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The despair of the dissenting government expert

A depressing day out spent talking science at the Department for Education

A child interacts with a robot at the Science Museum
Inspiring kids to want to explore science wasn't even on the agenda. Photograph: Getty Images

“Why don’t you all stop weeping about the mathematical prospects of British children from your bleeding liberal hearts and get used to the fact that most of them are destined to be valium-addicted call centre operators whose only need for maths will be the numbers 0-9 on the telephone keypad? Now get your tweedy backsides the fuck out of my building.”

If only Malcolm Tucker really had turned up yesterday at the Department for Education (which bears an uncanny resemblance to the set for The Thick of It). That would have made things slightly less dismal. As it was, I left the building ready to kill myself and my children. I mean, what’s the point of education?

Attending a conference on Science, Technology and Mathematics (STEM) education seemed like a good idea. And it wasn’t depressing because the research being presented was poor: it was thorough, fascinating, revealing and worthwhile.

But, throughout the day, two things ground me down. The first was the general tenor of the conversation. It was focused on creating workers to plug gaps in the future UK labour force. It’s a little-known fact, but you can actually enjoy studying these subjects. No one talked about science or maths as inspiring intellectual disciplines, though: everything was about ensuring that children were flowing through what is known in this trade as the “STEM pipeline”.

Mark Stockdale, “Team Leader” of the DfE’s Raising Standards in Science program (why not go all the way and call him “captain”, or “skipper”?), spoke of the OECD’s insistence that STEM skills “secure economic benefit and fill industry jobs”. Shoving students into the STEM pipeline will keep UK plc well-watered with graduates just itching to secure the country’s economic well-being. After all, what else do children dream of?

Stockdale was enthusiastic about extracurricular “enhancement and enrichment” opportunities that would get students excited about science. It was left to Peter Main, the Institute of Physics’s director of education, to point out that all the research shows these programmes are useless without good teachers.

“Research? Who gives a fuck about what the research says?”

Stockdale didn't say that. Where’s Malcolm when you need him?

The fact is (if I may use that phrase in association with the Department for Education), research studies – facts, if you like – are of secondary importance.

Which brings me to my second problem. It was deeply worrying – and infuriating, and maddening and fist-shakingly exasperating, and ultimately, really, fundamentally, crying-in-my-seat-depressing – to realise that this might be the most futile area of research I have ever come across.

There are hundreds of studies into STEM education going on, but they have very little impact. For all the brilliance of the researchers, and the meticulous attention to detail in planning studies and the high quality analysis, their results and insights are rarely allowed to make a difference. One particularly poignant moment came via Anne Watson, professor of education at Oxford University and deputy chair of the Advisory Committee on Maths Education (ACME). She suggested that, rather than pursuing any new studies, we should blow the dust off some very good ones from the 1970s whose recommendations have never been properly implemented.

Judging by the stony silence this idea received, those with mortgages to pay probably didn’t agree. There was an air of existential despair in the room at this point, though. Many of the researchers present at this conference had been involved in advising on the primary maths and science curriculum reforms unveiled by the Department for Education this week. For most, however, it was a very short-term involvement. One (who can’t speak on the record) told me they had been dropped from the advisory team as soon as it became clear that they weren’t going to back the agenda the DfE wanted to push. In the end, just two researchers were left to write the final maths recommendations.

Margaret Brown, a professor of education at King’s College, London, did go on the record. The new curriculum, she said, “encourages the rote teaching of disparate skills and discourages the buildup of understanding, problem-solving and enjoyment of maths.” The people drawing up the reforms “ignored all advice from the maths community, ACME [the Advisory Committee on Maths Education] and others,” Brown said, adding that the reforms “will be guaranteed to create failure, not to reduce it.”

I overheard one researcher suggesting this might be a deliberate policy, a “charter for private tuition.” Sainsburys, after all, offer tuition for your children while you shop, so the rise in failing students will create a market opportunity.

As a ray of hope, I’ll admit that not all experts are down on all the reforms. Conrad Wolfram, the computer genius whose company runs the software behind Apple’s Siri, has some positive things to say at his blog. But, despite the good bits, the new curriculum presents “a broadening chasm between government's view of maths and the real-world subject”. Many of the proposed subjects are no longer relevant to the modern world, he says: it’s like teaching your kids how to rub sticks together to make fire but not teaching them how to cross roads.

He has an alternative in mind. “Instead of rote learning long-division procedures, let's get students applying the power of calculus, picking holes in government statistics…” Malcolm would stop Wolfram right there, of course. “Christ, Conrad. Are you out of your tiny mind? The whole idea is to make the little shitbags work for us, not against us…"