Gove invokes Gladstone – and then repeats data known to be flawed

Janet Downs's picture
Mr Gove, the orator, invoked the spirit of another famous orator, Gladstone, in his recent Cambridge speech. He described how Gladstone flattered the intelligence of his audience by speaking of Pericles, Virgil and Dryden and how such a speech couldn’t be made today because politicians and the electorate are too thick to appreciate such erudition.

In his Midlothian Campaign, Gladstone spoke to crowds of thousands and was treated like a visiting celebrity. Mr Gove thinks that everyone in the “audience of [presumably only male] agricultural labourers and mineworkers” would have caught every utterance. Gladstone addressed his listeners with no modern communication aids – no giant screens or public address systems. It is impossible that every word was heard. It is more likely that the mass rallies would have been like the scene in the Life of Brian where those listening to the Sermon on the Mount from far away thought that Jesus had said, “Blessed are the cheesemakers”.

“To aspire to be educated…” is a noble ambition – in this Mr Gove is correct. But his idea of education is focused too narrowly on the classics. It is the themes that are important not who advanced them. Readers can learn much about the promotion of national identity from the funeral oration of Pericles, yes, but there are other sources, literary, historical and topical, from which to learn the same lesson.

Mr Gove was correct when he said, “I think any society is a better society for taking intellectual effort more seriously, for rewarding intellectual ambition, for indulging curiosity, for supporting scholarship, for feting those who teach and celebrating those who learn.” But he undermines all this by insinuating that scholarship is only found in academies, only young teachers are worthy of being “feted”, and only academies, especially if run by chains, can help the disadvantaged.

If Gladstone were speaking today would he do what Mr Gove did – use data that he knows is disputed to underpin his argument? Would he imply that good practice can only be found in those organisations of which he approves? And did Gladstone give the impression that he was trying just a little too hard in mentioning as many intellectual heavyweights as possible?

Mr Gove mocked the discussion in classrooms of examples of contemporary culture. “English Language GCSE,” he says, “can include listening to tape recordings of Eddie Izzard and the Hairy Bikers.” Mr Gove seems unaware that popular culture can lead to the study of heavier texts. Comparing a TV soap episode with Dickens, for example, can stimulate a discussion about how the emotional arc can hook readers. Listening to a pop song can give resonance to an historical event - “Masses against the Classes” by the Manic Street Preachers, for example, leads us to Gladstone:

“All the world over, I will back the masses against the classes.”

I wonder why that quotation wasn’t in Gove’s speech.

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Andrew Old's picture
Thu, 01/12/2011 - 23:12

Is the headline correct on this?

Oh, and just because someone finds your argument ridiculous, doesn't mean they are "unaware" of it.

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 02/12/2011 - 09:16

Andrew - I will clarify the headline so that you may better judge whether it is correct:

1 "Gove invokes Gladstone" - Mr Gove mentioned Gladstone several times.
2 "and then repeats data known to be flawed" - Mr Gove described how UK pupils had fallen down international league tables in the last ten years. Yet these figures can only be upheld by using the 2000 OECD PISA test results for the UK. These have, as regular readers will know, been found to be flawed by the OECD, the organisation which originally published them. OECD warned last year that these figures could not be used for comparison: (paragraph 2, page 1, and footnote)

Andrew Old's picture
Fri, 02/12/2011 - 09:29

That doesn't appear anywhere in the article.

Adrian Elliott's picture
Fri, 02/12/2011 - 12:02

Interesting comment about how many of the crowd actually heard anything. I thought this many years ago when I saw a photograph of Gladstone addressing a huge open-air crowd. The caption referred to his great oratorical powers but it was clearly impossible for the vast majority of the crowd to have heard a word given its size.

He must have been aware of this and this raises the issue as to whether the references to Pericles etc were really for the crowd's benefit or for the readers of the Times over the next few days.

Certainly, it tells you nothing about the standards of nineteenth century education.

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 02/12/2011 - 17:28

You are correct, Andrew, I didn’t mention the faulty data in the article. I assumed that readers would know I was referring to the flawed OECD PISA figures for the UK in 2000 as I have mentioned them so many times. I also assumed that readers would realise that Mr Gove had repeated the misleading figures in his speech. However, it was discourteous of me to expect readers to have understood this. I will, therefore, make it more explicit. This is what Mr Gove said:

“In the last ten years we [UK] have fallen behind other countries. We have fallen from 4th in the world for the quality of our science education to16th. 7th in the world for literacy to 25th. 8th in the world for maths to 28th”

This statement can only be upheld by using data which had been found by the OECD (regrettably after publication) to be statistically unreliable. The OECD issued a retraction and warned that the figures should not be used for comparison. Mr Gove, Mr Gibb, the Schools Minister, and those parts of the media which are hostile to English state education continue to ignore this prohibition.

Readers who want to read the OECD warning can follow the link in my post above.

And, of course, Mr Gove forgot to mention that UK pupils were above average in Science in the PISA 2009 tests.

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