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Voices in the Air

Chris Husbands

My third daughter works in New York: the distance hasn’t changed the frequency of her communication with her sisters or her parents, and, at least once a week, she has a FaceTime conversation with her elderly grandfather.  My own recollection of contact home, when I went away to University in the late 1970s was of queuing up every Sunday evening outside a little row of telephone boxes – in fact, the telephone at my parents’ house had been installed specifically in preparation for my departure to university.  But the internet has changed communication beyond recognition. 

Social media has been transformative for professional communities. In the last half-decade, education policy debate has been fuelled by Twitter in ways completely unexpected before it arrived.  Bloggers have come to exercise enormous influence.  The Headteachers’ Round Table – a loose alliance of progressive-leaning headteachers – came together through their initial contacts on Twitter and have since developed a far-reaching manifesto for action which, as leaders in an autonomous school system they are able to play a significant role in  implementing. The former secretary of state for education, Michael Gove, set up direct meetings with indefatigable bloggers who, he said, perhaps with more of an eye to flattery than anything else, shaped his policy thinking.  A different group of bloggers were at least partly instrumental in moving the OFSTED inspection framework away from the grading of individual lessons.  ResearchED, driven by the energetic Tom Bennett has mobilised a (largely young) teacher network to build a coalition around research and evidence use in education.  In all these cases, the power of the internet, and social media, was in drawing together like-minded and determined individuals who used some combination of the extant evidence, their practical experience and their determination to work together to bring about change.  

Social media has brought together teachers, policy wonks and academics in virtual coalitions. Some say that there has been nothing like it before, though those who do largely overlook the ‘teachers’ centre’ movement of the 1970s and 1980s which also, in admittedly local settings, also brought together like minded teachers who formed networks which brought about change.  But even so the scale here is quite remarkable.

The potential of social media to give voice to engaged enthusiasm turns out also to be a potential to give voice to negativity and unpleasantness

But there are downsides. The potential of social media to give voice to engaged enthusiasm turns out also to be a potential to give voice to negativity and unpleasantness.  It turns out that there is no idea so commonsensical nor evidentially well-grounded that there isn’t someone to oppose it.  Social media can give a voice to the unpleasant bully, the misanthrope, the disenchanted, and it turns out that once they get to work there are a good number of them.  The 1970s Labour Prime Minister James Callaghan once talked about the ability of lies to move around the world before ‘truth has got its boots on’; the internet and social media have simply accelerated the speed.

I was appointed as director of the Institute of Education in mid 2010 – just as a radical, reforming Coalition took office. Michael Gove, as secretary of state began a radical reconstruction of English education, moving on every possible front at the same time – school structures, funding, curriculum, teacher professionalism, assessment, accountability, early years, vocational education.  I left the IOE at the end of 2015 to take up a new post as Vice Chancellor at Sheffield Hallam University.  Between those dates I kept up a regular commentary on education policy – normally about every fortnight – using the IOE blog and a number of other outlets.  I wanted to draw on research and evidence, national and international experience to provide a commentary on policy – to try to help truth to pull its boots on a little more quickly. 

Those blog posts and newspaper articles have now been edited and collected together thematically in my new book Voices in the Air, published by the IOE Press this month.  The title is itself a quotation from the great economist John Maynard Keynes. It is drawn from the concluding pages of his 1936 ‘General Theory’, where he says “the ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back”. In all sorts of ways, this captures something of what my pieces try to do; indeed, substitute the word ‘educationist’ for the word ‘economist’ in this quotation and you can go a fair way to understanding what the pieces try to do. Every piece was stimulated by some intervention or policy development, normally reflecting some deeper education idea but modulated into policy. And the relationship between policymakers – Keynes’s ‘madmen in authority’ – and the ‘voices in the air’ to which they respond was always complex.

I hope the pieces do two things: first, that they map a frenetic period of change in education, and secondly that they assert the importance of drawing on evidence and setting changes in some sort of context. I’ve spent too long reading BTL [‘below the line’] comments to expect everyone to agree with my analysis, but I hope the pieces assert something important in education policy analysis – that evidence, reflection and thinking all matter just as much as getting ideas into 140 characters