29/07/16
‘The Blunders of our Governments’ by Anthony King and Ivor Crewe[1] is an extraordinary account of a disturbing catalogue of failed policies. It painstakingly describes how successive UK governments have wasted eye-watering sums of money and caused hardship and suffering to countless people with poorly planned and researched policies. A number of well-known figures from the world of policy describe the book as ‘essential reading’ for current and future politicians. Whilst most of the examples are not drawn from education policy any school leader will remember policies which display similarly depressing characteristics.

The latest re-ignition of the grammar school debate by the the group ‘Conservative Voice’ calls for the ban on new grammar schools to be lifted. Extensive evidence from research, all of which demonstrates how damaging such a policy would be for the life chances of hundreds of thousands of young people is being steadfastly ignored.

King and Crewe identify two characteristics of many of the blunders they have identified: ‘Cultural Disconnect’ and ‘Group Think’.

‘Cultural Disconnect’ occurs when politicians and civil servants make assumptions that are radically wrong, ‘projecting onto others values, attitudes and whole ways of life that are not remotely like their own’. Whilst we all do this to some extent they are disastrous when individuals forget to ‘wear their hat’ as professionals.

The second characteristic is ‘Group Think’ – an idea developed by an American psychologist Irving J. Janis during the 60’s. It is defined as ‘when the members of any face to face group feel under pressure to maintain the group’s cohesion’, ‘when the group feels threatened by an outside group or comes, for whatever reason, to regard one or more outside individuals or groups as alien or hostile’. The group then becomes ‘intolerant of dissenting voices and seeks to silence them…. They are ‘increasingly reluctant to engage with outsiders and to seek out information that might run counter to any emerging consensus.’ They are ‘liable to persuade themselves that the majority of their opponents are, if not actually wicked, then at least stupid, misguided and probably self-interested’. I am certain that I will not the only person who is reminded of Michael Gove’s now notorious designation of the ‘blob’ by this description.

It seems to me that both of these features accurately describe what is taking place in the grammar school lobby. As numerous commentators including the National Association of Secondary Moderns have pointed out it is difficult to find anyone who is advocating the reintroduction of them although that is the natural consequence of opening Grammar Schools. This is of course because many advocates of this policy have no knowledge of Secondary Moderns or many of the people who attended them and rarely mix with them. With few exceptions they attended selective schools themselves and would wish the same for their own children. A classic example of ‘cultural disconnect’ and ‘group think’.

The fact of the matter is that the advocates of this policy have not thought out the consequences. and dismiss the mass of evidence that proves them wrong. They fail to see how their proposal contradicts and undermines the commitment of their own Prime Minister and the new Education Secretary of State to social mobility and social justice and the government’s equally important commitment to ‘closing the attainment gap’.

In his outstanding analysis of the outcome of the EU referendum broadcast on 26th June Andrew Marr spoke of our ‘deeply divided country’ [2] in which the ‘liberal urban class’ in London and the South East ‘spoke but didn’t listen’. The emerging ‘group think’ of the proponents of this policy would be well advised to reflect on this before further deepening the divisions in our society.

The reintroduction of grammar schools has all the hallmarks of another policy blunder. Let us hope that the proponents of this policy might reflect on King and Crewe’s analysis before deciding to condemn generations of young people to failure at the age of 11.




References:


1. The Blunders of our Governments Anthony King and Ivor Crewe Oneworld 2013
2. Andrew Marr commentary https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jE5gsdEeCLI