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That internet, eh? How about showing kids how it works?

Posted on December 31, 2019


It’s difficult to know what to make of Michael Gove. In particular, his odd relationship with Boris Johnson brings a whole new meaning to the notion of what it means to be someone’s friend. Similarly, his willingness to veer between polarized positions, sometimes in a matter of weeks, casts doubt on the ability of the man once charged with the education of the nation’s children to recognize a matter of principle if it bit him on his backside.

Just to recap. On the day after the EU referendum, Gove and Johnson faced the TV cameras with ashen faces, looking like a cross between victims of a hostage video and two naughty boys who had only meant to play knock and run, but whose antics had prompted an old lady’s fatal heart attack. Within days they had pledged their loyalty to each other before brazenly proclaiming that neither was fit for the highest office. Then, once Johnson had claimed the birth right he always knew was his, he installed his bestest buddy as his Bexit front man.

Gove gurned and preened his way through his chum’s infantile, but effective, campaign employing that jarring tone of false reasonableness that grates the nerves of every teacher who learnt to dread his radio and TV appearances. He held the office of Secretary of State for Education between 2010 and 2014, the longest tenure for over 60 years, before government advisers deemed him a ‘toxic liability’. He was succeeded by Nicola ‘50,000 nurses’ Morgan whose utter facelessness and dreary somnolence provided a welcome relief from her predecessor’s wide-eyed grasping at whatever snake-oil he’d been conned by that week.

One of the buzziest bees in Gove’s bonnet was a commitment to a ‘traditional’ school curriculum. Along with this, he played to the Tory back-benchers – a political strategy that has worked out so well for the people of the UK – and their mouthpiece in the Daily Mail by singling out so-called worthless, easy subjects that enabled stupid children, who couldn’t recite the kings and queens of England since 1066, to get exam passes. Top of the list of these idiotic pastimes was Media Studies.

I never detect any evidence of senior politicians being well-read, but it might just be that in this instance, Gove knew just a little of the Shakespeare on which he professed to be so keen. In The Tempest a group of noble people find themselves stranded on a mystical island where they find the indigenous savage, Caliban. Naturally, they insist on foisting on him their language, manners and, probably, a loin-cloth – Shakespeare is not specific on this point. After watching their preening conduct for a while, Caliban, in a moment of anger, proclaims to them that ‘you taught me language, and my profit on’t is I know how to curse’.

And there’s the rub. Why on earth would any government, especially one veering rightward with alarming velocity, want people to think about how the media works? In whose interests would it be for people to discover who owns the means of mass communication and how this affects what they see and hear? To borrow from Caliban, what profit can there be in getting young people to analyse and question what they see on the screens that play such a central part in their lives? Much better to befuddle them with frontal adverbials (no, me neither) and Roman road-building techniques than try to make sense of the deluge of information – and non-information – that comes their way in bucketloads every minute of every day.

Just in case you’re wondering, this is not going to veer off into a specious, useless argument about the election being won through media manipulation. It wasn’t and, besides, that ship has sailed. What brought Gove and his antipathy to media studies to mind was a recent, horrible episode of anti-Semitic graffiti in North London. There were two alarming elements in the handiwork of the racists; one that was chilling in its obvious and deliberate usage and one that, were the situation not so serious, could otherwise be seen as deludedly comic.

The first was the daubing of the Star of David on shopfronts, carrying with it all the echoes of the systematic attacks on Jewish businesses at the start of the Nazi era, when such vandalism was also accompanied by the label of ‘Jude’ to ensure the boycotting of the enterprise and its owner. The second was the clear association of Jews with the 9/11 atrocity – the Jewish conspiracy theory.

To sneak into the internet world of 9/11 conspiracy theory on the internet, as I did in the writing of this piece, is to go to a very unsettling world indeed. I have no intention of using exemplar material, as hilariously disturbed as some of it is, as to replicate any of it might just give someone, somewhere – from his mum’s spare room to some lonely bedsit – just a smidgeon of recognition. All the same, in an era when news and information is gleaned on the hoof, with an eye for a ‘story’ and a lack of concern for detail, we write off such nonsense at our peril.

All of which brings us back to Gove and the curriculum with which he – and his like – have lumbered us. Writing in 2013 as Gove tinkered again with the history curriculum, one of his principal supporters, right-wing historian Niall Feguson, suggested that teachers ‘can’t sincerely think it’s acceptable for children to leave school (as mine have all done) knowing nothing whatever about the Norman conquest, the English civil war or the Glorious Revolution, but plenty (well, a bit) about the Third Reich, the New Deal and the civil rights movement?’

Well, Niall, in the current climate, I think it’s hard to argue against knowing about any of the three things you identify as being surplus to requirements (and it doesn’t have to be either/or, by the way). If we’ve still got one person who thinks it’s OK to go to football and make monkey chants, then the job’s not been done. And if, at the same time, we’re not educating children to know the provenance of some of the garbage that infects their screen-companion, then we’re letting them down in a very big way.

So we go into this new year with a whole range of battles on or hands. This wretched Tory rabble, which has shown its colours already with the knighthood for Ian Duncan Smith,  the architect of even greater misery and deprivation for the poor, will set daily challenges for those of us prepared to act against them. The ongoing battle for a sensible 21st century curriculum is right up there with the big fights. Let’s show we’re up for it.

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