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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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”