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Primary Education News
News Michael Gove's disdain for experts is typical of the laissez-faire ideologues | David Priestland
Consultation on the new curriculum is closed but no matter. Gove, like the rest of his government, will do what he believes in
The public consultation on Michael Gove's plans for a new school curriculum closed on Tuesday. But don't worry too much if you've forgotten to reply. For I think we all know where most responses will end up: either the bin, or in some filing cabinet under "I" for Ignore, along with the recommendations of teachers, professors and other experts.
The education secretary's determination to dismiss informed opinion is typical of a government that has been one of the most hostile to expertise since the second world war. Among teachers and academics Gove's curriculum has prompted astonishment and despair. The latest criticism comes from the Design and Technology Association, which calls the proposed curriculum "unambitious and incoherent", and likely to make England the "laughing stock" of the western world. This isn't surprising given the admission by a Department for Education official that it was drawn up without consultation.
The new history syllabus has also been slated by the major professional bodies – the British Academy, the Royal Historical Society and the Historical Association – for its narrow, nationalistic focus on British history and its rigidly chronological structure. Two of the four expert advisers chosen by Gove himself told him last year that some of his proposals were flying "in the face of evidence from the UK and internationally". But rather than coolly debating with specialist opinion, Gove has responded with ideologically charged contempt, dismissing academics who criticised his plans as "Marxists".
Unfortunately, Gove is not alone among ministers in his disdain for experts and professionals. Iain Duncan Smith is constantly having runins with the many economists and sociologists who accuse him of misrepresenting statistics and research on welfare, while George Osborne blankly rejects the advice of the economics profession unless it suits his ideological agenda. In 2010 fears of an international debt crisis led 20 economists to write to the Sunday Times defending Osborne's austerity. But since then these evidence-sensitive economists have changed their minds. Last year only one would stand by the earlier position, with nine openly calling for a U-turn.
Today it is rare to find an economist who does not accept that Osbornian austerity is needlessly condemning Britain to sluggish growth, ballooning deficits and heightened social tension. Even that enthusiast for free markets, Larry Summers, has described his policies as "plain moronic". But now the chancellor doesn't want to listen to the experts and stubbornly ploughs on, with the feeble acquiescence of much of Britain's ruling elite.
So where does this hostility to expertise come from? Our past is partly to blame. Intellectuals and "boffins" have never enjoyed the elevated status of their continental counterparts. So highly esteemed are academic qualifications in Germany that two ministers have recently resigned over accusations that they plagiarised their doctoral thesis. This would never happen in Britain, where those rare politicians who do possess doctorates are at pains to disguise the fact – witness Dr Gordon Brown.
But disdain for experts is less the result of national traditions than the rise of the free-market right over the past 35 years. Laissez-faire ideologues generally have little time for experts. For them, the market is valuable primarily as a moral mechanism, which supposedly punishes "shirkers" and rewards "strivers", and all would be well if only everybody became market-oriented entrepreneurs. For marketeers, education is about the three Rs and commercially exploitable research, not "blue skies" science or complex ideas. They imagine a country that needs patriotic and disciplined citizens – drilled by rote-learning and nationalistic narratives – not critical thinkers.
When free-market economics seemed to be working in the 1990s and 2000s, the gap between the experts and the market ideologues seemed much narrower. It still seemed plausible to see laissez-fairism as both rational and "virtuous". But since 2008 it has become clear that it is failing, and its political defenders have little option but to rubbish or ignore the experts.
Now it is clear – even to experts on the right – that austerity only increases the deficit. Meanwhile, many conservative educationalists would have to agree that forcing seven-year-olds to learn about the "Anglo-Saxon heptarchy" is more likely to kill stone dead any patriotic love of British history than to engender pride in the nation.
Of course, politics is always about moral vision, and not just the art of the possible. And few would want us to be governed by experts alone. But Britain is becoming worryingly like the US, with its angry, "faith-based" politics – whether those of the Tea Partiers demanding tax cuts for the wealthy, or those of climate change deniers refusing to accept any environmental limits to economic development.
Ten years ago we were sucked into one of America's most disastrous faith-based adventures: the use of force to impose markets and democracy on Iraq. Tony Blair did call in three Iraq specialists to advise him on the likely effects of an invasion. Yet, as one of them recalled, he was in no mood to listen, gripped as he was by "a weird mixture of total cynicism and moral fervour".
Gove, an unapologetic supporter of that war, has learnt nothing from this disaster. Inspired by the arch conviction politician, Margaret Thatcher, he, like his colleagues, remains determined to put faith before reason.