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.

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Labour's Eurosceptics should steer clear of loaded language

Phrases such as "wholesale importation" leave the impression Labour will not speak for migrant workers.

Nothing reflects Britain’s division over Brexit than the Labour party. Do we want soft or hard Brexit? What do we prioritise? The fractures within the party’s ranks is a portrait of the divisions splintering the country.

Labour’s ambiguity over Brexit helped it in the general election in appealing to everyone. It convinced Remain voters that they could hold the Tories to account while promising the Leave voters that the referendum decision would be respected. But now clarity is needed. 

The Labour leadership seems to be angling for a hard Brexit, wishing to leave the single market and customs union on the grounds that this honours the wishes of the 52 per cent. Ironically, they are at odds with everyone in this situation, from the general public – who favour access to single market over immigration controls – to a poll in LabourList showing that 72 per cent of readers prioritised inclusion within the single market.

Jeremy Corbyn's lukewarm attitude to the EU is well documented. If the Labour Party are serious about their public ownership plans for the railways and energy, it’s likely they envision it being made difficult within the EU because of directives which create competition between the state and the private sector. There are unexplored alternatives to this, as seen in Germany and Italy where private companies are made and run the industries with the states acting as the major shareholders of the company. However it’s unlikely to see the hard left ever accepting this, given its disdain for both the private sector and the idea of it interacting with the state to deliver services.

But this is not all that should trouble progressives regarding the Labour leadership’s stance on Brexit. During a recent Andrew Marr programme in which he appeared on, Corbyn claimed that mass immigration had been used to denigrate the conditions for British workers, saying that there was a “wholesale importation” of workers from parts of Europe which would then undermine the rights of British workers. It’s an argument that has been regurgitated by British politicians consistently in recent years – but from the right, not the left.

The idea that migrants are taking British jobs and depressing wages does not hold up to evidence at all. The London School of Economics carried out a research which illustrated increases in migration from the EU did not result in depression of British wages. That’s not to suggest that wages have not stagnated, but rather the trend is linked to the financial crash in 2008, rather than migration. Corbyn’s defenders insist that there were no deliberate racist overtones in his argument, and that the villains are employers deliberately taking advantage of an easily exploited labour market. But the manner in which Corbyn framed his speech was worrying.

The reason for this is that Brexit has created an unbelievable sense of uncertainty, insecurity and fear amongst migrants. Their position in society is now being contested by politicians with different stakes in society to them. Xenophobic abuse – legitimised as an acceptable part of political discourse by Brexit – has been climbing swiftly. Immigrants are seen as threats to British jobs and that is a narrative consistently drummed out – not just since last year but for possibly the past decade.

This is not to say that Labour should not address how some employers might seek to cut costs by hiring foreign workers on a cheap rate. But phrases such as “wholesale importation” or even using the heavily demonised “mass migration” simply sketches the idea that Labour are swinging towards the hard Brexit voters, and in doing so leaving migrant workers to be defended by no one. If the intended idea was to castigate employers, it simply entrenched the idea of immigration as a problem. Rather than bringing British and migrant workers together, you know with that whole “workers of the world unite” idea, Corbyn’s framing of the argument keeps them pitted against each other.

If Brexit has shown us anything it’s that language matters in politics in how it transmits its message to people. Slogans such as “take back control” were attacks on multiculturalism and immigration, stoking white nationalism, even if the Leave campaign insisted it wasn’t about that. Likewise, Corbyn might insist it wasn’t about migrants, but his message sounded a lot like he was blaming freedom of movement for the suppression of wage growth in Britain.

Needless to say, Labour need a rethink on what kind of Brexit it pursues.