Wednesday, February 23, 2022

Is Ofsted becoming too political?

This is an edited version of an introduction given at the Academy of Ideas discussion - Is Ofsted becoming too political? - on Monday 21st February, 2022

By Neil Davenport

We’re approaching the 30th anniversary of the creation of Ofsted, introduced by the Conservative Party as part of wider educational reforms. In many ways, it’s a significant date to look back on. This moment represented the start of re-organising state institutions and their relationship to mass society. The demise of the Labour Party as a mediating bridge between the elites and the working classes was over. New points of connection had to be embedded. Consequently, state education has increasingly been relied upon as a mediator of elite ideas at any given time. So in this sense, of it's ideological role, Ofsted has always been political. Even when Ofsted appears to be engaged in just teaching and learning guidelines, they still reflected wider establishment concerns too. For example, in the 2000s Ofsted were preoccupied on instrumental approaches to learning and devaluing academic content. It reflected the new elite’s shift towards toward anti-intellectualism, presentism and ‘learning for skills’ dogmas.

Over the past six to seven years, though, the approach by Ofsted has dramatically changed. There are explicit and punitive moral directives that are enforced upon on state schools. It reflects the broader cranking up of identity politics as a way of creating new moral purposes for state institutions and to discipline society as a whole. (Such developments relate back to the discussions on the New Elites conference back in November, 2021). Consequently, the inspection of teaching and learning - the apparent purpose of Ofsted - is increasingly becoming second place. What matters is whether state schools are compliant on a whole range of moral instructions from the civil service. And I think it is in this area, in particular, that the gulf between an ostensibly anti-woke government with a deeply woke state has made itself felt. And yet, it is fair to say that the Tory Party are completely in tune with the new morality on identity politics and LGBT issues. They just allow Quangos to appear that they are driving these changes through independently, not the Tory Party itself.

For us teachers, it became apparent that after lockdown, Ofsted guidelines prioritised combating homophobia and transphobia, as well as #MeToo related panic on sexual harassment. This was more pressing than the quality of teaching and learning. Consequently, a number of schools which, despite having excellent teaching and stellar exam results, were rapidly downgraded and put into special measures. Broader moral questions, and compliance on moral questions, have become more important than the academic content of lessons.

Some of these responses, particularly on combating homophobia, have their roots in the Trojan Horse scandal back in 2014. There was a panic that religious extremism was taking grip in Muslim majority schools, whilst this also tipped into inspecting Jewish schools, particularly the quasi home schooling in the Hasidic community, as well as some Catholic schools. This is why Ofsted started insisting on the teaching of British values in state schools, campaigns against FGM and looking out for signs of extremism. The 2010 Equality Act was also a key justification for greater scrutiny of religious schools, but clearly some ‘protected characteristics’ are more protected than others. Nevertheless, the need to combat the pernicious influence of Islamic social conservatism is not the full story here either. Ofsted approved material on combating ‘religious extremism’ often does not mention the type of religious extremism. They will often downplay the threat of Islamic terrorism in the process.

What’s not widely known, however, is that after Brexit some educationalists promoted the idea that support for Leaving the EU could be classified as a form of political extremism and thus ‘prevented’ in the classroom. A questionnaire sent around by universities and exam boards on teaching content in sixth forms slipped in Brexit as a game changing ‘danger’. Attempting to paint Brexit as an example of ‘far right extremism’ was always a stretch outside of the Guardian. But as Claire Fox noted, the cranking up of identity politics in state schools has become a galvanising mechanism against the populist revolt of Brexit. It is the need to contain ‘populism’ that helps explain the drive on identity politics and LGBT issues in schools.  

Finally, the other contentious issue with Ofsted is the catch all word of Safeguarding. This has become a blank cheque to write anything that the state believes poses 'risk' or 'harm' to children. Of course, schools have always ensured children’s safety and wellbeing, and that is important. But Safeguarding has become a justification for a whole range of petty authoritarianism. More often, it translates to snooping on a child’s home life and undermining parental authority. Again, Ofsted can downgrade schools if they feel they’re not encouraging children to report wellbeing and safety issues to teachers. In this respect, the SNP’s Named Persons Act - essentially making all children wards of the state - is steadily being introduced through the back door, by way of threatening schools with a special measures grading if they don’t comply.

Ofsted has always been political, ensuring that the ideological needs of the ruling elite can be transmitted into state schools at any given time. It was created once older mediators of elite rule had collapsed in the post-Cold War era. The difference today is that Ofsted have become a key institution to enforce new elite authoritarianism onto the next generation; to provide moral purpose for an out-at-sea political class and contain what they see as the dreaded spectre of populism.

Saturday, February 12, 2022

Chasing the Populists Tail?

The Freedom Convey in Canada, and the anti-lockdown protests everywhere, has raised questions amongst FB friends about ‘tail ending’ such grassroots movements. It’s an old description that I hadn’t heard in years. It means politically conscious individuals who champion spontaneous revolts, but without providing a critique to take protests further. It becomes an opportunistic impulse to connect with an audience, but then terrified of losing them at the expense of political principles.

Tail endism is, of course, derived from Lenin’s 1902 book, What is to be done? Lenin was writing about the limits of ‘bread and butter’ trade union issues in Russia. He argued that without the intervention of a vanguard party, spontaneous trade union revolts would remain at just that. Although Lenin was using trade union agitation as examples, his term ‘economism’ was not solely about the limits of relying on ‘bread and butter’ issues for political gain (as the radical left in Britain often believed). Rather, it was a broader point about the dangers of going along with dominant ideas to avoid being isolated and unpopular. It’s a misinterpretation that’s made a return regarding the honking Canadian truckers, France’s unruly Gilets Jaunes and the regular protests against lockdown in London.

The apparent ‘economism’ here is that, keen for a revolt against technocratic elites, there’s a danger of being blind-sided by rather questionable elements. A desire to connect with such spontaneous, non-conformists could mean sacrificing non-negotiable principles and beliefs. When that happens, a considered and independent political position is off the table. Even worse, it could appear like a huge capitulation to right-wing loons. Whilst there has been favourable coverage of populist protests, they’re not without criticism either. We’re fully aware that lockdown protests attract conspiracy theorist cranks and mad anti-vaxxers. It’s recognised that, yes, some who voted Leave are staunchly anti-immigrant. And that’s something to be challenged, not dismissed.

But all this ignores where the real and damaging tail-endism occurs today. It’s not radical democrats, blindly ignoring the fringes of populist revolts, that’s the problem. It is the Labour Party left and other radical activists. It is their misguided tail-ending of the new Establishment that has utterly bankrupted the Left. And with their lamentable track-record, that takes some beating. Take identity politics as a key example. Unless you were a Marxism Today journalist, identity politics was once viewed as a way to undermine class identities and collectivism. It was the decadent indulgences of time-rich students. Now, pretty much the entire Left, bar some brave feminists, are hysterically on the trans-ideology bandwagon. Let the pile-on against Graham Linehan and the sackings commence.

The banal thinking here, like on so many of these issues, is that trans rights is a blow against conservatism. Postmodernist thinking winds up the old stuffed shirts and, as progressives, we should embrace and support it, lest anyone accuses us of being ‘right-wing’, too. It’s led to a fairly indistinguishable blob on the anti-Brexit left. It’s difficult to see where Blairites end and Momentum activists begin, where ‘communist’ university lecturers differ from Guardian columnists or where anarcho animal rights activists differ from Carrie Johnson. A well-worn satire on the Left was the endless splits and factions, the ’57 varieties.’ Today it is governed by a staggering conformity around identity politics, environmentalism and craven Europhilia. You only have to read a Stewart Lee shopping list to witness that.

The key here is not just a uniformity of thought, but crucially a lack of any political independence –of working class independence - from rainbow-flagged Police chiefs, from public school civil servants and, crucially, from the capitalist class. Believing that faux-left ideas are now ‘on the right side of history’, 21st century tail-endism has jettisoned any genuine sense of ‘us and them’. In fact, ‘us’ includes Remainers, the BBC, university lecturers, police officers, Channel 4, Guardian journalists, Harry and Meg, Greens, Big Tech, intolerant trans activists, whilst the ‘them’ is anyone outside of that haut-professional and identitarian tent. So the ‘hegemony’ is with the former, whilst the ‘enemy within’ is the same old ‘enemy within’ as before: the labouring classes (and possibly GB News presenters).

There were always limits to when the old Left tail-ended the spontaneous revolts of workplace disputes. And equally, there are caveats aplenty to the new populist revolts springing up everywhere. But the biggest problem here is not conspiratorial lockdown sceptics or a Canadian truckers’ blogs. It is tail-ending woke-state authoritarians and the wider new Establishment. It is a capitulation to those who believe that freedom is a mere virtue signalling trope.

Saturday, December 19, 2020

The Freedom to be Judgemental

This was an introduction given for WorldWrite's Freedom Babbleon that took place on 19th December, 2020.

A frequent caricature of absolute free speech is that rubbish and unintelligent ideas are given the same credence as insightful and intelligent ideas. Absolute free speech, therefore, invites moral relativism in the market place of ideas. In its place, it is argued that there should be absolutism over what is deemed correct ideas and the suppression of what is often termed problematic ideas. This has recently been put into practise by Ofcom, who argue that speakers who are critical of trans ideology should not be given a platform alongside advocates of trans gender ideas on TV discussions. This is seen as striking a blow against the decadence of relativism in favour of clearly outlined absolutes of high minded opinion. In truth, though, the cancelling out of an opposing view here is the suspension of judgement. It first denies the judgements made by either side of the trans debate or any other debate. And secondly, it denies audiences the capacity to decide which judgement is more convincing. 

We should remember that toleration and free speech absolutism is not a gateway towards an anything-goes-acceptance of nonsense or banal ideas. People should have unrestricted free expression of ideas and lifestyles, but equally audiences should be free to make moral judgements on whether ideas or lifestyles are good or bad, progressive or reactionary. We should tolerate those expressions we hate, but also be robust enough to challenge and condemn ideas that we oppose. It is only through this ongoing dialogue that society develops a collective conscience and furthermore social solidarity. As this debate involves all citizens, a judgemental approach to ideas and lifestyles plays an important role in the intellectual and moral development of individuals. It also forces proponents of particular ideas and lifestyles to hold themselves to account, to see their worldview prosper or fall in the market place of ideas. Toleration of ideas and lifestyles is not the same as acceptance or support for different ideas and lifestyles. 

Supporters of no platform argue that competing ideas won’t win over people who have a fixed attachment to a particular set of ideas. They argue that hardcore racists will not be so easily won over to humanism and equality, so therefore closing off their expression is the right course of action. Indeed, we have seen this with the failure of the de-radicalisation programme of Islamic terrorists in recent years. It is true that a belief system becomes a key part of a person’s self-concept and outlook and competing arguments won’t necessarily change their minds. Nor will the sense that they are ostracised from mainstream or respectable society will necessarily change their minds either. The problem with this argument to justify intolerance and censorship is that it is both anti-democratic and hostile to individualism. It is anti-democratic because it ignores how a battle of ideas is based on a majoritarian opinion and consensus, not the fact that a tiny minority still hold onto to opinions that have been discredited and defeated. It is anti-individual because it demands that all people should become a means to an end, that they have to be part of a particular consensus goal whether they want to or not. 

Indeed, hostility towards being judgemental is essentially an attack on individualism and the free willing subject. Firstly, it requests that individuals do not make a moral judgement on the behaviour or ideas of another. It thus attacks our capacity for self-reflection and moral agency. Secondly, a refusal to be judgemental also absolves an individual of their capacity to act morally. Increasingly, a medical reason for badly behaved teenagers or a murderer is often sought as an explanation for their behaviour, not the judgement that they’ve behaved in a morally wrong way. 

Hostility towards being judgemental might appear benign and an expression of good manners, but in fact it is an attack on our individualism because it demands we suspend our capacity for moral judgement on ideas and behaviour.

Thursday, April 16, 2020

The 75th Anniversary of Animal Farm

To coincide with the 75th Anniversary of Animal Farm, the Academy of Ideas hosted a bookclub discussion on George Orwell's novella. This was the introduction on Thursday 16th April 2020

Animal Farm

Animal Farm was first published in August 1945 and is probably George Orwell’s second most famous published work after 1984. The original full title was Animal Farm: A Fairy Story. Famously, of course, Animal Farm is an allegorical novella. It tells the story of a group of farm animals who rebel against their human farmer. They are hoping to create a society where the animals can be equal, free and prosperous. Ultimately, however, the rebellion is betrayed under the dictatorship of a pig named Napoleon. Consequently, the animals ending up in a farm-state as bad as it was before. There was no big secret here. For Orwell, the fable reflects events leading up to the Russian Revolution of 1917 and then onto the Stalinist era of the Soviet Union in the 1920s and 1930s.

Although both Animal Farm and 1984 are reflections and satires of Stalinism and totalitarianism, both books have been used as warning bells on the nature of power itself. For this reason, they do not date as a period piece of documenting the destructive impact of Stalinism. They raise questions on the nature of power, how to gain consent and the problems of legal constitutionalism as well. Although 1984 has often been used outside of the contextual framework of Stalinism, I think this is less so with Animal Farm. And this is what I want to look at this evening. I want to examine some of the key themes that Orwell was writing about in Animal Farm and what insights it can bring to a 21st century context.On social media, some journalists nickname Owen Jones Squealer, after the mediating pig in Animal Farm, who explains to the party faithful the latest twist, turn and revision of the party’s policies. So clearly, there’s scope for referencing Animal Farm in a fresh context!

Then and now, Animal Farm criticises the claim that social inequalities are a product of natural inequalities, how the division of labour on the farm is organised. It speaks to us of how the work the animals do is similar to humans working like animals under capitalism. The rats in Animal Farm I tend to see as analogous to the lumpen proletariat, marginal to the production process but parasitical on the labour of others.

On mapping out a future society for the animals, Orwell is also caricaturing the hairshirt tendencies of left wing radicals and their opposition to consumerism or luxury goods. The products of an advanced society in Animal Farm are cast as ‘evil’ rather than a positive development for all. The caricature of the Bolshevik party is well known here too. Orwell narrates the development of political theory and organisation amongst the animals on Manor Farm, with Napoleon and Snowball the vanguard leaders. Equally the decadent farmer Mr Jones is analogous to a corrupt and decadent bourgeoisie in Russia and also the bourgeoisie prior to the French revolution as well. Immediately after the revolution on Manor Farm, the pigs establish seven commandments of Animalism or a written constitution and thus possesses legal power.

Throughout the novella, the constitution is constantly amended or re-interpreted to suit the power objectives of Napoleon and Snowball. I think here, Orwell speaks to the limitations of Constitutionalism that applies outside of his satire of the Soviet Union. In fact, this more accurately reflects how the American Constitution has chopped and changed to meet the requirements of the US establishment at any given time - from legally justifying slavery to legalising gay marriage on a federal level. Rather than a written constitution protecting the rights of individuals, Orwell is arguing that only the powerful have the capacity to amend written constitutions and this is done to enhance the power of a political class. It is not in place to automatically protect natural rights. In this way, Animal Farm speaks to us on the dangers of Constitutionalism and how legal principles are used to undermine politics.

Orwell makes great play of how expertise and intelligence become synonymous with leadership and a born-to-rule attitude, rather than something that is an outcome of an elected mandate. Animal Farm speaks to us on how technical expertise is used as a mechanism to justify leadership without accountability, a constant feature of the workings on Animal Farm. Interestingly, Orwell writes that it was ‘natural’ that the pigs should assume the leadership. For all the shift from the hereditary principle and monarchism in western societies, Orwell is hinting that technocratic qualities make leadership a natural outcome, but not one from an elected mandate.

In the early period of the animal revolution, we learn that the animals held weekly planning meetings for the seven days ahead (although it’s only the pigs who put forward the actual resolutions). A period of self-improvement of the animals is also in evidence during the early stages of the revolution. Nevertheless, we watch how the animals descend into groupthink, summed up in the phrase "4 legs good 2 legs bad". This is a conforming slogan that has the effect of undermining new ideas and opinions. It’s no coincidence that the pigs start to set aside themselves apart from the other animals via the language of paternalism and risk assessment of the other animals. It's a language that is all too familiar in the 21st century.

The Animal Farm revolution effectively ends its early promise when Napoleon announces, once Snowball has been banished, that the weekly meetings would come to an end. Instead, decision making on the farm is done in private amongst an unelected pig leadership. Many of the Left today utter the words democracy with almost sneering inverted commas, a concept from a by gone age that has become a bit of a joke. As Orwell outlines here, the revolution is betrayed once democratic decision making is removed from the masses and when leadership is not accountable to the mass of society. Any claims for a progressive and radical society, Orwell is saying, is effectively over once democracy is removed from social organisation.

As Napoleon consolidates his rule, he become more interested in discussing trade and politics with the human leaders of nearby farms. The pig leadership completely isolates themselves from the populace on Animal Farm, allowing rulers from other farms to have a say over what impacts on them. The description of the Pigs enjoying being at the table with other human farmers demonstrate how they get their validation from other members of the farming elite, rather than the animals in their own jurisdiction. Although Animal Farm is obviously allegorical to Stalin’s cavorting with Western leaders, the novella also applies to political processes that end up preferring the company of other elites than the mass of citizens at home.

However, I’d be interested on what people think about the depiction of the dumb animals blindly following the pigs orders, those animals incapable of making decisions for themselves or not having the ability to question authority. We’re used to that awful hybrid word of sheeple, is Orwell casting similar aspersions to the lower orders in Animal Farm? Is he revealing his own upper class prejudices against the uneducated throng, incapable of challenging the way society is organised? Or is he spelling out the dangers of Stalinist bureaucracy and Stalinist groupthink when it comes to political processes?

Overall, then, Animal Farm is about the importance of power and how democracy and accountability are antidotes to the corruption of power. It examines the perils when radicals jettison democratic mandates, whether in a highly fraught revolutionary context or in the current context of 21st century Europe.

Monday, November 04, 2019

Patriotism: the acceptable face of nationalism?

A slightly longer version of my introductory remarks at this year's Battle of Ideas Patriotism: the acceptable face of nationalism?

The referendum on membership of the European Union has thrown the issue of nationalism and patriotism centre stage, (although as I’ll examine later this has merely bought to the surface a long term hostility towards nationalism from the political class). Any positive identification that citizens have with a nation is now deemed highly dangerous. Membership of the European Union, the argument goes, diffuses such backward patriotism in favour of brotherly, transnational co-operation with other member states. Why would anyone on the left take a ‘nationalist turn’ against a transnational set up? Why would progressive believe that patriotism, a love for fellow countrymen in a nation state, could ever be cause to stand up to?

Nationalism is not in itself an ideology, but rather it’s the belief that the nation state should be the most important organising principle in society. As with actual political ideologies, there are more than one type of nationalism, and the characteristics of national identity has more than one sense of belonging too. Rejecting nationalism and patriotism because it has associations with aggressive, exclusive forms of nationalism is a bit like arguing that we should reject all politics on the basis that there are far right political beliefs. It’s often argued that the experience of Nazism has discredited all forms of nationalism, that there’s no longer an awareness of liberal or progressive nationalism.

I’m not entirely sure about that argument, particularly in a British context. Nationalism in Britain was exceptionally strong in the post-war period and in the 1970s. In fact, anti-Nazism ironically enough became a major source of national pride and patriotism in this country. It’s also forgotten that during that exact same period, to be a nationalist was also associated with being anti-colonialist, from South Africa to the Republican nationalists in Northern Ireland. Nobody would accuse Irish republicans or the African National Congress for being fascists either. But if we take those examples, I think it’s clear that nationalism and patriotism towards fellow countrymen has an entirely progressive content and cause. The idea that nationalism is only the property of a ruling class, conning citizens into identifying with ideas that are not in their interests is not true. If anybody has been watching the Secret History of the Troubles, whereby Irish republicans describe IRA volunteers as being patriots who love their country, its clear that patriotism can be a politically independent movement in opposition to powerful interests.

But we don’t even have to look to anti-colonial movements to make the case for progressive nationalism. Wester nation states were built on the historically progressive development of nation states built on liberal values. For Enlightenment thinkers such as Rousseau, patriotism was grounded in a love of civic virtues, of creating a common belonging based on a shared agreement in rights, freedoms, toleration and democracy. Far from this demoting a hatred for others, it provided a cohering identity on citizenship and democratic accountability of rulers. Rather than a national identity being based on cultural values, a progressive liberal nationalism has its foundations within a shared love of a free and politically equal society. This does not prevent migrants moving to a liberal nation, but only that if you want join this club, you would be expected to follow its rules and values. Finally, this type of nationalism would also respect the national borders of other nation states because other states would be viewed as autonomous entities in the same way that individuals would be viewed as autonomous entities possessing rights.

The more we look at nationalism in this way, you can clearly see how it puts the mass of citizens centre stage within society, particularly notions of popular sovereignty and its pressure on political leaders and the state. Now for the past 30 years or ago in Britain, especially when there was no longer any use for reactionary nationalism, the backlash is against liberal nationalism rather than any pre-emptive strike against xenophobic attitudes. It is an easiness and hostility towards the idea that the masses or the mob should be involved in democratic decisions making. Liberal nationalism celebrates popular sovereignty as a way of cohering society, but today radicals reject popular sovereignty on the grounds that the uneducated plebs are actually not up to that task. It’s worth remembering that it was the old Tory party who initially started to distances themselves from their old nationalism, re-branding it as a plebeian identity - Remainers are merely echoing sentiments that have been just below the surface for quite a while.

This is why after the referendum results, the chance to reclaim popular sovereignty and a national identity based on the belief that decision making should be accountable to citizens is the most radical and explosive issue today. Not since the Chartists and the Levellers, has this street level yearning for liberal nationalism and a patriotic attachment to fellow citizens has been independent from and hostile to the present political class.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Anti Material Ideology

An on-going ideological narrative in the 21st century is a rejection of material progress, of people having and consuming more stuff. This may seem counter-intuitive given that the free market is synonymous with mass consumer society. However, everyone from environmentalists to business leaders is denouncing accumulating more wealth, more goods, more stuff. Two recent articles of mine briefly explore examples. Firstly one related to well-being and the other Richard Branson's blog piece explaining why he has never been motivated by accumulating more stuff.

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Losing Faith in State Schools?

There is a campaign to prevent selection based on faith or religious affiliation. This was my piece in response and it can be found here

Is Ofsted becoming too political?

This is an edited version of an introduction given at the Academy of Ideas discussion - Is Ofsted becoming too political? - on Monday 21st F...