Junior Education Minister Liz Truss has launched an attack on what she describes as the “purposeless activity” to be seen in many nurseries. She claims that this is not about academic work, but about structured activity and learning to be polite through activities which the teacher is clearly leading.
No doubt there will be much rationalisation of what she actually did or did not say, and it is easy to ridicule Truss’ apparent ignorance of what toddlers actually do, but it seems to me that Truss’ comments expose the dark heart of contemporary Toryism in a revealing and significant way. Truss was of course one of the gang of bright young Tories behind Britannia Unchained, the book that notoriously accused British workers – who demonstrably work some of the longest hours in Europe – as being lazy and uninterested in achievement. Now we are given tales of unfocussed behaviour by pre-school children.
The point about Truss’ comments is that, like Britannia Unchained, they are about discipline and obedience; about ensuring from the age of three or four that children are not educated, but trained – trained to be disciplined workers and consumers. Education is about sitting children in uniform in rows behind desks, as preparation for a life of the same – the world of Gradgrind in which children are moulded for life in a modern-day factory system, in which imagination and challenge and spontaneity are banished unless expressed in ways that are economically useful. One of the most humane definitions of education that I know is Ivan Illich’s “growth in disciplined dissidence” – a phrase that Truss and her ideological comrades can surely barely understand. Truss’ comments are about training people to function in a late capitalist economy, not about facilitating their development as diverse and fully human individuals. This is the privatisation of childhood; its acquisition by those who generate profit. It is, in the literal sense of the word, a philosophy of alienation.
And, as so often with the ideology emerging from Gove’s education department, it is desperately at odds with evidence-backed good practice. Early years activities should be child-led not teacher-led, because that is how children learn in the broadest sense. Formal education starts later in most European countries than in the UK – including those in which outcomes are rather better than ours. (Although looking at Gove, the Tory Party and the British establishment generally you do wonder whether these are the people who failed to learn through play). More anecdotally, I think we are all familiar with the spiritual destructiveness of academic hothousing, and the damage done to children by the academic rat-race; as Jimmy Reid put it in that still-magnificent, still-relevant speech on assuming the rectorship of Glasgow University, we are not rats.
Truss’ comments are all of a piece with the Tories’ rhetoric on benefits – a return to a nineteenth-century view of Britain in which disciplined productivity is the only measure of human worth. Work hard, produce, consume and accept your lot; that’s all there is to your allotted span unless you are one of that rarefied economic elite who can consume without work. It is a vision that lacks the joy, the spontaneity, the imagination and, yes, the sheer purposefulness of the toddler at play, before she has had those things drilled out of her in the name of conformity and obedience. In short, it is the abolition of the human.