Parent-led schools and Cambridge PhDs: What more could our children need?

On yesterday’s Marr show, new shadow education secretary Tristram Hunt sought to demonstrate why he’s more than a match for Michael Gove when it comes to academic rigour:

Look, I’ve got a PhD from the University of Cambridge. I’m very lucky. I don’t need to be told about the importance of rigour and standards.”

Take that, Michael “I am a journalist by profession, a politician by accident and a historian in my dreams” Gove. Hunt’s a proper historian, with a doctorate and everything! So ner!

Like all good people I appreciate a comment which might, at least in some parallel universe, deflate Gove’s ego ever so slightly. Nonetheless, I do find Hunt’s approach a little odd. Perhaps it’s because if you repeat it often enough “I’ve got a PhD from the University of Cambridge” begins to sound like Emma Thompson saying “I’ve got a Porsche” in the University Challenge episode of the Young Ones. Or perhaps it’s because I’ve also got a PhD from the University of Cambridge. It’s a nice thing to have, not to mention a privilege. It also requires quite a lot of (admittedly non-backbreaking) work. However, I wasn’t aware it gave one an expert position on “the importance of rigour and standards” for the entire population.

I suppose everyone has different experiences but I do not think of my time at Cambridge as being one in which I learned a great deal about pedagogy or exactitude. I mostly remember wandering around for three years in a state of total panic, feeling that everything was highly competitive but also terribly arbitrary, with lots of secret rules that no one would explain. It may just be me — or rather me and everyone I knew who was also studying for a doctorate — but it often felt as though people completed meaningful research projects in spite, not because, of Cambridge itself. I wouldn’t blame the tutors for this. It’s more an atmosphere, a certain hostility towards people who don’t instantly recognise how academia functions (not that I even know now). I’m all for encouraging students to stretch themselves but I’d hate for this lack of accessibility (which is not the same as dumbing down) to trickle into  our school system too. It’s the Dominic Cummings model of exclusion in action.

Hunt used the Marr show to express his support for “parent-led academies” – providing they’re “good parent-led academies” (phew! That’s the kind of thing which, without a Cambridge PhD, you’d forget to specify!). To be honest, I think there’s a parallel between this and the belief that impressive letters behind your name mean that you know how to appreciate rigour. Just because you have an investment in something doesn’t mean you understand it. I suspect most parents would be rubbish at leading schools, especially those who think they’d be good at it. Yes, I know parents have kids, and parents used to be kids, so in a sense they’ve had “double exposure” to the education system, but let’s be honest, fellow parents: none of this is exactly objective.

According to Hunt,

If you are a group of parents, a group of social entrepreneurs, teachers interested in setting up a school in areas where you need new schools, then the Labour government will be on your side. We are in favour of enterprise and innovation.

I don’t know which makes me shudder the most: the fact that “teachers” appear last on the list (bloody teachers!)  or the focus on “enterprise and innovation” at the expense of, well, teaching, which is pretty tried and tested. I know new stuff is shiny and exciting, whereas old stuff’s always hardcore and super-challenging, but really – what’s so wrong with now that a degree of curriculum change and a good dose of social equality couldn’t fix? The answer always seems to be “teachers”. It’s not that Hunt seems to hate teachers in quite the same way that Gove does, but even so, there’s more than a hint of concern-trolling in his talk of “teacher quality” (it’s not your fault you’re the problem – but you are all the same!).

Perhaps all major political parties should being so polite and just say what’s really wanted: non-teacher-led schools. Schools led by anyone who isn’t a teacher, but ideally people with Cambridge PhDs or children or previous experience of having been a child or just anything, really, just as long as they’re not actual teachers. Then we could have all our children living the Cambridge dream, wandering around in a state of utter confusion, not knowing the rules because there might not be any, but safe in the knowledge that a privileged few will rise to the top. Just like they always do.

6 thoughts on “Parent-led schools and Cambridge PhDs: What more could our children need?

  1. And I’ve got a phd from Oxford! I relate absolutely to your sense of walking around wondering what the rules were. I remember lying on my back in the printing room while my DPhil (as it’s known in Oxford) was trundling out, as though I was in labour. I reckon I know a thing or two about rigour. One of the mot rigorous things I ever experienced was being forced to resign my lectureship in Cambridge because I’d had a baby, and I was refused flexible working. Now that’s rigorous. Your writing is FANTASTIC.

    1. I was pregnant when I graduated from Cambridge. The only time the college praelector spoke to me (we were sitting opposite each other over lunch) was to joke about maternity leave and how it wasn’t like that in his day…

  2. Well, I am of that exclusive club that started a PhD and never managed to finish the damn thing. According to one of my tutors (also a non-finisher) those who completed were the ‘plodders’, we on the other hand were the mercurial, the brilliant, the truly talented. So ner! It comforted me a little, but I wasn’t convinced. It did strike me that very few of the male academics who taught me had PhDs as it hadn’t been a prerequisite for an academic career in the halcyon days of tenure. As a single parent studying for a PhD the cards were stacked against me: it seemed to be a young single man’s game. You had to be willing to move to another part of the country for your first academic job, on a one year contract, and show that you’d been to all the right conferences. Impossible for me at the time. I loved the odd bit of teaching that I did alongside my research. It made me realise that the skills needed for communicating with students were totally separate to one’s success with research and not all academics can translate their brilliant thoughts into effective communication with actual people. I still hate the fact that I’ve not finished it though!

    1. So agree with you about academia being a single man’s game. My partner was an academic but recently retrained as a primary teacher – so much better for security and family life.
      I originally failed my PhD (left the viva in tears after about 15 minutes). I rewrote it when I’d left Cambridge and started a non-academic job, but back then I didn’t have kids (just a hamster). Everyone I know who didn’t finish their PhD is brilliant (but also sick of all those who say “well, you might as well just finish it, now you started” as though it’s something to just dash off of an evening…)

      1. Oh totally agree; my fantasies about completing it ( apart from the fact that I’m very behind with developments in my area of research and you can never make up that lost ground) are tempered by memories of what the process was actually like. I don’t think I’ve ever come so close to total mental breakdown. Something to do with the isolation and the over-concentration of the mind on difficult abstract concepts makes it a very unhealthy occupation. (Love your blog by the way)

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