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.

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Want to beat child poverty? End the freeze on working-age benefits

Freezing working-age benefits at a time of rising prices is both economically and morally unsound. 

We serve in politics to change lives. Yet for too long, many people and parts of Britain have felt ignored. Our response to Brexit must respond to their concerns and match their aspirations. By doing so, we can unite the country and build a fairer Britain.

Our future success as a country depends on making the most of all our talents. So we should begin with a simple goal – that child poverty must not be a feature of our country’s future.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies projects that relative child poverty will see the biggest increase in a generation in this Parliament. That is why it is so troubling that poverty has almost disappeared from the political agenda under David Cameron, and now Theresa May.

The last Labour Government’s record reminds us what can be achieved. Labour delivered the biggest improvement of any EU nation in lifting one million children out of poverty, transforming so many lives. Child poverty should scar our conscience as much as it does our children’s futures. So we have a duty to this generation to make progress once again.

In my Barnsley constituency, we have led a campaign bringing together Labour party members, community groups, and the local Labour Council to take action. My constituency party recently published its second child poverty report, which included contributions from across our community on addressing this challenge.

Ideas ranged from new requirements on developments for affordable housing, to expanding childcare, and the great example set by retired teachers lending their expertise to tutor local students. When more than 200 children in my constituency fall behind in language skills before they even start school, that local effort must be supported at the national level.

In order to build a consensus around renewed action, I will be introducing a private member’s bill in Parliament. It will set a new child poverty target, with requirements to regularly measure progress and report against the impact of policy choices.

I hope to work on a cross-party basis to share expertise and build pressure for action. In response, I hope that the Government will make this a priority in order to meet the Prime Minister’s commitment to make Britain a country that works for everyone.

The Autumn Statement in two months’ time is an opportunity to signal a new approach. Planned changes to tax and benefits over the next four years will take more than one pound in every ten pounds from the pockets of the poorest families. That is divisive and short-sighted, particularly with prices at the tills expected to rise.

Therefore the Chancellor should make a clear commitment to those who have been left behind by ending the freeze on working-age benefits. That would not only be morally right, but also sound economics.

It is estimated that one pound in every five pounds of public spending is associated with poverty. As well as redirecting public spending, poverty worsens the key economic challenges we face. It lowers productivity and limits spending power, which undermine the strong economy we need for the future.

Yet the human cost of child poverty is the greatest of all. When a Sure Start children’s centre is lost, it closes a door on opportunity. That is penny wise but pound foolish and it must end now.

The smarter approach is to recognise that a child’s earliest years are critical to their future life chances. The weight of expert opinion in favour of early intervention is overwhelming. So that must be our priority, because it is a smart investment for the future and it will change lives today.

This is the cause of our times. To end child poverty so that no-one is locked out of the opportunity for a better future. To stand in the way of a Government that seeks to pass by on the other side. Then to be in position to replace the Tories at the next election.

By doing so, we can answer that demand for change from people across our country. And we can provide security, opportunity, and hope to those who need it most.

That is how we can begin to build a fairer Britain.
 
 

Dan Jarvis is the Labour MP for Barnsley Central and a former Major in the Parachute Regiment.