Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Experts talk out of their 4Rs

I find it hard to be enthusiastic about the announcement of the Liberal Democrats' 4Rs Commission.

The party website says: "We've asked some independent thinkers, not previously associated with the Lib Dems, to do some big thinking for us on primary education."

And who are those thinkers? The website says:

Dr Bethan Marshall (chair): literacy expert from Kings College

Dr Mike Askew: numeracy expert from Kings College

Floella Benjamin: TV presenter and long time worker for children and education charities

Dr John Howson: visiting professor at Oxford Brookes and expert in teacher recruitment

Cllr James Kempton: Leader of Islington Council and LGA spokesperson on Young People

A primary school teacher TBC

First a small point. If you are going to appoint people from King's College to serve on an education commission, it is a good idea to include the apostrophe in that institution's name (it is the University of London King's) when you list them. Otherwise you risk looking rather silly.

More seriously, we are told that these people are "not previously associated with the Lib Dems" - James Kempton apart, I assume it means. Does this mean they are not party members? Does it mean they are not Lib Dem sympathisers? Does it mean they are not Liberals at all? If they are not, why are we inviting them to write our policy for us? Why do we think we shall like what they have to say?

What I suspect lies behind this move is a feeling that politics and ideology are bad things and that we should lead such matters to the experts.

The problems with that view are many.

One important one is that if we talk to the experts and other parties talk to similar experts, then we shall all end up saying much the same thing. Already this statement has quite a New Labour feel to it.

Another problem is that the education establishment in Britain is uniformly Labourist - in favour of centralisation, uniformity and all the things Liberals are meant to be against. If we consult that establishment we shall merely hear Labour views coming back at us, and unless we are strong-minded, those are the views we shall adopt as a result. Ever since Phil Willis became Lib Dem education spokesman, we have largely subcontracted out education policy to the teaching unions and the results have not been inspiring.

Finally, this worship of expert views ignores that many political questions are not technical ones but moral ones - questions what we see as the good life and about the sort of society we want to live in. No expert can give you the answers to these questions. The answers we choose should rest upon the values we hold in common as Liberal Democrats.

Already the commission is being pointed towards some very odd policies for a Liberal party. The fourth R, apparently, is "aRticulation" (geddit?!) and the website says:

Too many children aren't arriving at school with the vocabulary and the ability to speak in sentences that allows them to pick up where the government's literacy strategy begins - we're missing a step. Giving young children the language skills they need to express themselves helps them learn, improves behaviour and imbues them with confidence.
So we need intervention in the home before children start school to make sure they are able to benefit from the government's literacy strategy? It sounds as though the Lib Dems are seeking to appeal to people who think that New Labour are a bunch of libertarians.

Such views will make us very popular with the education establishment, but I am not convinced that the wider electorate will think so much of it. Imagine writing a Focus telling people they don't know how to teach their children to speak.

That's the great thing about politics: it's far too important to be left to the experts.

2 comments:

Martin Young said...

I agree about the commission makeup, or rather about the apparent boast that none of them are actually LibDems. Perhaps one day there'll be a leader who isn't actually a LibDem too?

You said: "So we need intervention in the home before children start school to make sure they are able to benefit from the government's literacy strategy?"

It doesn't actually say "in the home". Many children already have pre-school education in the form of (subsidised) nursery education, library events, play groups and so forth. Then there's the Bookstart scheme which places books in homes through health visitors - hardly intervention: it provides opportunity rather than forces compulsion.

You then said: "It sounds as though the Lib Dems are seeking to appeal to people who think that New Labour are a bunch of libertarians."

Only if you read it with the assumption that the commission is itself authoritarian. The pushy middle classes, to use a perjortive term, already prepare their children for school at least in part because it's someting they find easy and natural to do. Enabling all parents to give their children the same boost into school-based education is surely a liberating thing; it places control in individual parent's hands, not in the hands of national planners. There's no suggestion of a national curriculum for playing at home.

Then you said: "Such views will make us very popular with the education establishment, but I am not convinced that the wider electorate will think so much of it."

That is where the party has to use its political and presentational skill. Clearly placing a compulsory onerous requisite on parents won't play well. Creating easy to use facilities will do better: children love to learn and parents love to find someting to occupy their children.

Finally: "Imagine writing a Focus telling people they don't know how to teach their children to speak."

On the other hand, "[Headline] Local LibDem scheme boosts primary school achievement. [Body] With a little help from the LibDem supported early learning facilities local parents are giving their children a vital head start."

Whatever happens they, the party, could do worse than to send their copywriter to a course on clarity of expression. I quote: "Too many children aren’t arriving at school with the vocabulary and the ability to speak in sentences that allows them to pick up where the government’s literacy strategy begins – we’re missing a step."

Not only clumsy and mixed of metaphor but semantically sloppy too. Ouch.

GoodLiberal said...

Shouldn't we be leaving it upto parents and teachers what they teach rather than Whitehall?