Perhaps David Green, director of the right-leaning think tank Civitas, is having a bad day. Or perhaps I am. We are in his Westminster office and I am trying to clarify his thinking, as busts of Adam Smith, John Locke, Edmund Burke and David Hume gaze down upon us. I refer to a pamphlet Green wrote in 1999 in which he proposed the eventual abolition of the state pension and said there should be “an ethos of ‘work till you drop’”. Are those still his views? “I didn’t envisage having no minimum whatsoever,” he says. “I don’t remember advocating complete cancellation.”
At home, I check the reference. “The basic state pension … should be abolished, but not for existing recipients,” it reads. I email him. That sentence, in an introductory summary, is “misleading”, he replies. He refers me to a passage which says the pension age should rise to 75 in stages and over-65s receive benefit only after a test of “fitness for work”. At 75, “no test … would be necessary and the basic state pension would be payable”. The next sentence, however, says: “Eventually the pension age could be phased out altogether.”
I confess to being baffled still, as I am on several aspects of Green’s educational thinking. As I understand it, Green, 53, who went to a Norfolk grammar school and Newcastle University, wants all schools to become fee-charging and all qualifications for primary school teaching to be abolished (“a demonstrated sense of vocation should be adequate,” he has written). But I cannot be sure because, as the pensions case illustrates, he habitually makes statements that he later qualifies or even contradicts.
Civitas led the offensive against Ofsted that caused Michael Wilshaw, the chief inspector, to tell the Sunday Times in January that he was “displeased, shocked, angry and outraged” and to assent to the suggestion that supporters of Michael Gove, the education secretary, were running a “dirty tricks” campaign against him. At the time, Civitas planned to publish a widely trailed pamphlet arguing that Ofsted favoured “child-led” schooling and penalised teachers who talked too much in lessons. The thinktank wants academies and free schools to be liberated from Ofsted and inspected separately, as fee-charging schools are.
“We want an inspection system that’s more like professional mentoring,” Green says. “Something like the old HMI which used to send 30-odd people to sit in lessons for a long time. Now it’s a process of grading, based on inspectors spending only 20 or 25 minutes in a single lesson. From talking to teachers, we found they were getting ‘outstanding’ for achievement but being marked down for their lessons. They were told they were too didactic and there wasn’t enough ‘active learning’.”
Green argues that Ofsted should not give a separate mark for teaching quality. “If a school gets outstanding results, that should be enough.”
It sounds odd to hear a rightwinger advocating the return of the old-style HMI, which was once considered too tolerant of sloppy, 1960s-style teaching. But Green, a former Young Socialist and Labour councillor in Newcastle, is not a conventional Conservative. He says the old HMI, like the Labour party, was “captured by the counter-culture” but Ofsted never brought about significant change even during Chris Woodhead’s six years in charge. On the contrary, it has imposed child-led teaching.
But isn’t Wilshaw himself a traditionalist? Hasn’t he told inspectors they “should not criticise teacher talk for being overlong” and argued that “on occasions … pupils are rightly passive rather than active recipients of learning”? Green “thought Wilshaw was having a hell of a job turning the oil tanker around” and would welcome Civitas’s backing. Evidently Wilshaw didn’t – he referred to people who wanted “children to be lectured for six hours a day in serried ranks” – and was as confused about Civitas’s views as I am.
Civitas has now delayed its pamphlet for six months while “we examine whether or not inspectors have taken notice of his re-issued guidelines”. However, it pressed ahead with publication of a report by the journalist and free school founder Toby Young on “the Blob”, the network of liberal ideologues who allegedly control the education system and impose “child-led” schooling. Young claims that Ofsted punishes schools that depart from Blobbish orthdoxy.
Civitas, which has been described as “the voice of perturbed traditionalism”, was formed by Green in 2000 as a breakaway from the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), which invented Thatcherism before anybody had heard of the Iron Lady. Green, unable to establish himself as a politics lecturer because of the Thatcher government’s cuts in university funding, joined the institute in 1984, later becoming director of its health and welfare unit. The institute was impressed by his book Working-Class Patients And The Medical Establishment, which argued that, before the state intervened, a thriving private welfare state, based on mutual societies, provided affordable medical care for nearly all working-class families, with the Poor Law as an adequate safety net for an impoverished minority. By then, Green had left the Labour party, mainly because he was unemployed and busy with a young family.
There was, he says, no Damascene conversion. “I had become quite sceptical about the uses of political power. I was involved with housing on Newcastle council and it was incredibly inefficient with 600 people in the maintenance department and about 100 off sick and still being paid. I was exploring the idea of socialism without the state.” But he went to the IEA because he needed a job. “They wanted me because I was Labour. They felt they didn’t understand the political left. They were upset that they were constantly castigated as uncaring.”
Green says he wasn’t convinced of the IEA’s free market agenda at first but gradually became so. “But there was always a distance. I felt the IEA was too focused on economics and didn’t accept people as full moral agents. I believe in limited government but not the minimal state. The state has to create the institutions and conditions that allow people from all backgrounds to flourish.” Civitas is keen on voluntary initiatives and is credited with influencing David Cameron’s “big society” ideas. Green agrees with the proposition that “there is such a thing as society, it’s just not the same as the state”.
Green says the state “should confine itself to ensuring everybody gets a good education”. He continues: “It should run hardly any schools itself at all. They should be run by private or community trusts.” He likes academies and free schools but doesn’t approve of Gove’s role as sole contractor of their services. He thinks school autonomy is so essential that, in 2009, he suggested allowing parents to deduct the annual cost of an average child’s education from their tax liabilities. Then they could pay for schools which would all, in effect, be fee-charging and completely free of state control. But as Green acknowledges, even with tax deductions, many parents couldn’t afford fees and the state would have to pay for them. Green also acknowledges that local councils would operate schools in areas that private providers didn’t want to touch. Schools catering for children from the poorest homes would therefore be the least autonomous. Yet according to Green they have been failed most by public authorities.
Civitas doesn’t just think; it also acts. In 2004, it opened a small London private school, offering “no frills” education, initially for less than £3,000 a year; with a second school, it has since been hived off to a company run by Green’s former deputy. Civitas also runs 22 “supplementary schools”, mostly on Saturday mornings, teaching reading and maths to children whose parents can’t afford private tuition.
Now Civitas has published its final instalment of a British version of the “core knowledge” curriculum developed by the American educational guru ED Hirsch. Used by several academies and free schools, this would have every 11-year-old know that in 1845 Texas became the 28th US state; that Bolivia is the largest country in South America (no, I don’t think so either) and that the population speaks Portuguese (also news to me).
Why do children need such knowledge (most of it, to be fair, accurate)? “There’s no valid distinction between knowledge and skills,” Green explains. “Unless you can dip into a long-term memory of such stuff, you can’t gain understanding, interpret or criticise. People learn more quickly if references and words are familiar. From this curriculum, you learn what the world looks like, and get some understanding of the civilisation of which you are part. At the end of it, you’ll be a good citizen.”
Does he want an inspectorate that imposes a new orthodoxy on schools, based on this curriculum? “No, we advocate a particular approach, but we want a pluralistic system.” He isn’t happy, he says, that the Discovery free school in Crawley, West Sussex, is closing after a negative Ofsted report. “It uses Montessori methods and I wouldn’t go anywhere near a Montessori school. But we need wide scope for experimentation.”
I sympathise with Green when he says he wants diversity. What rightwingers never explain, though, is why they didn’t think 152 local education authorities, many of which allowed their schools wide discretion, could provide enough of it. I think of raising this subject with Green, but decide against it lest his answer confuse me again.