Thursday 20 March 2014

Gove had to listen to the science educators

Today, at a conference of primary science specialists,  I got an interesting insight into the uneven way in which education policy is being arrived at. As many people reading this will know, when it comes to the English and History curricula in schools, Gove's fingerprints are all over the curriculum and - more importantly - the tests which de facto determine the curriculum. This has caused advisers to resign, send letters of protest and professional associations have sent written submissions which have been almost entirely overlooked. Decades of experience have been overlooked.

But what has happened with science.

It does seem as if Gove and gang have been forced to listen to what experienced teachers of science have told them. The draft curricula were rewritten. The science teachers and advisers seem to think that a truly awful document (the draft) has been thrown out and something much better has replaced it, though reservations were expressed about the fact that the notion of 'science' in primary schools was being weighted - perhaps too heavily - towards biology. A bit of a return to 'nature study' some felt.

So there is a clear politics going on here. Gove et al think that English, literacy and literature are essentially their property, their fiefdom. They seem to think that it's theirs to play with. They surround themselves with a tiny group of experts of one particular persuasion and have pressed ahead with curricula, tests and exams that are of their cultural and political colouring. When it comes to science, they appear to be out of their depth or ignorant and so are forced to accept what the most enlightened end of the profession is saying about science education.

Part of this is the long-standing (and woeful) neglect of science in British culture. A modern state founded on the massive stolen wealth of the British Empire found it less necessary to be at the cutting edge of science and technology than those countries (in particular, Germany) whose empires were much smaller. This country created a ruling elite whose knowledge of science, engineering and technology has nearly always been minute. The training to know how to rule was derived from studying 'the humanities' in private schools - most of which are not known for an active interest in science and technology. As we know from the Thatcher, Blair, Brown, Cameron regimes a further twist to this bias was delivered by the belief and practice that the country's wealth could be delivered fro m the financial sector. And as we now know, the wealth was always clustered round the top, trickle-down was like some Marvel Comic fiction, and the kind of wealth created within the financial sector is 'bubble wealth' - eventually it bursts.

So culturally speaking, science and technology play a role not much different from the way jazz is treated: it's cool, cerebral, clever-clever, background noise-ish - and under-funded. This is shown in the way Secretaries of State for Education talk - or not talk - about science. Gove's speeches are littered with references to novelists, poets, playwrights and historical figures but very rarely to, let's say, haemoglobin, cantilevers or pollen.

It also tells us that Gove views his job (and I don't think he's any worse than his predecessors here) is not really about 'education' as a whole. That's to say, neither the whole child/student, nor the whole spectrum of knowledge and know-how.  It's more as a kind of cultural commissar, taking up positions on what are really matters of artistic taste (or what I would call 'prejudice'). When he and others in his place talk of 'standards' it's over an extremely narrow landscape predetermined by their own background, not much more than something self-serving: 'look at me, I grew up to be great by learning my verbs, so everyone should do that too.'