Talking standards: part eight of a conversation between educationalists Sir Tim Brighouse and David Cameron

In the eighth instalment of our online conversation, Scottish educationalist David Cameron (pictured left) considers the Englishness inherent in the new requirement that all schools promote ‘British values’ in response to the former schools commissioner for London Sir Tim Brighouse

Dear Tim,

Thank you for making me stop and think, as you often do.

I agree with you that we should be trying to ensure that every learner deserves as many keys to unlock the gates of the future as we can give them. My concern is that they should not be enabled only to turn the key and open the door, but thrive on the other side. I suspect that this line of argument will take me, eventually, to your question about “British values”, but bear with me.

What I am arguing for is a curriculum which is for learning, life and work and which recognises the need to play a role in preparing people for a life in a participatory democracy. At present the tests that we use to assess learners do not encourage that. The arguments are well-rehearsed and we have touched on them in this correspondence.

I think that, in England, there is an even greater obsession with the concept of, what I would describe as, extraneous difficulty. Creating a three-hour exam imposes challenges that are nothing to do with the subject knowledge or skills that it might purport to assess, but they are challenges nonetheless. Unfortunately, they are challenges of technique and stamina and, arguably, of recall and the end result is that the exams tell us less of the learner as a chemist or historian or mathematician or whatever, than about their general ability.

It is back to my principal examiner ensuring that the bell curve is not flattened nor blurred. It is a system that refuses to depart from norm-referencing offering a classification of learners and telling us little beyond which place they occupy in the hierarchy of ability and where they should be placed in all subsequent hierarchies.

I suppose that all I am saying here is that, of course, we should offer learners currency, but it should have genuine value.

I find much of the current debate that touches on this to be unfortunately and unnecessarily polarised. That is why I have enjoyed reading Martin Robinson’s “Trivium in the 21st Century” where there is a sense of not adopting stances, but seeking progress, of being prepared to work across traditions and draw elements from different cultures and historical periods.

I become depressed when I hear as I did recently that we need to teach all young people the knowledge that the members of “the club” have, otherwise they will not be able to join it. For me, that sums up much of the “English” thinking about social mobility. It makes that Conservative assumption of the durability of the status quo and draws on that Thatcherite idea of creating “people like us” – a sub-theme of the British values debate. Her idea that, if more of us were home owners and shareholders, further advanced in an educational and social hierarchy, we would all be conservatives appears to be remarkably vibrant in the current debate.

I think that there is a greater sense in Scotland that we should look more for social change than for social mobility. Perhaps more people north of the border have read John O’Farrell’s An Utterly Impartial History of Britain, or 2000 Years of Upper Class Idiots in Charge and wonder whether we should not only continue to preserve “the club”, but work to strengthen its membership.

Perhaps there is more sense of the importance of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century where he argues, among other things that much turbulence has led to little change in the distribution of wealth and, concomitantly, of power. Of course, he recognises the rise of a middle class, but he sees it as a huge proportion of the population sharing less than half of its wealth.

This does not really challenge that small proportion who still control a massively disproportionate share of wealth and power. He goes on to argue, as do Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson in The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better that we are now seeing unacceptable levels of inequality, which are damaging to society and need to be addressed. Otherwise, the fear is that damage continues and leads to social unrest.

So where are “British values” in all of this? Indeed, are there any such things as British values?

So many people appear to see Jeremy Corbyn as a jockey on one of four horses of the apocalypse, yet he offers little different from that which was promised in Scotland in the referendum campaign.

That campaign was fuelled, rightly or wrongly, by a sense that Scottish people overwhelmingly wanted to be governed according to a different set of values to those which they saw as driving the coalition and, now, the Conservative, government. The further argument was that no UK-based party, with any chance of gaining power, offered a meaningful alternative to those values. The extension of this was that it was better to cease to be British than to share “British values”.

I want to continue the discussion. It is obviously fundamental for any society to decide on the values which draw it together and provide its raison d‘etre. Fresh from seeing Sophocles’ tragedy Antigone last night, I am very aware of the centrality of this discussion. It is also fundamental to the discussion about education and its purpose and may well explain many of the differences of approach that we are seeing across the UK, but perhaps I now need to do some listening. As ever, you may well make me think again.

All the best


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