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Is wokery to be added to our school curriculums?

The issues of 2020 should not be allowed to dominate the curriculum

Forty or so years ago, the raucous 1979 American police comedy movie Hot Stuff featured posters showing an anarchic and disorganised rabble joyriding on a motorcycle decked out in selected bits of police gear. Over the picture appeared the words “You can’t turn this mob over to the cops. They are the cops.” One could be forgiven for thinking that there are echoes of this in the latest episode of the culture wars between the government and woke orthodoxy as they affect education, and in particular the training of teachers.

This output from Teach First is in almost every respect completely wrong-headed

Last week educational charity Teach First, a body heavily involved in the government’s programme to improve teacher instruction, published a very interesting official paper. Entitled Missing pages: Increasing Racial Diversity in the Literature we Teach, it called explicitly for a radical redrawing of the kind of literature taught in English schools. The problem, the argument went, was that not nearly enough of it had been written by black and ethnic minority authors. Its view was that at least a quarter of all books set for GCSE study needed to be BAME-written: a fund had to be set up to buy books wholesale to ensure this transition happened as soon as possible. At the same time, the teachers who taught English literature needed themselves to be trained to consider inequalities at all times and teach accordingly. 

Britain, the report told us, was filled with different histories, cultures and perspectives, and this had to be reflected in what was taught. It was vital that what pupils were given to read had to deal with contemporary issues, and in particular with the experience of minorities. Race, and racial inequalities, needed to be at the forefront of discussion. Zadie Smith and Malorie Blackman had to be up there with Charles Dickens. It was, indeed, unacceptable in 2020 that a pupil could study GCSE English literature without reading any work by a black author.

A number of points arise from this episode. We can begin with the most obvious. However well-written, well-received and well-meaning (and it is all three), this output from Teach First is in almost every respect completely wrong-headed.

The issues of 2020 should only form a relatively small part of what we teach

For one thing, the suggestion that one’s appreciation of a book should depend on the race of the person who wrote is problematic. It may be consistent with a vague adherence to postmodern orthodoxy, where standpoint and perceived power imbalance is everything and the substance as such comparatively unimportant; but if the aim is to give pupils a love for reading, suggesting that they should first ask about the skin colour of the author of a book they are being asked to read is a curious way of going about it. What matters is whether it is well-written: if it is, one would have thought it far simpler just to give them the book and see if they like it.

Furthermore, playing up the importance of relevance to a pupil’s lived experience sounds very good. But it suffers from the difficulty that it conflates current affairs and culture, to a large degree subsuming the latter in the former. They are, however, very far from being the same thing. The exploration of a country’s culture, which (one hopes) is what a reading of its literature is all about, is fundamentally about an overall view of its shared past and the values that have contributed to it. Of course, the issues of 2020 are of course part of that culture, but they are a relatively small one; it follows that they should equally form a relatively small part of what we teach. 

Indeed, the fact that a particular book reflects a pupil’s contemporary experience is – perhaps counter-intuitively – a reason against teaching it rather than an imperative to bring it forward. For children of any culture, and for that matter for adults, the reason why books and literature are so important is precisely that they explore matters that are not familiar, expanding the reader’s imagination and taking him into strange and exotic worlds. An aim to reflect what happens to the reader every day is tame indeed.

An English literature class is not the place to promote the agenda of BLM

Added to all this is also an open political dimension. There are, predictably, overt references to Black Lives Matter in the report as an event which has informed some of its conclusions. However, whatever one thinks of the controversial and often poisonous aims of BLM, there is a very respectable argument that an English literature class is not the place to promote or discuss them. Nor is it helpful to suggest that the issue of race and inequality more generally should feature large in such classes. To the contrary: one might have hoped English classes were better used in order to allow pupils an escape from such matters, and stress not what is different between the young, but what they have in common.

However, leave aside for a moment the sheer misguidedness of the report. There is something even more interesting than the views expressed in it, and that is the nature of the organisation that produced it. Teach First is not some radical group of activists dedicated to wokedom and postmodern chic. On the contrary: it is as blue-chip an establishment charity as you can get.

This is not the first time that Teach First has shown its attachment to radicalism chic

Founded in 2002 as a result of an initiative by no less a person than Prince Charles – and given a supporting boost since then by corporate gurus McKinsey & Co – its aim is to reduce inequality in educational provision by raising the standards in state schools. The way it operates is to take potential educational high-flyers with good degrees, to supervise them meticulously, fund their training and teaching practice in disadvantaged schools. (Readers with long memories may recall the BBC3 documentary Tough Young Teachers in 2014, which followed some of its trainees.) It receives large amounts of government money to do this, and these funds are supplemented by an impressive list of corporate sponsors, including PwC, Deloitte, Barclays, Goldman Sachs, Accenture, and Capita. Prince Charles remains overall patron to this day, assisted by a former special adviser to his charities.

Yet it is this organisation that has produced a report of a kind which seems absolutely at odds with the views of the government that so munificently funds it, and which would call for immediate condemnation from Boris Johnson if any attempt was made to implement it. Nor is it the first time that Teach First has shown its attachment to fashionable radicalism chic. Three years ago it briefly hit the headlines when it invited Toby Young to address its conference, asked him to contribute to its blog, and then snubbed him by suppressing his contribution when he dared to suggest a possible if tenuous connection between IQ and educational achievement. Such opinions, it said, were “against our values and vision.”

Connection with the establishment is no protection against the infiltration of foolish notions

What is happening? Quite simply, we (and the government) now need to recognise two things about civil society organisations. First, connection with the establishment is no protection against the infiltration of foolish notions. Whatever Prince Charles may think of the deeply divisive ideas expressed by Teach First (something one might be interested to know), that organisation is no more immune than any other to influences that naturally cause it to veer to the left as time passes. One such is the tendency of activists to apply for jobs within them when they come up, and for trustees to appoint them on the basis of their displayed enthusiasm. The other is the understandable instinct of well-meaning managers to avoid offence and controversy: it is so much easier to accept whatever easy-listening left-wing views may be out there, rather than thinking deeply and challenging them. 

Secondly, the involvement of commercial organisations in charities is equally ineffectual as a maintainer of sober common sense. In the past the raw interests of capitalism might have acted as a bulwark against wacky ideas from armchair radicals. Today, however, the need to be seen to keep up with modish ideas is as much a feature of corporate as of radical chic. Not for nothing have Google UK, Sky and Body Shop supported the “trans women are women” orthodoxy, and Yorkshire Tea backed BLM against its critics. 

In short, co-operation between government and civil society organisations is all very well as a means of avoiding the problems caused by the staid ways of politicians and civil servants. But in education as in the rest of life, governments must choose their partners carefully, and be prepared to ditch them if they veer off in a direction in what looks like the wrong direction. Somebody might even start asking some awkward questions about Teach First, and whether it is still the kind of body a government supposedly concerned with the elimination of academic wokery and the restoration of pride in our own culture wishes to entrust with one of its flagship teacher training projects.

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