and David Green, the chief executive of Civitas. They were discussing "the Blob", Michael Gove's word for the educational establishment, and Jeremy Paxman asked Green if Millar was a member of it. "Yes," he said, without hesitating. For once, Millar looked sightly lost for words.
Green added that the reason she was a fully paid-up member of the Blob is because she's a Chair of Governors and after the show she accused me on Twitter of being a member of the Blob as well on the grounds that, like her, I'm a Chair of Governors. (To read more, click here.)
Michael Gove has been under fire this week for “sacking” Sally Morgan as Chair of Ofsted. You’d think he’d be within his rights not to re-appoint her, given that she’s a former aid of Tony Blair’s and her three-year term has come to an end. But no. This has become exhibit A in the latest case for the prosecution against the Education Secretary, namely, that he’s too partisan, too ideological. He’s abandoned the “big tent” approach that characterised the honeymoon period of the Coalition and reverted to type. He’s a Tory Rottweiler.
All complete balls of course. When it comes to education reform, supporters and opponents don’t divide along party lines. The reason Gove appointed Sally Morgan in the first place is because she supports academies and free schools. It’s the same reason he offered Andrew Adonis a job back in 2010 and still meets regularly with Blair himself. They’re all broadly sympathetic to the reforms he’s introduced since becoming Secretary of State. The battles Gove is waging against the forces of reaction – the teaching unions, Whitehall officials, local authorities – are the same battles they waged when they were in office.
Gove’s name for the anti-reform brigade is “the Blob” and that’s often leapt upon by his opponents as yet more evidence that he’s become slightly cracked after almost four years in office. They accuse him of being paranoid, seeing enemies under every bed, like some latter-day McCarthy. (To read more, click here.)
Nick Clegg and his minions have been busy in the past week or so, frantically briefing against Michael Gove. The fruit of their labours can be seen in today's papers, with the Observer, the Independent and the Sunday Times all running front page stories about the Education Secretary's decision to "sack" Baroness Morgan of Huyton as the Chair of Ofsted. David Laws, the Lib Dems Schools Minister, is reported to be "absolutely furious" about Gove's efforts to "politicise Ofsted".
It's all nonsense of course. The Education Secretary hasn't "sacked" Sally Morgan. In fact, he's extended her term of office. She was originally appointed to serve a three-year term in March 2011 and has been asked to stay on until September of this year so she can supervise the hand-over to her successor. It's perfectly normal for Ofsted Chairs to serve one term -- that's exactly what Morgan's predecessor Zena Atkins did. To suggest she's been defenestrated because she's a Labour peer is pure mischief-making. After all, if Gove objected to her politics he wouldn't have appointed her in the first place. And if the Education Secretary wants to "politicise" Ofsted by choosing a Conservative donor as the new Chair of Ofsted (as some papers suggest), he's going a funny way about it. As he pointed out on Marr this morning, he's asked Lib Dem donor Paul Marshall to chair the panel that will select Morgan's successor. (To read more, click here.)