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21 July 2021

First Thoughts: The classroom culture wars, GB News founders, and cricket gets an update

Boris Johnson’s government has opened a new front in its culture wars: teacher training.

By Peter Wilby

Boris Johnson’s government has opened a new front in its culture wars. Many Tories argue that “woke” university lecturers brainwash schoolteachers during initial training. When he was education secretary under David Cameron, Michael Gove described academics as the “enemies of promise”, guilty of “valuing Marxism… and fighting excellence”.

Now, concealed beneath 55 pages of largely impenetrable jargon, a “market review” sets out a blueprint for wresting control of teacher training away from universities and their “discredited theories”. Drawn up by a panel of “experts”, it says all teachers should be drilled in the “knowledge curriculum”, a fancy term for following Charles Dickens’s Mr M’Choakumchild and stuffing pupils’ heads with facts.

Unless universities follow this standardised programme, they won’t be accredited as providers of qualified teachers. Most regard the proposals as incompatible with academic freedom and some, such as Cambridge, indicate that, if it goes ahead, they will withdraw from teacher training.

In the future, it seems, teachers will be trained in “school hubs” – based in the academy trusts that now control most secondary schools – and learn largely “on the job” as apprentices once did in factories. Whether enough recruits will be attracted to this dreary prospect remains to be seen.

Abandon ship

Six weeks after launch, the TV channel GB News has already parted company with one presenter, the former BBC journalist Guto Harri. He took the knee on air – perhaps in a doomed attempt to hold the channel to its promise to embrace diverse opinions – and was suspended for allegedly breaching “editorial standards”.

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John McAndrew, director of programming and an ex-Sky News executive, has also left. Another presenter, Alastair Stewart, formerly of ITV, is off work nursing a broken hip. The position of Andrew Neil, chairman and star presenter, is more mysterious. You’d expect him to be on the bridge of the stricken ship, but he left for his home in France three weeks ago. Perhaps he and Stewart are staying at home to ensure the channel, which records zero viewers for some shows, has at least two people watching.

“Start-ups are fraught and fractious,” tweets Neil. True enough. But given the history of Ukip, the recruitment of Nigel Farage to present a new show four nights a week, while possibly attracting larger audiences, won’t turn GB News into a more harmonious enterprise.

[see also: As GB News’ ratings collapse, who is it actually for?]

Level best

Here’s an extract from the Prime Minister’s recent speech on levelling up. “Out of all the taxes give every child born five quid at compound interest up to 21, 5 per cent is a hundred shillings and five tiresome pounds multiply by 20 decimal system encourage people to put by money save hundred and 10 and a bit 21 years want to work it out on paper come to a tidy sum more than you think.”

Actually, that’s from James Joyce’s Ulysses. Though expressed in Boris Johnson’s stream-of-consciousness style, it’s a more coherent policy for levelling up than he managed.

Setting the field

The changes to cricket’s format for its new competition the Hundred – “changes of end” after ten balls replace six-ball overs – are less important than the creation of eight teams based on big cities, not traditional counties. Unfortunately, they come a century-and-a-half too late.

In the 1870s cricket had the market for spectator sport almost to itself. But it had no official national competition and when it started one in 1890, it was based on county teams, some playing in small towns such as Taunton and Northampton. Cities such as Wolverhampton never hosted first-class cricket and never produced an England men’s Test player.

The game belonged to an elite culture that saw cities as aesthetically and morally inferior to small towns and pristine countryside. Few expressed it better than this magazine’s first literary editor, JC Squire, who wrote that men would “rather play on a field surrounded by ancient elms and rabbit-haunted bracken than on a better field with flat black lands or gasworks around”.

[see also: The Tories are learning that culture wars make you enemies as well as friends]

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This article appears in the 21 Jul 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Chinese century