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Peter Hyman’s Groovy school: WELL weapon

Grr! baby; very Grr!

Peter Hyman is BACK. Who he? Why, speech writer and strategist for Tony Blair, Head of his Strategic Communications Unit 2001-2003, and witch / spin doctor for New Labour. Frankly, I would rather have the word pervert on my CV than any of those bulletpoints, but to err is human, to forgive is divine.

What’s he up to? Call-me-Peter, admirably enough for someone who called the co-architect of the Mesopotamian massacre ‘Tony’, learned his lesson; more importantly, he took his give-a-shit and bailed from the inner circle of Peter, Alasdair and Apollyon the Beast and took himself into the wilderness for forty days and nights. He left Team Tony and retrained as a teacher, starting off as  TA. Five years later he made Deputy. Three years after that, he’s opening the latest Free School, a la Toby Young. 

This is a tale of two Peters; the one who, along with his boss Belial the King of the Bottomless Pit invented education policy on the hoof, in between hotel room and conference hall, who helped to design best practice and pedagogic orthodoxy for millions of children to suit the feelings and instincts of his boss, and ignore completely the people who could actually teach (teachers, natch). Don’t believe me? Read his book 1 out of 10; it’s all there. I have two copies. People buying gifts for teachers take care: duplicates are an occupational hazard, as the Countess of Wessex would no doubt agree.

I read this years ago, and it was an epiphany; for the first time I realised- with horror- that education, which has existed for as long as children have needed to know anything, was driven almost entirely by ideology, not only at the visionary stage, but also at the practical level, where efficacy and utility are essential. That the Masters of the Universe knew little about what actually happened in classrooms, and didn’t even care to ask anyone unless they agreed with them. Immolated by this information, it liberated me as a teacher. I realised why things were, in some schools, so bad; why teacher training had, in some instances, gone down the tubes; I realised that I could say no, that I had every right to object, to teach the way that felt right to me, even if it ruined the blueprint of orthodoxy. In short, my illusions about my betters shattered, I was liberated to better myself, and to teach.

‘I endorse this bold experiment.’

For that reason alone, my gizzards curdle at the thought of the Ghosts of Education Past set free on the Earth again. Let the dead bury the dead. But every life must be permitted the opportunity of redemption (God, I hope so), be it Bill Munny or Michael Henchard or Dick Nixon. I remember what it was like being in my twenties: I knew fuck all and talked crap and hurt people too, although my tragic errors weren’t played out on the national stage. ‘Nearly all men can stand adversity,’ said Abraham Lincoln, ‘But if you want to test his character, give him power.’ Thank God I had little. Do you know how many Secretaries of State for Education were ever teachers? Would you like to take a guess? Prime Ministers? Speech Writers? Heads of Strategic Communications? I’ll leave it to you as a sort of Starter; a brain teaser. Here’s a clue: *fuck-all*. (Update: I have since been told of several ministers or near-minsters who have dipped their toes in teaching. Their relative scarcity still proves the point, though: most of those who tell us how to teach or run schools have never done either.)

Oh, Behave!

No, I can look past Peter Hyman his bawdy, libertine past, seducing education and leaving it weeping on the sheets in the morning. Even though he and his brethren in the coven of Belial The Ruler of This World were mostly career politicians from the moment they left the rarefied atmosphere of University Politics. Sweet Lord, even Plato thought that Philosopher Kings should be trained until middle age. These days, Our Glorious Leaders are plucked from the Russell Group and Fast-Tracked through ambition, ruthlessness and avarice into the Big Chairs. Nous, wisdom and experience account for little in a management culture that prizes youth, novelty and innovation, the trinkets of the infant.

I can forgive him that; I don’t know him; I’m sure that he is a man of probity, conviction and compassion. In fact, from his actions subsequent to the Court of Bahomet the Reaver, we can ascertain that he is now driven by a desire to improve the world. This is the second Peter, the one who left High Office and took himself to the wilderness, working his way up, ever up, from a place close to the bottom. His ascent, like Willy Wonka’s glorious glass elevator, couldn’t be constrained by the limits of gravity, and he smashed through the glass ceiling and now he’s the latest prospective Free School Head.

Head of innovation and Smurfs

For that, we must surely doff our hats; that ambition, that drive, that dedication to a goal, and the determination to reach a  destination no matter how long it takes, is the laser light that can burn through steel, or perhaps the peaceful stream that can wear a ravine in the side of a mountain. Men like this laid the transatlantic cable, or walked to the South Pole. So what does Peter’s Lyceum look like?

Educating Stratford

Well, for a start it’s called ‘School 21’, which makes my heart sink and my inner satirist’s viscera dance at the same time. He better be careful or he’ll run into the same problem 20th Century Fox and 2000AD (the galaxy’s greatest comic) had, he should last so long. It’s a bit of a give away that he’s fallen into the same trap that many of Sir Ken Robinson’s acolytes have: the idea that present education taxonomies are unfit for this modern era, that the 21st century demands new paradigms and paper clips made of foam rubber, a hundred foot high, etc. This thinking is faithfully replicated all over the online prospectus (the school doesn’t have a real-world site yet; appropriately enough, it’s a virtual school at this point, and abstract, like money or Max Headroom).

The problem with ’21st century skills’ is that they are, as far as I can see, exactly the same kinds of skills that people have always needed to survive and thrive. Anyone who believes otherwise has been watching too many RSA Animations, and I get a bit sad and make *this* face (*makes face*) when I hear them banging on about jobs that don’t exist yet and shattering factory-based models. For more see here.

Another warning bell goes off when I see proud adverts for the school’s focus on Thinking Skills, and other examples of such rhetoric, as if such things can taught independently of content. The school doesn’t exist yet, so time will tell, but whenever anyone in education starts banging on about such things, they’ve usually been supping the Ken Robinson’s Barley dogma that children should be learning skills first and content second, as if understanding anything could somehow be contemplated without empirical data first and foremost. Heed, me Scrooge, heed me. Is this your future?

The new Head of Integrated Project Based Learning

‘I want to prepare children for the 21st Century,’ he says, as if we’ve been turning them out with flat caps and hob-nailed shoes into the workhouses of Georgian England before. Will they have iPads? I hope they have iPads. There are, to be fair, many solid aspirations that deserve to be mentioned in Peter’s Project: small class groups, options of one-on-one teaching, a culture of aspiration and a clear behaviour ethos, and these are all admirable and just goals. But the Harkness table? (I can’t even begin to tell you how awful this is. Just imagine something awful) Cross-taxonomy projects (why? to what end?)? A leadership program for every child? (Did you SEE what happened in Brave New World when they tied to make everyone an Alpha? No one hoovered).

Tony ‘Morningstar‘ Blair’s mantra was modernisation; as Peter describes in his book, it was his engine, as Thatcher’s was privatisation. It seems Peter has caught this bug too, and this is the danger. Education is an ancient beast, with ancient provenance that can be boiled down to a very few simple basics that make it workable. Many of the least of the sins committed against education in this country have been so because they are merely pointless; the greater sins have been because they actually distract or detract from education itself. It is easy, as Blair often did, to look upon the mundane features of the form and condemn them as reactionary.

Head of Feelings/ Spells

But invention for its own sake is pointless, as is immobility. The beauty of the Free School idea is that the Masters are free from the shackles of decades of administrative mission creep. It is a sin against children to realise that freedom and then replicate the same pointless, empty educational vacuousness inflicted upon schools for the last three decades. There is, I have often mentioned, an enormous intellectual abyss in the heart of education: everyone thinks they can have a punt, because everyone has been inside a school. I heard Peter talk to Amanda Foreman (Historian) on Radio 4 and basically tell her what was important for children to learn about history. And I thought, blimey, you’re confident.

And, because social science research apes the natural sciences in its claims of predictive powers and authority (but with little of its transparency, care or rigour), studies can (and are) brought in to justify contradictory viewpoints. Education research becomes a slave to the values of the bidder, and once again, anyone can have a go. You might as well try anything. It’s the attitude that informs the adviser with no school experience and the minister who listens to him. It’s the attitude that enables people with no classroom training to call themselves (and be listed on the school website) ‘education experts’…and no one says anything. because no one knows what an expert looks like, or what one doesn’t look like. I have some ideas; hit me up sometime.

Despite my apparent hostility and cynicism, I wish him well, as I wish any school well; I hope that the children there blossom and breathe, rising to heights that exceed their instructors, as we all wish. The online prospectus, the website is populated, at present, by pictures of happy children, propelled by awe and wonder, or as the prospectus says, ‘a place of joy, wonder, discovery and imagination.’ The funny thing is, that’s what most schools and teachers strive for. But we know that education is hard work too; it’s not all wonder and imagination; it’s a marathon of dedication, distress, victories and failures in a constant, variegated stream. It is life, nothing less.

Peter’s Dream School is, in its present, perfect Platonic form, very groovy. I hope that, when the dream reifies, it doesn’t melt in the daylight like snow.

Behave, scumbags.