1. Michael Gove and the new enemies of promise

    This is a piece by Michael Gove, from yesterday’s Daily Mail, which my friend Mark angrily posted on Facebook earlier:

    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-2298146/I-refuse-surrender-Marxist-teachers-hell-bent-destroying-schools-Education-Secretary-berates-new-enemies-promise-opposing-plans.html#ixzz2OS5Iknzs

    It’s essentially a riposte to some lefties who criticised the coalition’s education policy, but that’s not important right now.

    In it, Gove writes:

    Our education system should give all children the tools they need – mastery of English,  fluency in arithmetic, the ability to reason scientifically, a knowledge of these islands and their history – to take their place as confident, modern citizens.

    I think we’d all agree with that, yeah? He goes on to say:

    Survey after survey has revealed disturbing historical ignorance, with one teenager in five believing Winston Churchill was a  fictional character while 58 per cent think Sherlock Holmes was real.

    I get a bit wary when people try to justify political arguments with factoids. Ages ago, I read a piece by Jeremy Clarkson about declining standards in education, in which he illustrated his thesis with quotes that seemed to have been taken from the “Dumb Britain” column in Private Eye.
    But Michael Gove isn’t a slightly amusing right-wing newspaper columnist, he’s the Secretary of State for Education, or something, probably. So I did some top-quality investigative googling to see where he’s getting his information from.
    It turns out that both the Churchill and Holmes statistics were taken from some kind of survey UKTV Gold did in 2008, presumably to promote something or other. The original press release doesn’t seem to be on their website any more, but I found it on the Internet Archive with my mad research skills. It says UKTV “commissioned” the poll, but doesn’t say who carried it out or how they did it, only that they polled 3,000 people. (Maybe Michael Gove has seen the underlying research. I expect he probably has.)
    Interestingly, the scope of the poll wasn’t limited to “teenagers”; and while the press release does confirm that 21% of “under 20s” (it doesn’t specify a lower age limit) thought that Churchill was a fictitious character, the 58% who thought Holmes was real is only attributed to “the British public”, with no age range specified.
    What’s more troubling: kids thinking a 19th-century fictional character was real? Or a cabinet minister quoting a spurious PR-driven survey as fact, and SOMEHOW MANAGING TO GET IT WRONG?
    Our education system should give all children the tools they need – mastery of English,  fluency in arithmetic, the ability to reason scientifically, a knowledge of these islands and their history – to take their place as confident, modern citizens.
     
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