An interview this week with Labour’s shadow education secretary begged that age-old question of how can you have ministers, or prospective ministers, in charge of areas that they have no experience of and lack expertise in. Green has no background in education, the closest she came having worked for a time in child welfare after a career at Barclays bank.
Direct experience of a profession does not necessarily make an effective politician overseeing it. The Labour leader that never was, Alan Johnson, on a recent episode of Radio 4’s The Moral Maze commented that in his view, some of the worst ministers have been those with previous experience of their portfolio area.
Still, some intellectual humility and curiosity might have been in order. Without experience Green could have known the contours of the debate, how thinking has changed in recent history and the major theoretical and organisational developments in UK education. She might have spoken to a range of key thinkers or visited various schools with different philosophies and methods. Instead, in Green’s interview she spewed banalities, suggestive of a review process that was either superficial or non-existent.
Green warned of the danger of “cramming their head full of facts”, in a “joyless” curriculum that is “information-heavy and traditionalist”. Better than a teacher stood at the front of the class is students “working collaboratively” and “in teams”, engaging in critical thinking.
Doing group work or engaging in analytical thinking has a role at times in the classroom. But students need to have a base of facts and concepts to go off before any meaningful judgements can occur. The person best positioned to pass on this knowledge is a teacher.
Green’s ideas are part of a long cultural scepticism in the field of education of teachers teaching facts that goes back to Plato’s idea of students learning through play, through to Rosseau notion’s of learning through discovery and more recently in Dickens’s Hard Times where facts are portrayed as punitive. It’s a paradox though: I certainly haven’t encountered an adult who felt held back by knowing too much. Knowledge gives options, confidence and an appreciation of the world around you.
Nor are facts joyless, as Green implies. She wouldn’t say they were boring if she saw the student in my class a few weeks ago let out an audible “oh” with eyebrows raised in curiosity when learning in a mini lecture of mine that Britain used to control what is now the United States of America (Year 8s are more than capable of sitting and listening to a teacher talk for five minutes). Green would struggle to see the joy in lessons I’ve witnessed where students work in teams and undertake critical thinking of content they aren’t secure in. Where you can see the learning becoming more and more confused, the misconceptions ingraining and the gradual rise of off-task discussion and activity that destroys a learning environment. Green’s vision of education engages with a cohort of children that do not exist.
But Green’s ideas should do more than receive a wry smile and a raise of the eyes at her naivete. Her approach is destructive to the sections of society Labour claim to prioritise. An acid test for the curriculum is, as curriculum thinker Christine Counsell put it so lyrically, “whether it enables lower-attaining or disadvantaged pupils to clamber into the discourse and practices of educated people, so they gain the powers of the powerful.” While in Green’s idealised classroom there would be a collaborative free for all where children are bereft of facts, students from wealthier backgrounds are imbibing from the home and their classroom the powerful knowledge and cultural literacy they need to continue to stay on top.
It’s an own goal for the Left to cede knowledge and facts to the Right. It’s also inconsistent with Green saying she supports diversifying and broadening the curriculum. Here the aim is to teach students a wider range of facts, concepts and knowledge. Knowledge itself is not the problem, but a narrowness in what is being learnt.
Green’s comments were not befitting of someone seeking to lead our nation’s education system. What would we think if a prospective health secretary suggested highly suspect alternative medicines? It is yet another case where education is treated as field where non-experts feel positioned to make bold claims based on a lack of understanding. Where there is a rehash quixotic propositions that, when exposed to the reality of the classroom, betrays the children they claim to serve.