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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Mass surveillance doesn’t work – it’s time to go back to the drawing board

Lacking an answer to the problem of radicalisation, the government has confused tactics with strategy.

This week saw the release of not one but two parliamentary reports on the government’s proposed new spying law, the first from the Intelligence and Security Committee and the second from the Joint Committee on the Draft Investigatory Powers Bill.

Both reports suggested the government hasn’t fully made the case for some elements of mass surveillance put forward in the Bill. But neither went so far as to ask the most important question in this debate – does mass surveillance actually work?

The proposed law, known as the Investigatory Powers Bill, looks set to enshrine almost all the government’s mass surveillance powers and capabilities in a single law for the first time. It has been touted by the Prime Minister as a vital weapon in the UK’s fight against Islamic State.

Most of the noise about mass surveillance since the Snowden revelations has predictably come from civil liberties groups. But the privacy and safeguards debate skips over the highly dubious assumption underpinning the Investigatory Powers Bill – that mass surveillance will stop terrorists.

In fact, mass surveillance is not only ineffective but downright counter-productive.

A 2009 report by the US government found that only 1.2 per cent of tips provided to the FBI by mass surveillance techniques made a significant contribution to counter-terrorism efforts. Another recent study by the New America Foundation found that National Security Agency mass data collection played a role in, at most, 1.8 per cent of terrorism cases examined. By contrast, traditional investigative methods initiated 60 per cent of investigations. Suddenly mass surveillance doesn’t seem so vital.

This is because the technology is far from perfect. As computer scientist Ray Corrigan has written, “Even if your magic terrorist-catching machine has a false positive rate of 1 in 1,000—and no security technology comes anywhere near this—every time you asked it for suspects in the UK it would flag 60,000 innocent people.”

Perversely, this lack of precision means mass surveillance can actually frustrate counter-terrorism efforts. Michael Adebolajo, who brutally murdered Fusilier Lee Rigby in 2013, was so well known to the security services prior to the attack they had even tried to recruit him as an informant. Yet insufficient monitoring later on let him slip through the net. The same thing happened with the Hebdo killers. Mass surveillance means intelligence analysts are forced to spend their time fruitlessly sifting through endless reams of data rather than carrying out the targeted monitoring and detection that’s really needed.

Counter-radicalisation experts have meanwhile argued that mass surveillance may alienate Muslim communities, making them distrustful of the police and possibly even contributing to radicalisation. In 2014, Jonathan Russell from the counter-extremism group Quilliam wrote that the “introduction of a sweeping [mass surveillance] law…will be exploited by extremists to show that the government wants to spy on its own citizens [and] that all Muslims are suspected of being terrorists.” This will set alarm bells ringing for those who know the fight against terrorism will ultimately be won only by preventing radicalisation in the first place.

And therein lies the real problem with this Bill. It’s tactics, not strategy. If we stop for a second and think about what the problem is – namely that thousands of young Britons are at risk of radicalisation – we’d never prescribe mass surveillance as the answer. It would be nonsensical to propose something that risks making alienation worse.

The trouble is we don’t have a convincing answer to the actual problem. The government’s counter-radicalisation strategy is mired in controversy. So instead a different question is being posed. Not how do we stop people from signing up to join Islamic State, but how do we gather as much communications data as possible? GCHQ have an answer for that. It’s a classic case of confusing a tactic – and a highly unreliable one at that – with a strategy actually designed to tackle the root of the problem.

Never mind our privacy for a moment. For the sake of our security, it’s time to go back to the drawing board and think of something better.

 

Andrew Noakes is Senior Advocacy Officer at the Remote Control Project. He writes about covert and unconventional methods of warfare, counter-terrorism, and human rights.