Like most parents, Liz Truss appears to be making it up as she goes along

Isn’t it only a few weeks since the PM’s advisor on childhood Claire Perry was claiming that children’s lives were over-regimented and that the little blighters needed to be bored?

 

This morning I woke up to two things: the claim that Tory minister Elizabeth Truss thinks today’s toddlers are “running around with no sense of purpose”, and my own three-year old, hellbent on making me read Baker’s Cat for the millionth time running and refusing to take a mumbled “can’t you look at the nice pictures?” for an answer.

Much as I would have liked to ponder the former, the latter meant I didn’t have time. I had a book to read, several times over, with actions and exaggerated sing-song voices, otherwise - “Mummy, you’ve not done it properly!” Toddlers don’t need teaching anything about purpose. On the contrary, they could show the rest of us a thing or two about identifying a goal and sticking to it, crushing the will of all who stand in their way.

To be fair, it now turns out that Truss didn’t actually say that it’s toddlers who are “running around with no sense of purpose”.  The Mail just made it sound like she did. In her interview with the newspaper Truss was actually describing her encounters with free-flow play in nurseries:

I have seen too many chaotic settings, where children are running around. There’s no sense of purpose.

So it’s not the children but the overall setting. Even so, I’m confused. Isn’t it only a few weeks since the PM’s advisor on childhood Claire Perry was claiming that children’s lives were over-regimented and that the little blighters needed to be bored? But now it turns out that a lack of structure is the problem. And besides, if it’s nurseries in particular we’re talking about, should children be in them at all? It’s not long since Swedish childcare expert Jonas Himmelstrand was briefing MPs on the evils of “separating children from their mothers”, much to the approval of yet another Tory, David Davies. Only it turns out Himmelstrand’s not that much of an expert after all.

Ho hum. I guess if there’s one thing we can learn from this, it’s that Tories don’t agree on childcare. Or perhaps they do but they’re just making it up as they go along, with frequent about-turns, in much the same way as most parents make things up, although minus the usual guilt and self-doubt.

In a nice, Gove-esque touch, Truss refers to one specific detail within the vast cultural context of another country in order to back up her current argument. In this case the country is France. This is because, as we all know, French children don’t throw food. They don’t talk back, either. I mean, they might grow up to be more prone than most to take to the streets in mass industrial protests (look, I know these are crass national stereotypes, but hey, I didn’t start it). According to Truss, French nurseries are where it’s at:

What you notice in French nurseries is just how calm they are. All of their classes are structured and led by teachers. It’s a requirement. They learn to socialise with each other, pay attention to the teacher and develop good manners, which is not the case in too many nurseries in Britain.’

Oh, and another thing I’ve just remembered: the French mums of all these well-behaved children don’t get fat, which is an added bonus. So yeah, French nurseries! Vive la difference! Or rather not la difference, the opposite (is there a French translation for “out of context  detail that we should all copy”?).

I don’t doubt that French childrearing methods – looked at in their entirety – differ somewhat from English ones. I’m less sure how much it matters. In  the interests of fairness, I’ve even conducted my own experiment. When some French friends of mine decided to have a baby, I decided to have one, too (I was quite keen on the idea anyhow, but the main reason was so that I could write this one paragraph right now).

Three years on, both of our children are at nursery, or rather French Child is à l‘école, where he learns to sit still and recite, while English Child is at Monkey Puzzle, where he runs around with Early Learning Centre pans on his head. And when they meet up the two of them appear remarkably similar and get along just fine (apart from that one time English Child sent French Child to A&E with an “overenthusiastic” hug, but we don’t like to talk about that now). What’s more, I don’t think you gain much by tinkering with early years education to ensure youngsters are “disciplined” if there aren’t opportunities to offer them later. Might as well let them be creative. That way they can at least pretend to have jobs once they’re older and/or paint more imaginative placards once they take to the streets.

That said, I suppose in the meantime there is a degree to which we’re not harnessing the sheer bloody-mindedness of toddlers while we can. If we put our minds to it, we could probably out-do the French on that score. I think back to when my eldest was two and totally obsessed with taking everything out of the kitchen cupboards and loading it into the washing machine. If you asked him why he’d just look at you and say, like some wild-eyed prophet, “--’chine! ‘chine! ‘CHINE!” The almost mythical determination to complete such a futile, repetitive task carries within it a message for us all.

I’m just not sure I, nor any “expert” MP, is capable of knowing what to do with it yet.

A group of toddlers with a strong sense of purpose. Photo: Getty

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

GARY WATERS
Show Hide image

In defence of expertise: it’s time to take the heart out of “passionate” politics

What we need is cool logic.

We are living through a bonfire of the experts. During the EU referendum campaign, Michael Gove explained that people had had enough of them. A few weeks later, his fellow Tory MPs took him at his word and chose a relative ingénue to run against Theresa May.

After declaring for Andrea Leadsom in the Tory leadership race, Michael Howard was asked whether it might be a problem that she had never held a position higher than junior minister. Howard, whose long career includes stints as home secretary and opposition leader, demurred: “I don’t think experience is hugely important.”

Even in this jaw-dropping season, that comment caused significant mandibular dislocation. I thought: the next Tory leader will become prime minister at a time of national crisis, faced with some of the UK’s most complex problems since the Second World War. If experience doesn’t matter now, it never does. What does that imply about the job?

Leadsom’s supporters contended that her 25 years in the City were just as valuable as years spent at Westminster. Let’s leave aside the disputed question of whether Leadsom was ever a senior decision-maker (rather than a glorified marketing manager) and ask if success in one field makes it more likely that a person will succeed in another.

Consider Ben Carson, who, despite never having held elected office, contested the Republican presidential nomination. He declared that Obamacare was the worst thing to happen to the United States since slavery and that Hitler may have been stopped if the German public had been armed. Yet Carson is not stupid. He is an admired neurosurgeon who pioneered a method of separating conjoined twins.

Carson is a lesson in the first rule of expertise: it does not transfer from one field to another. This is why, outside their domain, the most brilliant people can be complete dolts. Nevertheless, we – and they – often assume otherwise. People are all too ready to believe that successful generals or entrepreneurs will be good at governing, even though, more often than not, they turn out to be painfully inept.

The psychologist Ellen Langer had her subjects play a betting game. Cards were drawn at random and the players had to bet on whose card was higher. Each played against a well-dressed, self-assured “dapper” and a shabby, awkward “schnook”. The participants knew that it was a game of chance but they took more risks against the schnook. High confidence in one area (“I’m more socially adept than the schnook”) irrationally spilled over into another (“I’ll draw better cards”).

The experiment points us to another reason why we make poor judgements about competence. We place too much faith in social cues – in what we can see. As voters, we assume that because someone is good at giving a speech or taking part in a debate, they will be good at governing. But public performance is an unreliable indicator of how they would cope with running meetings, reading policy briefs and taking decisions in private. Call it the Boris principle.

This overrating of the visible extends beyond politics. Decades of evidence show that the job interview is a poor predictor of how someone will do in the job. Organisations make better decisions when they rely on objective data such as qualifications, track record and test scores. Interviewers are often swayed by qualities that can be performed.

MPs on the Commons education select committee rejected Amanda Spielman, the government’s choice for the next head of Ofsted, after her appearance before them. The committee didn’t reject her because she was deficient in accomplishments or her grasp of education policy, but because she lacked “passion”. Her answers to the committee were thoughtful and evidence-based. Yet a Labour MP told her she wasn’t sufficiently “evangelical” about school improvement; a Tory asked her to stop using the word “data” so often. Apparently, there is little point in being an expert if you cannot emote.

England’s football team is perennially berated in the media for not being passionate enough. But what it lacks is technique. Shortly before Wales played England in the European Championship, the Welsh striker Gareth Bale suggested that England’s players lacked passion. He knew exactly what he was doing. In the tunnel before kick-off, TV cameras caught the English goalkeeper Joe Hart in a vessel-busting frenzy. On the pitch, Hart allowed Bale to score from an absurdly long range because he was incapable of thinking straight.

I wish there were less passion in politics and more cool logic; less evangelism and more data. Unthinking passion has brought the Labour Party to its knees and threatens to do the same to the country. I find myself hungering for dry analyses and thirsting for bloodless lucidity. I admire, more than ever, those with obscure technical knowledge and the hard-won skills needed to make progress, rather than merely promise it.

Political leadership is not brain surgery but it is a rich and deep domain. An effective political leader needs to be an expert in policy, diplomacy, legislative process and how not to screw up an interview. That is why it’s so hard to do the job well when you have spent most of your time in boardrooms or at anti-war rallies.

If democratic politicians display contempt for expertise, including their own, they can hardly complain if those they aspire to govern decide to do without the lot of them. 

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt