When politicians make speeches I understand that they are, by and large, made for a political purpose. They will use language and, sometimes, facts in a way that ‘helps’ the reader to understand and subscribe to their point of view. I do, however, have a preference for politicians to get basic, checkable facts contained in their speeches correct. Where they don’t it does leave the impression that either they couldn’t understand the detail they are talking about (i.e. they lack understanding) or that they are misstating information to make their point more compelling (they are deliberately trying to mislead the reader).
Yesterday Elizabeth Truss, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Education and Childcare, made a speech to Reform with the title “Improving Teaching”. The opening few paragraphs are about Assessing Pupil Progress (APP). Six paragraphs in comes the first error. APP wasn’t introduced in 1998. It was piloted in 2006-08 and was made available for schools to use generally after this. We’ll ignore the well constructed, but nonetheless disingenuous sentence that follows. Use of APP was never mandated by government, it was only recommended. APP was an optional tool created with the intention of helping. For some it did, for others it didn’t.
For the record, as any teacher will tell you, assessing pupil progress is a complex task. To enable progress to be shown requires a lot of detailed record keeping. The teacher has to ensure that their facts are correct. The politicians approach appears to be “this is all very complicated and I find it hard to consider all this detail – the best solution is to scrap it all”. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that APP was perfect. It was much less than that. It was a start at showing the complexity and trying to deal with it. As with many other things that sprang from National Strategies there was a failure to own and then adapt the materials. This was not a failure of capability, but one of capacity. All the money went into the Strategies, with little left to provide the space in schools to innovate around the materials they produced. This mistake is about to be repeated.
For me, the word ‘disingenuous’ captures the sprit of the whole speech. When school leaders are making teachers use a disliked tool, they are “bosses”. Later in the speech they are “heads”, with “freedoms”. Supporting guidance and materials sourced by government and provided free of charge is characterised as the “great clunking fist of central government reached down into every classroom. Teachers felt they were being told how to teach.” On the other hand materials printed by publishers and sold to schools is characterised as “more great programmes” and “coherent resources for teachers to use with the new curriculum”. I’m sure they are. By and large they will have been written by the same people who wrote the “cumbersome” materials that were provided free of charge. The educational authoring community is a small one (and generally poorly paid).
Speeches that contain basic errors of fact don’t fill me with confidence in the arguments contained within. Where those mistakes are laid alongside disingenuous statements I am led to the conclusion that the purpose of the speech isn’t to inform or illuminate, but simply to convince, using whatever means available, fair or foul.
The balance between the two in this speech leaves me unconvinced.