Last week, a letter with the signatures of 100 education academics was sent to the British newspaper The Independent. It offered a very abbreviated set of concerns about the development of the English national curriculum. The concerns expressed were not particularly radical, and were pretty much the same as those expressed by every subject association in the country, many of the select few who were consulted over subject developments, key leaders in the arts, and other academics.
The letter was highlighted in a short item in the main section of the newspaper and received some play on local and national radio. This was then followed in short order by: a column from a free school advocate; the release of the national curriculum consultation list; a press release from the Chief OfSTED Inspector and a press release and then a newspaper column from the Education Secretary Michael Gove.
The general tenor of comments went like this:
Free school advocate: it’s just a lot of academic jargon (such as critical thinking and creativity) and it’s an ungrammatical letter, so how educated can they be?
Department: look who we consulted so you can’t say we didn’t (we haven’t told you what they said though, just who was asked)
OfSTED: these academics live in an ivory tower and need to get it in order because none of them are going to be outstanding the next time they are inspected, that’s why teacher training is going to schools
Minister: There are good academics and bad academics. These are bad, very bad. In fact this is just a bunch (blob was the collective noun actually used) of professional Marxists (three people and their affiliations were named) – they don’t want children to read, write and they particularly don’t want that for poor children. I won’t give in to them.
Of course, the response to the letter was predictable. These kinds of ripostes have been seen before – and documented. See for a start Brock’s Blinded by the right (a confessional by an ex Conservative journalist). In education, we also have for example a report on the successful Thatcher-era closure of Hackney Downs and the invective that surrounded it.
Government press officers can probably recite in their sleep the ad hominem tactics used to counter the 100 signature letter’s (relatively mild) critique – say they are hypocrites, bad at their jobs, removed from the public, no clue about what happens in practice, a tiny minority and a bunch of reds, privileged and uncaring of the people they claim to care about. It’s deeply polarizing spin – but its easy to do. The line of attack is entirely dependent on homogenizing and demonizing those who offer criticism. As such, it’s a far cry from the very diverse range of academics who actually signed the letter. Far from being a unified Bolshie conspiracy, the signatories were in reality a collection of people who come from quite diverse political positions, represent very different kinds of research and areas of research. They DID share a concern about the directions of the national curriculum and its potential for Gradgrinding school experiences for large numbers of English children.
But what is most important here – apart from how to answer back to this kind of rhetorical strategy and how to avoid it in the future – are the implications for academic ‘freedom’ to offer comment. Is the only kind of comment that is acceptable that which concurs with government thinking? Does anyone who offers a contrary opinion outside of the pages of an academic journal run the risk of being subject to the irrational schoolboy gutter invective that characterizes Parliament and the tabloid press?
And more narrowly and of much less significance, given that British universities and academics are now measured and league tabled on ‘impact’ and ‘public engagement’, I wonder if this kind of debate-raising activity, if we can call it that, counts? By any stretch of the imagination, the 100’s letter could be seen to have ‘impact’ and to ‘engage the public’. The Guardian and The Times Higher carried stories. Twitter had a day playing with #badacademia and there was a flurry of angry tweets – for, against, concerned about the politics – in response to the ‘all a bunch of Marxists’ column. But does the ‘engagement’ and ‘impact’ that matters in audit terms only refer to the times when what we have to say is not politically contentious, or when it is congruent with policy?
I have a selfish interest in this question. The issue of being in tune with the government of the day is of particular concern to me, and I suspect to many of the 99 other colleagues who signed the letter. We find ourselves doing research in areas which are no longer considered important – or perhaps even acceptable. Our opinions are even less important or valued. For my part, it seems that ten years of research to document and support schools working creatively, research which was funded by and had some influence during the previous government, can no longer be said to have impact. It isn’t REFable. And now apparently it’s also the work of the devil. As that free school columnist said – ‘creativity’ and ‘critical thinking’ are just jargon. So my work and that of my co researchers, over 100 case studies of schools and teachers working with artists, galleries and museums, is currently officially impact-less – unless of course one counts this backlash….