The colonial British education academy

The enigmatic opinions of Vince Ulam were recently cited in an article by Steven Watson published in the Q1 British Educational Research Journal. Vince Ulam the scholar does not seem to exist, at least not by that name, and this blog explores what the inclusion of Vince Ulam’s disembodied musings into the British academy might mean.

Watson’s article addresses the Research Ed phenomena through the neologism “New Right 2.0”, with Ulam’s disembodied invective against Research Ed and the politician Michael Gove infusing a diabolic air into the piece.

I described the dynamics addressed by Watson in a blog over three years ago and I described it as a UK Push. The imperial motives of the movement are fairly transparent with Research Ed off-shoots emerging in former colonies where religious schools with colonial associations provide a platform.

The political links between Bennett, Gove and Gibb are also transparent, as is the populist support garnered through the likes of Didau and Smith, and the academic credibility provided by the likes of Dylan Wiliam. In Australia, this movement is facilitated by the Centre for Independent Studies, some religious institutions, and increasingly mainstream media is actively giving it voice. There are further hapless Australian academics keen to tug the furlock to promote the movement.

The methods used by Research Ed are also transparent. The movement uses a modicum of science and a modicum of learning theory to promote an imperialist agenda. The movement exploits a lack of interest in science and public policy among dominant parts of the educational academy.

The British establishment has a certain disdain for children emblematically expressed in the work of Dickens. I first encountered this disdain some years ago when working on PISA and responsible for maintaining its technical standards. The British establishment’s self-loathing became evident as the United Kingdom failed to meet the PISA sampling standards.

Disdain for its students was palpable among the British establishment. Esteemed UK scholars argued that students in the UK could not possibly be performing as well as PISA had found. Formal arguments emerged from the UK for its data to be excluded from PISA analyses. Where members from other PISA countries were keen to foster positive regard for their students, the belligerent fools from UK schools were unique in their disdain.

The general response to PISA by the British was perplexing. PISA is a technically complex endeavour that harnessed expertise from across the globe. In the early years input was sought through various forums, working groups, and consortium partners. In the main, stakeholders attempted to understand and embrace the methodology, understand its limitations, and work towards workable compromises. The UK’s engagement was an outlier.

I recall great efforts being made to understand and respond to critiques Sig Prais and Harvey Goldstein made of PISA. I recall thinking at the the time that the UK was not motivated by scholarly endeavour but by a moroseness over lost empire. The critique was not within the PISA paradigm and the critique did not endeavour to understand the PISA paradigm. The sullen nature of that initial critique continues to hinder, derail and distort effective critique of PISA to this day.

The institutional disdain for children, particularly those of working and impoverished classes, remains evident in the Research Ed movement through its support for a no excuses approach towards student discipline. An approach that is punitive towards impoverished students and turns a blind-eye requiring no excuses for the privileged ones. A voiceless colonialism is also evident in the contribution of Vince Ulam.

The toxic binaries emerging from the UK are revealed when the leading work of Stephen Ball is juxtaposed to the Research Ed movement. In an ode to Foucault, Ball proudly proclaims a lack of interest in an allegiance to a community of like-minded scholars in favour of an interest in an academic subject yet to come. The lack of interest in contemporary education expressed by Ball, and an abandonment of English children, is emblematic of much of the British academy and forelock tugging elements of the Australian academy. Ball provides the British ruse exploited by Research Ed.

Watson’s article casts the machinations in the British academy as one between “Trads and Progs”. But this a proxy for a broader splitting and dysfunction in the British psyche that manifests in other forms of splitting such as that between ‘phonics’ and ‘whole world’ approaches to literacy.

The disembodied writing of Vince Ulam

The disembodied writing of Vince Ulam is enigmatic in this debate. On the one hand Ulam provides invective against Research Ed to work against its colonising aspirations. On the other its disembodied nature promotes colonisation at a time when post-colonial approaches are beginning to emphasise standpoints through voice and place.

While this blog has focused on the toxicity emerging from the British empire there is also much to admire. The civilising force of British culture is illustrated through the anthems Jerusalem and Land of Hope and Glory. Both have an indigenous focus referring to land and soil in England’s mountains green. A sinister side emerges from Britain’s colonial propensity to walk upon, in more recent times, the Indigenous pastures of others.

From my perspective the inclusion of Vince Ulam’s disembodied thoughts into the British academy is unwelcome. Contemporary approaches to reconciliation, decolonisation and indigenisation in Australia emphasise voice and perspective. To defeat the new imperialistic demon voice and place will continue to be important.

To understand colonisation is to understand that education is not synonymous with goodness. The dispossession of Indigenous land requires missionaries to disrupt the sacredness of the land and teachers to disrupt its social patterns. The Research Ed phenomenon understands this.

The English Sir Andrew Davis, promoting land, place and culture.

Sir Andrew Davis – conducting Jerusalem at the Proms

The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, during the period when Sir Andrew Davis was its chief conductor, performed Eumeralla: A war requiem for peace.

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