Vince Cable has made the mistake of being accidentally correct

I’m not a huge fan of Vince Cable*, but two things strike me about his statement that “teachers know nothing about the world of work“. The first relates to general dissatisfaction I have with the nature of a lot of discourse about education, and especially about teachers: hordes of people turned up on Twitter berating Cable for having said it, and saying how mean he was being about teachers. The same thing happens every time Gove, or indeed Tristram Hunt, says anything about teachers: teachers complain they are being disrespected, as though no politician can be permitted to talk about education without first saying how absolutely lovely and hardworking teachers are. This is plainly absurd and a mark of a profession peculiarly uncertain about its status. Do we honestly need to be love-bombed by Westminster’s finest every time they speak about our field? Are we so unsure of the value of our work that we need politicians to tell us it is any good? It is a tedious discourse, taking offence when it’s probably best left lying where it is (which would, incidentally, have the effect of blunting a significant number of the DfE’s media attacks, but that’s a different matter). It was abundantly clear that Cable wasn’t writing off all teachers as idle shysters who’d managed to bandy access to a blackboard into a lifelong laze in front of the class, so the outrage was utterly unnecessary. It was also unhelpful, because it obscured a chance to discuss something quite interesting (and this is my second point): Cable is pretty much correct. Cable’s point was clearly that teachers are not especially good at preparing their students for the world of work. Not only is this mostly true, I would argue that it is pretty much as it is supposed to be. Between myself and the state, quite a lot of money has been spent training to make me a history teacher. My job is to induct students as best I can into the discipline of history. That I should necessarily be expected to also acquire to skills of a careers advisor and interview coach seems to me a misallocation of resources: I have one job the state pays me to do, why do I need another one? This is not to suggest that schools shouldn’t take a very large role in careers training, but why expect a profession made up, in the main, of people who pursued academic training in a particular subject to suddenly acquire a profound insight into how to persuade organisations as diverse as Gregg’s and GoldmanSachs to give students a job. I’ve had five jobs since I left university: one I was elected to, and the other four were decided by interviews in schools, three of which involved teacher a demonstration lesson. None of these experiences are even remotely representative of the ways most students will find work. This requires dedicated attention and skills, yet career responsibility in schools remains largely an additional responsibly put on top of a teaching load. Of course, many such teachers do their jobs well, but inevitably most don’t have either the time or the space to focus on developing the strength and depth of careers advice, links to the local employment market and quality work discovery and work experiences that are required to make careers training truly effective. Fundamentally, this needs to be a role that belongs to someone full time; at present, the non-teaching full time staff of a school include admins, site supervisors, nurses, EWOs and data managers. In such ways are the things schools find important reflected. Full time careers officers in school are a vital part of improving careers advice. But a final point, and this is what Cable should really have been criticised for: although schools should be the site of great careers advice, a significant portion of the responsibility should fall on companies (like those led by those Cable was talking to) themselves to build links to schools. That’s the message he should carry to them: if you want schools to help you, it’s time to help them. * I’m not a huge fan of any of the Coalition LibDems, notwithstanding that their politics are more congenial to the Labour Party than their Tory colleagues: it will take a long time for the generation sold a pup by the LibDems on tuition fees to trust in politics again. They were probably right to put up fees, but when your only distinctive policy is that you won’t, and you make absolutely no effort to defend that policy (as the memoirs of the Coalitions negotiations make clear they didn’t) you’re engaging in pretty cynical politics.

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Tis Pity He’s A Law (Unto Himself)

The BBC experimented with a new form of public history over the weekend, in which a lecture presented by Niall Ferguson on the causes of World War One became the keystone of a debate on air and online, which as well as being open to all those who tuned in and had internet access included a truly stupendous lineup of academic historians. Despite some misgivings, about the format generally and some of Ferguson’s history specifically, I think the idea was a great one and should definitely be repeated. I thought I’d jot down here some more comments about the whole thing. The History Ferguson’s star power was clearly a big selling point for the BBC, and he very much took pride of place – I’ll address some of the problems that created in a moment, but I also wanted to highlight some of the very real problems in Ferguson’s historical argument. Ferguson is no academic lightweight and has written directly (in a book also titled The Pity of War) on the points he covered in the programme. Moreover his central thesis–that WW1 was a straightforward conflict of imperial conquest, and Britain would have been better off out of it–is on the face of it a reasonable interpretation of the facts. However, in arguing his case, there were points where Ferguson dismissed or failed to even mention evidence in a manner that was slapdash at best: commenting that a higher percentage of the French population was in military service than that of Germany ignores the fact that France has a smaller population; bringing up the spate of German surrenders in the closing months of the war whilst failing to mention the Ludendorff Offensives of early 1918 avoids making clear that the Allies decisively defeated them (thus undermining Ferguson’s argument about the superiority of German soldiery, itself based on some suspect use of statistics which ignored the strategic disposition of forces); implying that a Kaiserreich customs-union would have been substantially similar to the European Union is a piece of counter-factual reasoning too obtuse to be of any use (as someone else commented, “What if the Aztecs had attacked, what then?”). These are the kinds of historical cheap shots which undermined the seriousness of Ferguson’s argument, and for the first time made clear to me why he is rumoured to be the basis of Irwin in The History Boys, offering easy controversy as a substitute for complex reasoning. The Format That said, given that Ferguson was clearly calling the shots on this programme, he deserves significant credit for being willing to cede a lot of screen time to a line up of academics who, by and large, tore his argument to pieces. Heather Jones, Gary Sheffield, David Reynolds and Hew Strachan amongst others responded to Ferguson’s arguments robustly. This was by far the best part of the programme and the BBC should be congratulated for having gathered such an impressive line up… But the very fact of how impressive the line up was made it frustrating that we didn’t hear more from them, and more discussion between them. The role assigned to the historians was to dispute with Ferguson, and given how outlandish some of his claims were and how easily knocked down, this seemed a waste. I’d have preferred if the programme had addressed itself to, say, five key questions about the war and asked a different historian to take each in turn before that historian could chair discussion on that issue. Gary Sheffield suggested to me that the BBC is overly obsessed with celebrity historians: my only response is that every single historian interviewed that night could clearly carry a programme on their own, indeed some of them already have, so why not expand the pool of celebrity historians? Other aspects of the format also jarred. All the shiny special effects were unnecessary, and indeed illustrated to be so by the occasional sudden flashes of AJP Taylor talking directly to camera with nary an animated map or neon bar graph (though he was rocking a quite exceptional green shirt and tie combo). The “final thought” speech from Ferguson at the end was not just a bit cheesy, it also summed up a debate that hadn’t happened (i.e., one in which anybody else had agreed with Ferguson). Overall, Ferguson had too much of a commanding role, was at times bending the rules of history to suit himself and left a sense that most historical debate is just statements of personal preference rather than evidenced rigorous debate. But all-in-all, The Pity of War was a welcome mark of the BBC treating history as a serious endeavour and historians as people worth putting on the tele. Now, if it can only strengthen that commitment, it’ll be doing very well indeed.

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