The politics of fear versus the politics of hate. That is how the protagonists themselves have portrayed the EU referendum campaign, and they are right. As for the politics of truth, they’ve been all but silenced by the shameful alliance of bloated ego and rabble-rousing tabloid. The impressionable were impressed, the thoughtful were frustrated, and on that fragile, divisive and dangerous basis the nation has been asked to vote.
And then MP Jo Cox was murdered, and out of that unspeakable act of physical violence – which some have gone as far as attributing directly to the verbal violence of the referendum campaign – came a reminder of another kind of politics: of reason, hope, compassion, inclusivity, selflessness, courage, inspiration and love. The extraordinary and heartfelt public response to Jo Cox’s death bore witness not only to her truly exceptional qualities and achievements but also to how deeply people yearned for a political discourse that appealed to humanity’s best rather than its worst.
What has this to do with primary education? Everything. Most schools espouse a vision of human relations which is diametrically opposed to the divisive and inflammatory rhetoric to which we’ve been treated during the past few months. Somehow they must hold the line against that rhetoric’s malign pervasiveness and champion with children the possibility of a more generous and inclusive world. Most schools – at least we hope this is so – make the quest for truth and understanding paramount in their shaping of children’s curriculum experiences, yet myths, lies and obfuscation have been rather more prominent of late in the public sphere. Where teachers consciously strive to foster and enact something different they confirm the finding of the Cambridge Primary Review (final report, p 488) that ‘primary schools may be the one point of stability and positive values in a world where everything else is changing and uncertain. For many, schools are the centre that holds when things fall apart.’
But there’s another educational resonance, with education policy rather than practice. For the divisive and mendacious rhetoric of some prominent figures in the referendum campaign is very much of a piece with what they or their colleagues have used in relation to education. The Michael Gove who compared experts warning against Brexit to the Nazis who organised a smear campaign against Albert Einstein is the same Michael Gove who as England’s Secretary of State for Education called those who dared to disagree with him ‘Enemies of promise … Marxists hell-bent on destroying our schools’.
Nazis? Marxists? This ideological promiscuity is less significant than the calculated attempt to isolate and divide that such name-calling betokens, and in these two instances, which are by no means unique, accusations of smear might more properly be levelled at Gove himself. Indeed, this ploy, which – in case Labour are inclined to be sanctimonious we might recall was regularly used by them to undermine the Cambridge Primary Review – is seen by some politicians as a legitimate weapon for deployment in relation to the EU, education, migration, or any other policy issue on which they set their sights. Its true enemy, of course, is not ‘promise’ but truth.
While Gove’s successor uses less colourful language, she has shown a similar preference for ideology over truth, most notably perhaps in her airy insistence that every school must be an academy regardless of the absence of convincing and replicable evidence to support her claim that this will deliver school and system improvement. Beyond this case are numerous others where if research delivers inconvenient truths it is ignored or rubbished and its purveyors are abused.
Indeed so pervasive and corrosive were these tendencies during the last decade that the final report of the Cambridge Primary Review opened with a chapter entitled ‘The Review and other discourses’ which contrasted the serious search for evidence with the discourses of dichotomy, derision and myth by which education administrations too frequently advance their preferred causes, and then warned readers of the probability that what they were about to read would itself be a target of these tendencies (it was). Then, 500 pages later and after presenting its main evidence and findings, the report linked the questionable government handling of many key education issues that its evidence had exposed to the much wider democratic deficit chronicled in the Rowntree Trust’s 2004-6 Power enquiry into the condition of British democracy. The Cambridge report said (pp 481-2):
The prosecution of policy relating to primary education does not stand apart from the trends characterised by … the Power enquiry. Indeed, it convincingly exemplifies many of them: centralisation, secrecy and the ‘quiet authoritarianism’ of the new centres of power; the disenfranchising of local voice; the rise of unelected and unaccountable groups and individuals taking key decisions behind closed doors; the ‘empty rituals’ of consultation; the replacement of professional dialogue by the monologic discourse of power; the politicisation of the entire educational enterprise so that it becomes impossible to debate ideas or evidence which are not deemed to be ‘on message’, or which are ‘not invented here’; and, latterly coming to light, financial corruption.
The Review and its witnesses have highlighted variations on this larger theme of democratic deficit, many of them centering on the nature and quality of the information on which both sound decision-making and effective education depend: the less than complete reliability of official information, particularly in the crucial domain of standards; its lack of independence; the creation and/or dogged perpetuation of educational myths in order to underwrite an exaggerated account of political progress; the key role of the media in shaping the information that reaches government as well as the information that flows from it; the reluctance of decision-makers to countenance or come to grips with alternative information on which better policies could be founded; the use of misinformation to marginalise or discredit ideas running on other than approved lines, and evidence from other than approved sources.
In light of this catalogue of embedded and wilful failure to do what democracy, evidence and good sense demand (and little has changed since these words were written), there is something almost ludicrously disingenuous about the pleas we have heard during the past week for people to stop demonising politicians, as if this is merely an unfortunate but curable habit the public has carelessly slipped into. If politicians believe they should be trusted and respected they should first ask what has caused trust and respect to be so seriously eroded. Expenses claims for moats and duck houses are the more entertaining end of a continuum whose darker reaches include, sadly, some aspects of education policy, notably in the areas of curriculum, assessment, inspection and systemic school reform.
Which brings us back to Jo Cox. Her husband Brendan told reporters that
She feared for our political culture, not just here in the UK but around the world, detailing her belief that the tone of the debate has echoes of the 1930s, with the public feeling insecure, and politicians willing to exploit that sense. He added: ‘I think she was very worried that the language was coarsening, that people were being driven to take more extreme positions, that people didn’t work with each other as individuals and on issues, it was all much too tribal and unthinking.’
Just so: Gove, Johnson, Farage, Sun and Daily Mail take note. But in yesterday’s Guardian Gaby Hinsliff wrote:
She wasn’t just admirable, she was formidable … Cox knew it wasn’t enough just to wring your hands, it’s what you do that counts. When the shock of her death wears off, Westminster will have to remember that. It’s not enough just to talk about standing up for something better, resisting cheap shots, draining the hatred from politics. It’s what you do about it that counts.
The days of automatic respect for the political class are long gone. Respect now must be earned, and by deeds rather than words. Jo Cox’s remarkable example, whether in Batley, Westminster, Darfur or Syria, is the best possible place to start.