A family member whose political views are several miles to the right of mine recently forwarded me an opinion piece by Max Hastings in the Daily Mail, about the recent Cabinet reshuffle. If you’re interested, you can read the article in question here. I read it on my phone before I’d had my first cup of tea of the morning, and fired off a swift and stroppy reply to my relation to the effect that I disagreed with every single word of the article. He asked for a more considered response, so I’ve given it some thought this evening and here is what I think:
Firstly, Sir Max makes some massive sweeping statements in his piece with no attempt to back them up with anything in the way of evidence. Michael Gove, he writes, has been dedicated to “salvaging Britain’s ruined school system” and ”restoring standards to our schools”. Of course, Hastings is probably quite right in assuming that most Daily Mail readers share his views (apart from those of us who unwittingly read it because bored relatives were trying to annoy us), and that there’s no need to qualify his assertions. Personally though, I like to see a writer prove the points he’s making, particularly when he’s making a claim as definitive as that Britain’s school system is “ruined”.
Ruined? Really? Of course, it’s perfectly possible that Sir Max Hastings knows a great deal more about state education in this country than I do. After all, my only claim to knowledge is based on the fact that I attended a state school as a child, and now have two children currently being educated in the state system. My view is based only on what I’ve seen myself, my evidence is at best anecdotal. But Sir Max Hastings, on the other hand, as a prestigious journalist, editor, historian and author, must surely have grounds for his assertion that our schools are ruined… mustn’t he?
According to Wikipedia, he attended Charterhouse, one of the oldest independent public schools in the UK, where fees are currently £31,000 per year – more than the current average income in the UK – and then dropped out of Oxford University after a year to become a journalist. Throughout his career he has published an impressive list of books, mainly about military history. However, I have to say that looking through his list of published titles, I can’t see any that relate to the British state education system. So I’m curious as to what he’s actually basing his opinions on? He’s got no personal experience of state education, he doesn’t appear to have ever researched it in his professional capacity as a writer, and I’m guessing that it’s not from listening to the opinions of any actual teachers, who he dismisses as “betrayers of generations of school children” as well (slightly bizarrely) “enemies of learning”.
You see, this is the problem with sweeping statements, saying all Britain’s schools are equally bad, all teachers are trade union extremists who care more for their benefits package than they do about education. There’s always going to be someone – like me – who puts their hand up and says: “Actually, my kid’s school is brilliant, and their teachers are passionate, dedicated people who always impress me with the depth of their understanding of how children learn, and I can see how much harder Michael Gove’s policies have made their jobs in the last four years.” But just because I remember demoralised teachers and a chronic shortage of text books during the 1980’s, and just because my children’s school seems so much better, this doesn’t mean that state education was necessarily all bad during the 1980’s, nor that it improved across the board during the last Labour government. There are over 24,000 schools in England alone, how can anyone (whether that’s me with my personal experience of my own and my kids’ schools, or Max Hastings with his personal experience of … um… zero state schools) possibly say definitively that our schools are either simply good or bad? To claim that facts are simple black and white is, quite frankly, dishonest.
The second thing I don’t like about this piece is the condescending drip of sexism in every phrase and sentence that refers to a female politician. Take this for example: Of course, it is welcome that Cameron has promoted a string of women to ministerial roles. All that is now needed is that they should prove themselves worthy of them. Replace the word “women” with any other group – black people, disabled people, Muslims, Catholics – and see how it sounds. The conditional tense “should prove themselves worthy” hints strongly that he thinks it highly likely that they won’t. And why a “string” of women? You get beads and baubles on a string, not professional people who have reached the top of their chosen career. Words matter. I don’t believe that as a professional writer Max Hastings would ever inadvertently give the impression he was demeaning or belittling a particular group of people through an accidental misuse of words. If his choice of words seems to indicate a certain contempt towards the women he’s writing about, chances are that’s exactly what he meant.
Lastly, I would expect Max Hastings or his editor to know the difference between sentences and paragraphs. You know, you can have several of the former in the latter, as many as you like really.
Otherwise your text looks like this.
It gives the impression that you think your readers need to pause for breath after every sentence.
Or that they just can’t concentrate.
Either way, I think it’s quite poor writing.
And maybe it’s not just those “enemies of learning”, the teachers, who are responsible for the alleged falling standards in education.
Maybe it’s the Daily Mail.