The despair of the dissenting government expert

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

“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…"

Inspiring kids to want to explore science wasn't even on the agenda. Photograph: Getty Images

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

Photo: Getty Images
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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.