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Tristram Hunt and Churchillian True Grit

Tristram things can only get betterAfter every new speech by Tristram Hunt a friend used to say to me “things can only get better”. Now, he’s not so sure.  After the Shadow Education Secretary’s vaunting of Disraeli as a “working class champion”, his refusal to commit to ending selection at eleven and his suggestion that private schools should keep all their privileges and tax breaks if only they would agree to sprinkle some of their magic dust on state schools, we have to wonder just how much further this line of thought can go.

The lack of will to make a radical break with the educational landscape created by the Coalition (largely under Michael Gove’s leadership) is so far from being on the cards that it is not even a vaguely defined future intent. Given the poll-confirmed wish of the general public to reverse the process of converting state schools into state-funded independent institutions this is not great electoral politics. In terms of building a political career, on the other hand, it is certainly a protection against a backlash from high expectations. Tristram Hunt’s speech to the Character Conference organised by Demos on 9th December added a few more nails to fix those expectations firmly to the floor.

The opening section of the speech suggests that Hunt thinks teachers just regurgitate textbook knowledge without realising that there are important non-cognitive aspects of development such as personal discipline, handling failure, developing curiosity, and the like. He claims “cutting edge research” has shown these things matter and even that “this could be a staggeringly important discovery” for support of which he calls on the authority of CBI Director-General John Cridland and private school headmaster Anthony Seldon.

Tristram Hunt argues that character can be thought of as a set of “skills” which can and should be taught. He lists the following as among those “skills”: curiosity to enquire and explore; grit to persevere; resilience to accept failure, determination to bounce back; self-control to delay gratification; emotional intelligence to work with and learn from others; and “perhaps most important of all” confidence to aspire towards success “because it feels like success belongs to them”.

Aside from the idea that character is a matter of “skills” which can be taught rather than dispositions which grow and develop as part of a way of life, what can be said of the suggestion that “confidence” and “curiosity” are “skills” alongside those of solving equations or writing or an essay? If someone knows nothing about equations or essay writing then one can set about teaching those things. If someone has no confidence and no curiosity then the situation is very different and much more difficult. It is not that nothing can be done but that what is needed is not a simple matter of teaching but of restructuring the life of the person in question to attenuate, if not remove, the things which have battered their confidence and curiosity.

The idea that treating personal characteristics such as curiosity and confidence as “skills” to be taught is “cutting edge research” is, frankly, nonsense. In fact, it is pernicious nonsense. It is pernicious because it confuses important human capacities/dispositions (like curiosity) with their outward manifestation. This approach has its roots in American behaviourist psychology and whatever else that may be it is certainly not cutting edge. And as for confusing the outward expression of something with the thing itself we should remember the comedian’s advice ‘The most important thing is sincerity and if you can fake that then you’ve got it made‘.

None of this is to say that character formation is not of decisive importance. Rather it is to say that the suggestion that this is a new discovery and that teachers do not as a matter of course try to develop and strengthen character is both ignorant and insulting. It is also sad that alleged cutting edge research should lead to the conclusion that character development can be reduced to skill formation.

To cap it all, when Tristram Hunt looked around for an example of grit, resilience and triumph over adversity did he look to the many stories of the tenacious quest for self-improvement of working-class leaders? Does he look to the likes of Kier Hardie (started work at the age of seven) or Tom Mann (started work at the age of nine)? Such people struggled against the odds to become educated and succeeded – as their writings testify. Forgoing such examples, Tristram Hunt says “when I was researching the best quotes about character it was perhaps inevitable that the finest, and pithiest, came from Churchill”. And Churchill, he informs us, knew more than most that “our failures prepare for the future”.

That is presumably the same Churchill who, despite the advantages of wealth and social position, had a poor academic record at his various private schools. The Churchill whose attainment was so low that he could only pass the entrance exams for Sandhurst on the third attempt. Even then his pass grade was too low for the cavalry so he joined the infantry (this did not require maths, which he did not care to learn). After Sandhurst he joined the the 4th Hussars as a second lieutenant. The £300 a year income was not enough for him so his mother arranged for a further £400 a year to help him along. Even this wasn’t enough so he took up writing as a war correspondent to increase his income and used his mother’s and family influence in high society to arrange postings to active campaigns to ensure that he would have material to report on. Is this really the example that Labour wants to hold up to the majority of children as a triumph of grit and determination?

What does this choice of a class warrior from the ruling elite instead of a labour movement pioneer tell us about Tristram Hunt’s view of the world? It would appear to be all of a piece with his embrace of Disraeli’s paternalistic one-nationism (in which the ruling class looks after the lower in orders who in turn show their respect for their natural superiors). But what kind of model is this for twenty first century Labour? Organising education to serve the needs of the great majority needs a rather different perspective.

It could well be said that the “skill” of confidence in the sense of aspiring towards success “because it feels like success belongs to them” is well exemplified by the likes of Boris Johnson who exudes confidence of a sort even when he has little idea what he is talking about. But is that what most of us want for our children?

Labour has a policy document for education agreed at its Annual Conference. Despite its many weaknesses and lack of overall perspective it has policies that are worth pursuing. These include: giving local communities a greater say; clearly setting out the role of local authorities; ensuring that all governing bodies have significant local community representation, restoring Sure Start; allowing schools to leave academy chains; making it possible to change academies back to local authority schools; requiring state-funded schools to stick to national pay and conditions agreements for teachers and support staff; looking into the problems of Ofsted; a recognition that selection at eleven is harmful to all children. These agreed policies, and there are more, would be part of a significant shift away from the rush to fragmentation of the education service. We need to hear the Shadow Secretary of State for education speaking up for such Labour policies and spelling out in detail what they would mean.

11 Comments

  1. Sandra Crawford says:

    I believe that unless a miracle happens and the Labour Party suddenly becomes Labour again, we will probably have to get used to failure in the working classes, and those on the bottom rung looking up to their wise and better masters.
    The reason is, that education and school building are headed for mass privatisation.
    The balance sheets at my local authority showed the forced removal of school assets, and when asked, a council official stated that the title deeds to many schools in my area were no longer publically owned. I have proof of this.
    The assets and the service will end up as in Chile, where education excludes the poor because it is so expensive.
    Tristram Hunt is making no noises whatsoever about reversing this theft, in the same way that Andy Burnham is suggesting reversing the NHS privatisations.
    The TTIP treaty will entrench the privatisations, and must be fought off.
    The stuff about life skills is just a distraction from the real economic distruction of public education which I believe will come if we show no stomach for resistance.

    1. Robert says:

      I agree with you sadly look at the bunch of clots and middle class MP’s we have.

  2. Bernie Evans says:

    Agree with most of this . wrote this a while back but my blog has plenty more .
    Labour`s policies on housing and the minimum wage have been criticised recently for being too moderate, for lacking ambition and for failing to appreciate the fundamental problems. Sadly the same criticism can be made of the party`s education policies.
    The main reason for this appears to be the same one which explains Labour`s acceptance of the need for austerity: it is Labour`s failure to understand that the policies of the Tory-dominated coalition government are ideologically driven. The Tories are not so much concerned with reducing the deficit as with carrying out their aim of shrinking the state back to levels last seen in the middle of the last century. We only have to examine the borrowing figures for the coalition in the last five years, £572.5bn compared with the Labour government, in thirteen years borrowing £442.7bn. Deficit reduction was essential, we were told, to prevent lumbering the next generation with huge debts, but the government almost immediately lumbered thousands of university students with mountains of debt! Banks in need of re-capitalisation were given £375bn via quantitative easing, no mention of deficit causing funding problems there!
    Similarly, to enable Gove to have carte blanche powers over education, the Tories led the people to believe that reforms were necessary, because as GCSE and A-level results had improved so much, examinations had to be made more difficult, the attainment of top grades made more arduous, and the division of the assessment procedure into manageable chunks called modules ended. Labour`s immediate response was negligible at best, failing to challenge the basic precept that the success of the state comprehensive schools, with results on a par with many expensive private schools, had more to do with other factors, and that Tory reforms would give an unfair advantage to children from well-off homes. Tories do not want either level playing fields or an increase in social mobility, and the immediate removal of the Education Maintenance Allowance should have reminded the Labour party of those facts
    Had teachers been asked to explain improved results, they would undoubtedly have emphasised facts like increased pupil effort, increased teacher expertise, the inevitability of results improving with previous mistakes being rectified, mark schemes scrutinised, and coursework problems resolved. Television programmes might well highlight unruly behaviour and ill-discipline in the classroom to improve viewing figures, but focussing cameras on the students concentrating on their learning, absolute silence during tests, essays being discussed, and evaluation techniques examined would provide a more accurate picture of everyday life in most state schools, and also explain the recent improvements in examination results. Then there`s the increased availability of technology being used, bringing learning and lessons to life, in a way which was well nigh impossible a few decades ago.
    If some pupils gained top grades even though their spelling and grammar were rather wayward, changes to mark schemes, with the highest levels only available to accurate users of language, would have done the trick.
    Instead Gove proceeded with wholesale reforms which took educational assessment back to the last century, with their emphasis on long,essay-based examinations, the need for factual recall rather than skills in analysis and evaluation, the ending of modular assessment and coursework, and the teaching of nationalist, imperialist, British history. Top jobs were to be for Oxbridge graduates, with state school applicants still having less chance of gaining places in the so-called top universities than those from private schools. Without the repeal of Gove`s changes, it is likely schools will have to develop different curricula for different abilities, with the inevitable consequence being different types of schools. Without changes introduced by law, in student recruitment, universities will continue to give preference to the privately educated, even though only 7% attend private schools.
    But what does Labour, now with the privately-educated , history expert, Tristram Hunt at the helm, do? At first out-goveing Gove was the priority, with support for free schools, Performance Related Pay, re-licensing of teachers, and most recently, a teachers` oath. Notice how all of these proposals imply the inadequacy of the teaching profession and the need to improve. Hunt has supported the return of AS levels and the need for all teachers in the classroom to be qualified, but he clearly does not get it. Gove`s reforms were introduced, not because of inadequacies on the part of pupils and teachers, but because of their success, and this is why Hunt and the Labour party should be promising to support teachers and to repeal every single measure Gove placed on the statute book. Gove was criticised because he would not listen to the education experts, the ones with expertise and experience, but is there any evidence to suggest Hunt is any different in this respect?

    1. Robert says:

      I agree with you but it took me ages to read it, please make some breaks between the sentences.

      It hard when you have dyslexia. it just looks like a mass of spiders have written it.

      The way I have to read is by using a card to bloke it off so I can follow it.

      Anyway both you and the Sandra are right sadly the issue is with Hunt gone whom would you put in his place they are all the same all of them are to the right and Tory Soft or Progress, it’s a pity when we need a Wilson or an Atlee or one of those great leaders look at what we have.

    2. David Pavett says:

      As you say, we have a broad measure of agreement. However, although I share your opposition to austerity economics I do not think that Labour’s cave-in to austerity is sufficient to explain the shortcomings of its approach to education. After all the academies programme, private sponsorship of state schools and dragging education away from local government all began under Labour before the crash when there was money to spend.

      The problem, in my view, is rather that Labour has no analysis or philosophy of education of its own. Labour doesn’t get beyond the idea that education is a good thing do what is needed, finances allowing, is more of it. The idea that the role of education in social reproduction encompasses the transmission of a wide range of ideological and behavioural stances honed to fit class-divided society doesn’t get a look in. In other words Labour has no critique of education. That, in my opinion, is why Labour educational thinking is generally a secondary tributary of received (Conservative) opinion.

      What should we teach? What is the nature of knowledge? What are the contrasting views on the nature of critical understanding? What are the determinants of human potential?

      On such fundamental questions Labour has nothing at all to say. Even on the left the response to them is rarely more than a repetition of some academic fad or other.

      So I think that the roots of Labour’s problems actually go very deep.

  3. Barry Ewart says:

    Capitalism for the rich and powerful needs a wheat and chaff and children are now more and more judged on exams – elaborate memory tests – judged for life over 1/2.hours at a time when some kids may just not be good at exams, some may not be able to concentrate because all they can think about is their parents arguing over money. And the results of this competition – the successful feel special and those that may not do too well may feel less intelligent (sometimes for life) though working in adult education ‘ordinary’ working people I always found have always come up with great ideas – a source we should be tapping. Public schools as part of the upper class subsidised welfare state are there to train the next elite to be callous to the poor and maintain the elite. Isn’t it also amazing how its the kids in the poorest areas in school who are always struggling and how do you learn when you may be hungry, feel scruffy and ashamed, it may be PE next and you have holes in your socks and it’s time for your weekly public humiliation, and your parents have been fighting over money and your expected to concentrate on things that seem to have little meaning to your life now! So cut all tax relief on public schools/private education and let the parents pay the true cost – most of them vote for market forces for us. Democratise schools and give LAs more say, have continuous assessment – much better than exams and in poor communities recruit community workers to work with poor groups using the ideas of Paulo Freire. The rich and powerful don’t want every child to be a success – they just need enough of their kind to maintain their petty wealth and privilege – the true little people of the planet. If Labour is about anything it should be about buiding a society (and working with international partners a World) of critical thinkers.

  4. James Martin says:

    To think I initially thought that Hunt had to be better than Twigg because at least he has some teaching experience (whereas Twigg was just utterly useless on every level). How wrong I was. But it always seems to come back to the private school education he got himself and his apparent belief that you can then transfer that ‘ethos’ everywhere else.

    The great waste of all this in terms of the support we should be getting from them is that if you speak to staff in state schools about education policy the thing that really comes across is how amazed they are that for decades now no politician with the education brief (Hunt included) appears to remotely to understand what schools do or what the real issues and problems are inside them. They talk a bizarre language all of their own that is similar to the disconnect you would get if David Icke was put in charge of the NHS.

    And even after the destruction of democratic accountability that comes with the privatising academy programme, what is really rotten is the nonsense that Hunt has fully embraced that poverty and class disadvantage can somehow be cured by a teacher without any reference to poverty at home, low pay, unemployment, poor housing etc. No, a teacher can put all that right, but if they don’t cure broken Britain then now they are continually hounded, attacked and punished!

  5. John reid says:

    I don’t know how hunt became a Map I voted against him, being leytons choice in fa or of Jon Cryer, and as Kier stammer beat the hard working sarah Hayward toholborn, I note that Prescott JNr and Wil Straw arent fighting currently held labour seats unlike Blair JNR and Kinnock JNR, if emily benn or philip Goulds daughter stand hopefully they’ll fight unwinnables too

  6. Clive Price says:

    Gosh, is Tristy a Labour MP. I thought he was a right-wing Tory who was thinking of joining UKIP!

    1. John reid says:

      Maybe he’s a centre left labour supporter, and thinking of joining Ukip

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