Opinion

Education isn't an exact science – but proper investment is vital

The issues around an education system that needs help remain. The aspiration, from a standing start, should be to make state schools every bit as good as private

Professor Brian Cox

Professor Brian Cox didn't mince his words in his assessment of the Covid Inquiry. Image: Ken McKay/ITV/Shutterstock

Brian Cox made an interesting point. That’s the scientist, rather than Logan Roy. It came in the wake of Patrick Vallance’s testimony at the Covid inquiry. Vallance, the UK’s chief scientific adviser during the Covid period, laid out problems with Boris Johnson. The former PM found the science around Covid “difficult at times”. It was “a real struggle” to understand the graphs around lockdown modelling. And he was “bamboozled” a lot. 

Turns out that tossing up a few choice cuts of The Aeneid in Latin and then hammering out short slogans in lieu of an actual programme for government doesn’t prove that you’re full of the right stuff necessary to lead a country. Sorry Nadine.

It came a number of days after potty-mouthed political iconoclast Dominic Cummings lashed into Matt Hancock – and a variety of other ministers, junior and senior. 

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All this brought the Cox remarks. He said the Covid inquiry hearings led him to think that the PM and the majority of ministers “did not have the intellectual tools necessary to understand scientific advice and therefore to be able to weigh it successfully”.

Cox traced it back to what he called “educational failure” – that because of how the system was set up, there was no space for students to develop a breadth of knowledge. We need, he said, more polymaths. Which does bring up some interesting issues. 

Though, I’ve noticed that Cox’s tweets have subsequently been locked, suggesting there was umbrage taken with some aspect of his remarks, resulting in a pile-on. Which may add to the very point he was making.

There are a couple of flaws in Cox’s main thesis. The first is that a good number of the seniors involved in higher reaches of government then, and now, went to private school. Vallance’s presentation of Johnson doesn’t provide a ringing endorsement of Eton, which currently bills up to £46,296 a year. Though, clearly, a lot of that goes into building stunning self-confidence.

And science education isn’t for everybody. Not everybody is wired the same way. 

However, the issues around an education system that needs help remain. The aspiration, from a standing start, should be to make state schools every bit as good as private. That would even the playing field somewhat, though it doesn’t chisel into the soft diplomacy and links that are established at private schools helping carry former pupils into chosen careers through a massive network of mutual support.

If Cox’s idea of creating more polymaths is to be developed, teachers need to be allowed to do that, rather than having to churn out pupils capable of doing the exams rather than anything wider. There needs to be support for more learning around critical thinking. A level of rationality and smarts, particularly in this era of easily accessed and perpetuated moronic views presented as news, is essential. That is as valuable as more advanced science for a majority of people. 

And there needs to be money. Not pretend, moved around, aren’t we great statistically, money but proper big investment. The chancellor announced last week £500 million over two years to make Britain an “AI powerhouse”. It’s not clear what that means.

It would be useful to have some similar big money into schools so there was paper and not a need for food banks. And a proving of how teachers are valued, rather than being vilified if they every have the temerity to seek a slightly better wage. 

Cox is right about the need for some radical change. But at present, the sums don’t add up.

Paul McNamee is editor of the Big IssueRead more of his columns here. Follow him on Twitter.

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