A dunce with a Nobel Prize

An eminent British scientist provides a salutary lesson for education strategists.

Today's lesson: don't tell schoolchildren what they're good at. Sir John Gurdon has just been awarded this year's Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine. In 2006, he gave a revealing interview at the University of California, Berkeley that discussed epic fails in his education – fails that the Conservative party would do well to take into account when they discuss schools at this week's conference.

Despite a clear interest in science – as a child he grew thousands of moths from caterpillars, which greatly annoyed his biology teacher – Gurdon was told that he wasn't suited to the subject. "I have this rather amazing report which, roughly speaking, says I was the worst student the biology master had ever taught," he says. The report went on to say, "I believe Gurdon has ideas about becoming a scientist; on his present showing this is quite ridiculous."

Why? Because he wasn't motivated to learn facts. "If he can't learn simple biological facts he would have no chance of doing the work of a specialist, and it would be a sheer waste of time, both on his part and of those who would have to teach him."

As well as the fundamental ignorance of what scientists do (the myth that science is about knowing facts still persists today), it oozes the current ideology of school as a training-ground for future employment. We fail our students if we see education as nothing more than preparation for the workplace.

So, what happened? "For the rest of my school time I studied Latin and ancient Greek," Gurdon says.

This may have worked in his favour, however. During the interview he revealed that he put part of his later success down to avoiding the drudge of his school's science teaching: "you're better off not being taught a subject badly," he says. "I see it as an advantage to have not had to do the dreary kind of school science that people did have to do at that time."

The fact is, he was no good at Classics; Oxford University told him explicitly that he would not be allowed to attend to study the very subjects his school had "prepared" him for.

But if his parents hadn't shelled out for a year's private science tuition, he wouldn't have got into science at all. Gurdon gallantly blames all this on the privations of the post-war years, but are things very different today? Probably not, he admits: it would now be impossible to switch between classics and science so late: "nowadays my career would have been impossible," he says.

Early specialisation, obsession with rote learning, complete ignorance of the requirements of the workplace while nonetheless obsessed with training people for work...it all sounds rather familiar, doesn't it?

A slide from the Nobel Prize Committee shows John Gurdon's work. 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
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.