Archive for March, 2011

A Rich Mix – The toff Toby Young belittles vocational subjects

Last Thursday, 3rd March, at the appropriately named ‘Rich Mix’ venue in East London was the double header book launch of Katherine’s Birbalsingh’s book ‘To miss with love’ and debate about ‘What should our children be taught’ in relation to the recently announced National Curriculum Review.

The event was slightly bizarre mixing as it did a sense of glitziness around the book launch, with a large cohort of Birbalsingh’s invited guests there to offer support to her views in the debate as much as anything to do with the book, and a spectrum of speakers including Toby Young, champion of Latin and all things classical (made compulsory for every pupil in the land), Shakespeare fan and technology luddite Dr Ralph Townsend, head of Winchester School,  inspirational primary teacher Dawn Hallybone, disruptive ex Ofsted inspector Tristram Shepard, e-learning entrepreneur and defender of all things not Latin Donald Clark, and of course the book launcher herself, Katherine Birbalsingh.

We knew this was going to be a controversial evening, Clark and Birbalsingh having already previously crossed swords after her presentation at the Learning Without Frontiers conference in January in which she extolled the virtues of Latin, which at the time he furiously repudiated.

And controversial it was, but centred more around comments made by Toby Young extolling the virtues of all things classical, but worse, much worse, totally belittling the whole of vocational education (and by implication the kids who undertake it), singling out hospitality and hairdressing studies for his venomous, hateful comments.

As anticipated Donald Clark dished out a robust and reasoned refutation of the idea promulgated by Toby Young that Latin provides the basis for learning other Romance languages, citing the work In Search of the Benefits of Latin by Haas and Stern (2003) in the Journal of Educational Psychology that in controlled studies finds no evidence whatsoever that learning Latin give s any advantage in learning other languages.

Toby Young had presented no hard evidence for his view, seemingly relying on such inane evidence as the fact that Mark Zuckerberg, creator of Facebook, learned Latin to try and support his ‘classical education’ theorising. Actually Mark Zuckerberg also studied Psychology and Computer studies, subjects far more likely to have contributed to the invention of Facebook, but with little space in Young’s Free School.

As things wore on with the other speakers, Dr Townsend seemed to be boring himself during an over long (they were only supposed to have 5 minutes each) bumbling monologue that meandered from the reasonable comment that there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution for education, to describing an education strategy in his own school including compulsory Latin and Shakespeare, that clearly seems to attempt just that. Mercifully, eventually, he just sort of ran out of things to say, and that was that, although he did later admit, in response to questions, that the only Latin that some of his pupils came away with having completed their course was the phrase ‘in flagrante delecto’. Worth doing that course, then.

In stark contrast, Dawn Hallybone, proper, real working primary teacher, delighted with her usual dose of reality and inspiration, bemoaning along the way the abandonment of the findings of the Rose Review that very much broadened out the education landscape for primary pupils. Amazingly, a member of the audience, seemingly rather worse for wear by the free wine by this time, accused her of complacency. A less complacent teacher you could never hope to find, as I reassured her afterwards.

This leaves the inimitable Tristram Shepard, ex, somewhat disruptive, Ofsted inspector, who began with his amusing comparison of Goves Ebac to events in the Olympic games, with ‘the surprise announcement that henceforth only the 100 metres will be awarded a gold medal’, with other events having their place in the pecking order, right down to team sports, and football and boxing that will be adjudged to have no real value so will be awarded no medals at all.  Interestingly this is mirrored in the ticket pricing for the 2012 (peoples) games where there is an unexplained absence of £20 tickets (min ticket price £50) for the most popular athletics finals including, of course , the most popular of them all, the 100 metres, pricing rising to an extraordinary £725.

This is a man who believes, as I do, that actually we need to transform the education system so that it is appropriate for the 21st century, not tinker around the edges. More independent learning, with less sitting quietly in rows in class.

This latter, sitting quietly in rows in class is what the final speaker (who was on first and last) Katherine Birbalsingh, would have us believe is the way ahead. Or would she? Her views flit around all over the place, one minute we have to be really tight on discipline, learn Latin like they do at Eton, discipline the kids to free the teachers, and next minute she is saying she doesn’t care if kids don’t learn Latin, she likes the inspirational teaching of Dawn Hallybone, but she feels we just have to ‘pull back a little bit’ from the creeping liberalism that is ruining our education. Nothing consistent, nothing with any evidence to back it up.

Her contribution to the debate, was followed a little later with the reading of a passage from her book, and an enthusiastic, although almost hysterical, and rambling rant about how she loves her school children, who she dosesn’t currently teach, and how we would not believe the deprivation and general unruliness she has come across in the classroom.

Well I think we would, but actually as pointed out by a friend who wrote an article about her in the Guardian, and at her behest has worked the very kids she was teaching, they are really not as challenging as she would like us all to think.

Overall the event was amusing, and raised some useful debate, at the time, and since, through various blogposts, but I don’t see anything coming out of it that will really make any useful contributions to the actual National Curriculum Review. But then I don’t think that was really Graham Brown-Martins real intention in organising it, with a little help from BESA and Penguin.

The particular mix of speakers added a whiff of disruption to it, and if nothing else it showed me just what an odious person Toby Young is to the point that I now feel sufficiently comfortable not to spend any more time on his pathetic ramblings, but simply ignore him instead. Although heaven help the pupils of the free school he is helping to establish (not ‘his’ free school as he likes to call it), who may well come out of it completely unemployable, a fact that, by his own admission, is fine by him.

Potential parents, take note.

March 7, 2011 at 6:48 pm Leave a comment


Mick Landmann on education, digital technology, and the 21st century

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