The coming EU referendum, a report on the dominance of the privately-educated and the, er, Eurovision Song Contest are the subjects three of this week’s podcast.
Much hullabaloo erupted on Monday over the education secretary Nicky Morgan’s policy update on religious teaching in schools, which swatted atheists aside whilst pushing Christianity to the fore.
Morgan was forced to revise the policy following a court ruling in November that found atheism, humanism and other non-religious views were being excluded unlawfully from the religious studies curriculum at GCSE level.
The resultant updates have since led to some amusing headlines from newspapers both sympathetic and hostile to faith-heads, which on first sight would lead one to believe the Tories are launching some mass Christian propaganda exercise.
Earlier today my brother, who is currently applying for university, remarked that Tony Blair’s government seemed to contain more graduates of Scottish universities than the government of current prime minister David Cameron.
Education is something of an English obsession, Cameron’s government being notorious for being full of Etonians, many of whom went on the join the Bullingdon Club, a rich boys’ society at Oxford University that is infamous for trashing restaurants.
But whilst many lament the role of Eton and private schools more generally for stocking the establishment, less remarked upon is just how narrow Cameron’s cabinet is when it comes to the universities its members attended.
By and large they come from a single university: the same one that is home to the Bullingdon Club:
|David Cameron’s cabinet, October 2015|
|Stephen Crabb||Welsh Secretary||Bristol and London Business School|
|Theresa Villiers||Northern Ireland Secretary||Bristol and Oxford|
|Chris Grayling||Commons Leader||Cambridge|
|Oliver Letwin||Chancellor of Duchy of Lancaster||Cambridge|
|Greg Clark||Local Gov Secretary||Cambridge and LSE|
|Amber Rudd||Energy Secretary||Edinburgh|
|David Mundell||Scottish Secretary||Edinburgh and Strathclyde|
|Sajid Javid||Business Secretary||Exeter|
|Baroness Stowell||Lords Leader||None|
|Patrick McLoughlin||Transport Secretary||None|
|Iain Duncan Smith||Work and Pensions Secretary||None (Sandhurst)|
|David Cameron||Prime Minister||Oxford|
|Theresa May||Home Secretary||Oxford|
|Philip Hammond||Foreign Secretary||Oxford|
|Michael Gove||Justice Secretary||Oxford|
|Jeremy Hunt||Health Secretary||Oxford|
|Nicky Morgan||Education Secretary||Oxford|
|Elizabeth Truss||Environment Secretary||Oxford|
|Justine Greening||International Development Secretary||Southampton|
|Michael Fallon||Defence Secretary||St Andrews|
|John Whittingdale||Culture Secretary||UCL|
Fully nine of the 22 current cabinet ministers have passed through Oxford as a student in some point of there lives, mostly as a first degree, but also as a second in the case of Northern Irish secretary Theresa Villiers.
Indeed, all of the great offices of state are filled by Oxford graduates: Cameron himself as prime minister, George Osborne as chancellor, Theresa May as home secretary and Philip Hammond as foreign secretary.
Cambridge supplies only three graduates to the current cabinet, the same number that hail from London’s various colleges or Scotland as a whole, meaning that to a great extent the cabinet is dominated by Oxford, Cambridge, Edinburgh and Bristol graduates.
When compared to the composition of the first Blair cabinet from May 1997 the difference is striking:
|Tony Blair’s cabinet, May 1997|
|Alistair Darling||Chief Treasury Secretary||Aberdeen|
|Ann Taylor||Commons Leader||Bradford|
|Chris Smith||Culture Secretary||Cambridge and Harvard|
|George Robertson||Defence Secretary||Dundee|
|Jack Cunningham||Farming Minister||Durham|
|Mo Mowlam||Northern Irish Secretary||Durham and Iowa|
|Robin Cook||Foreign Secretary||Edinburgh|
|Gavin Strang||Transport Secretary||Edinburgh and Cambridge (Diploma)|
|Donald Dewar||Scottish Secretary||Glasgow|
|Derry Irvine||Lord Chancellor||Glasgow and Cambridge|
|John Prescott||Deputy PM||Hull|
|Jack Straw||Home Secretary||Leeds|
|Clare Short||International Development Sec||Leeds and Keele|
|Frank Dobson||Health Secretary||LSE|
|Margaret Beckett||Trade Secretary||Manchester|
|Nick Brown||Chief Whip||Manchester|
|David Clark||Chancellor of Duchy of Lancaster||Manchester and Sheffield|
|Tony Blair||Prime Minister||Oxford|
|Ivor Richard||Lords Leader||Oxford|
|Ron Davies||Welsh Secretary||Portsmouth and Cardiff|
|David Blunkett||Education Secretary||Sheffield|
|Harriet Harman||Social Security Secretary||York|
My brother’s guess was correct: Seven members of Blair’s first cabinet attended Scottish universities, and the prime minister himself was educated at Fettes College on the outskirts of Edinburgh.
More generally just by looking at the tables one can see a greater range of British universities represented in the Blair cabinet, though it is notable that all of the cabinet did attend university, which is not true of Cameron’s cabinet.
Much has already been made of the swarms of career politicians who go from private school to Oxford (studying philosophy, politics and economics) then to a role as a special advisor, and then finally to the final destination as government minister.
Some academics have argued that educational diversity is a boon to businesses, whilst some would say it is encouraging that so many from the best universities go on to run the country.
But what isn’t disputable is that since Blair left office the pool of unis from which the cabinet is being drawn has narrowed. We are all Oxonians now.
PS: This list was compiled from numerous sources, but the main selection of cabinet ministers was taken from the government’s own website and those pictured in the photograph of Blair’s first cabinet, minus the cabinet secretary Robin Butler, who is a civil servant rather than a politician.
One could well have argued for the inclusion of those who also attend Cameron’s cabinet but are not listed as cabinet ministers, though the general picture would not much change.
Reading and maths skills are proving more important in the emerging digital world than spending huge amounts on expensive computing, according to the rich country think tank the OECD.
Countries that have heavily invested in computing were said to have made “no noticeable improvement” across PISA assessments reading, maths or the sciences, despite the extravagant promises of the IT industry.
Students who used computers moderately were said to do “somewhat better” than those who used them little, but heavy computer users apparently suffered, even when background was considered.
On the subject of inequality the OECD said “perhaps the most disappointing finding” was that technology was not bridging the gap between poor and rich students.
Despite all this Andreas Schleicher, OECD director for education and skills, remained hopeful of IT’s potential:
“School systems need to find more effective ways to integrate technology into teaching and learning to provide educators with learning environments that support 21st century pedagogies and provide children with the 21st century skills they need to succeed in tomorrow’s world. Technology is the only way to dramatically expand access to knowledge. To deliver on the promises technology holds, countries need to invest more effectively and ensure that teachers are at the forefront of designing and implementing this change.”
Among the problems highlighted by the report was students’ use of copy and pasting in schoolwork, which Schleicher drily said “is unlikely to help them to become smarter.”
“Technology can amplify great teaching, but great technology cannot replace poor teaching,” he added.
To asses the digital skills of children the OECD challenged them to “use a keyboard and mouse to navigate texts by using tools like hyperlinks, browser button or scrolling, in order to access information, as well as make a chart from data or use on-screen calculators” – a rather low bar to climb.
Students from Singapore, Korea, Hong Kong, Japan, and Shanghai were the top performers, fulfilling a stereotype that was rather spoiled by Canada, which also did well.
Interested parties can read all 200 pages of the OECD report online, which should kill off a few evenings.
Image Credit – Smashed computer, April 2009 by Amanda Tetrault
Most of us will remember a few schools lessons that we haven’t found much use for since we took them, but the British comedian John Oliver has little good to say about American schools.
And with their penchant for trivialising genocide, lack of focus on the sex lives of US presidents, and minor obsession with the American dream, perhaps he’s right.
Image Credit – John Oliver, February 2014 by TechCrunch