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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Chuka Umunna: Why tolerance is not enough

Against the Trumpification of politics.

It’s still spring, yet 2016 already stands out as one of the ugliest years in modern British political history. It was fantastic to see Londoners choosing hope over fear in May, electing Sadiq Khan as our first Muslim mayor. But David Cameron, having shamelessly endorsed Zac Goldsmith’s dog-whistle campaign tactics, owes those young Muslims who have been put off politics by the slurs hurled at Khan an explanation. How does racial profiling and sectarian scaremongering fit into his One Nation vision for Britain?

Meanwhile, Boris Johnson, one of the best bets to succeed Cameron as our next prime minister, embarrassed Britain on the world stage with a racially charged allusion to Barack Obama’s Kenyan heritage. And my own party has been grappling with a swath of deeply disturbing revelations regarding the attitudes held by some on the left towards Israel and Jewish people. Sowing discord by stigmatising or scapegoating a single faith group or community is profoundly at odds with the British tradition of “tolerance”, but we can’t ignore that this year’s events are part of a rising trend of friction and factionalism.

Last year’s general election should have been a wake-up call. The political and cultural divides between people living in the north and south and urban and rural areas – as well as between working-class and metropolitan sensibilities – appear starker than ever. In May’s devolved elections, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish politics became yet more distinct – giving the impression of a kingdom coming apart at the seams. All the while, more and more voices in our national politics seek to pin the blame for the challenges facing our country on a single section of society, whether immigrants, Muslims or another group.

This trend stretches beyond our borders. From Ukip, the French Front National and Austria’s Freedom Party to Podemos in Spain and Italy’s Five Star Movement, new populist parties of the right and left are on the rise across Europe. In the United States, Bernie Sanders is tapping into the energy of Occupy Wall Street, while Donald Trump has emerged as the heir to the Tea Party: a poster boy for division and recrimination.

Trump’s rise should be a warning for us Brits. The New York Times commentator David Brooks has described his success as less indicative of the emergence of a new school of thought, or movement, and more of dissatisfaction with the status quo. Trump’s campaign has tapped into a complex cocktail of grievances, from the loss of manufacturing jobs in a globalised economy to rising inequality and raw anger felt by many white working-class Americans at demographic and cultural changes.

In the run-up to last year’s general election, as I travelled around the country, I was confronted time and time again with the reality that in the UK – just like in the US – people are afraid and angry because the world is changing in ways they fear are beyond their control. Where once they had believed that, if they worked hard, they would get ahead, too many Britons now feel that the system is rigged in favour of those born into opportunity and that those in power have abandoned them to a broken future. What it means to be British seems to have shifted around them, triggering a crisis of solidarity.

We are at a crossroads and may face nothing less than the Trumpification of British politics. In an uncertain and changing world, it is all too easy to imagine that our problems are caused by those who are different from us.

If we wish to follow the fine example set by Londoners on 5 May and choose unity and empathy over division and blame, we must accept that simply “tolerating” one another will no longer do. There is an accusation built into the very word: what you are doing is “other” or “wrong”. As Britain has become more diverse, we have come to know each other less. This makes it harder to understand how people from different walks of life feel about the big issues.

I am a Labour member because I believe, as it says on our membership cards, that, by the strength of our common endeavour, we achieve more together than we do alone. In order to develop the bonds of trust required for this to become a reality, and for our communities to flourish and our democracy to deliver for everyone, we must build a society in which people from all backgrounds actually get to know one another and lead interconnected lives. In this sense, “One Nation” – the land over which all parties seek purchase – should become more than a platitude. It should become a way of life.

Chuka Umunna is Labour MP for Streatham.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad