Not everyone who disagrees with Gove is a "wrecker" or an "enemy of promise"

The Education Secretary’s combative methods are going to result in bad policy. His them-and-us style is alienating the middle ground and polarising the debate.

 

You know who I hate? Children. Little bastards, with their snot and their questions and their boundless curiosity about the world. You know what I'd do, if it were up to me? I'd thwart them. Seriously, I'd thwart the bloody lot of them. I’d deprive them of vital general knowledge, not teach them to add up or spell, and we'll see who's laughing then, eh?

Except, obviously I don't think that. Because no one thinks that. Until yesterday, I didn't think it was even possible to un-self-consciously use the word "thwart" unless you were a character in The Lord of the Rings.

Our education secretary, though, thinks otherwise. In yesterday's Mail on Sunday defence of his plans to reform the national curriculum, arguing that "millions of talented young people  [are] being denied the opportunity to succeed... Far too many are having their potential thwarted by the Enemies of Promise.”

Who are these enemies, I hear you ask? They are the education establishment, a nebulous mixture of Marxist academics, lefty teachers unions, Brownite apologists and orcs, which is trying to block the coalition's brave crusade to raise standards in our schools. "There are still a tiny minority of teachers," Gove explains solemnly, "who see themselves as part of The Blob and have enlisted as Enemies Of Promise.” This is an actual sentence in an article credited to the secretary of state.

The trigger for this latest offensive against the dark forces on all sides was this letter in the Independent . Signed by 100 academics, it argues that the new curriculum is a bit on the narrow side, and will drive schools to prioritise rote-learning over critical thinking. Read after Gove’s response, the letter in question frankly comes as a bit of a disappointment.

I'm not a curriculum expert. My only experience of teaching was 18 months attempting to tutor a succession of teenage boys, all of whom sacked me, so I'm not going to attempt to defend either the new National Curriculum or its predecessor. For all I know the academics are talking rubbish, and Gove's version is by far the superior (although the fact it features the heptarchy, which I’m fairly sure was debunked years ago, gives me some pause for thought).

So let’s leave aside who’s right, and consider the tone of the two pieces of writing. The academics’ letter is staid and considered, and while it's clearly based on opinion as much as fact, the opinions in question are about policy, not about those who make it. Gove's article, by contrast, is hysterical and combative and assumes that anyone who doesn't agree with him is a subversive element that needs to be utterly crushed. In the Gove-ite view of the universe, you're either with him or against him. It's the sort of education policy document one might get from Pope Urban II.

Does this matter? If Gove is right – and I can't say for certain that he's not – then does the tone he uses to make his case really make any difference?

It does, for two reasons. The first is that it alienates the middle ground. There are those (I am one) who agree with Gove's aims, but are unconvinced by his methods. Every time he lumps us all together as nothing more than a bunch of Trots, it makes us less willing to listen, and less content to offer the benefit of the doubt. In other words, Gove’s endless rhetoric about the implacable enemies of reform is creating the very monolithic establishment that he claims he’s out to destroy. Just consider the cognitive dissonance required to write the line "Stephen Twigg chose to side with the Marxists" to see what I mean.

But there’s a more important reason why the them-and-us routine is A Bad Thing: it leads to bad policy.

There are problems with a number of coalition schools policies. Questions over how you scale up good academy chains while clamping down on weak ones; over how to find buildings for new schools; over how we’re going to find a quarter of a million extra school places by this September. All these problems have been looming for a while.

So why have they not been addressed? Because, one suspects, that those who pointed them out were instantly dismissed as wreckers and enemies of promise. By questioning the government, they instantly showed themselves to be another part of the Blob. I can’t help but thinking that, if Gove was more open to criticism, he’d be more likely to spot when he’d made a mistake.

Michael Gove. Photograph: Getty Images

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.

Photo: Getty
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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.