Friday, 26 April 2013

The Internet is Flat

Yesterday Michael Gove made a speech to headteachers praising a number of favourite bloggers - including Oldandrew; Tom Bennett; David Weston and others.

The reaction amused me. A lot of people seemed to think he couldn't possibly read the blogs himself. Perhaps, it was suggested, he has a minion who presents him with occassional supportive blog extracts to help him feel in touch?

Nothing could be further from the truth. He reads dozens of education blogs, including many he didn't mention yesterday. And while he's a particularly voracious reader (he is a former comment editor after all) he's not alone.

There's a very common misperception that politicans and advisers of all parties don't listen; that they have no interest in what practioners or ordinary people think about their policy area. In my experience the opposite is true. They're all desperate for information and feedback from the outside world. That doesn't, of course, mean they agree with or act on the feedback but they certainly want to know what people think.

It's difficult to convey how claustraphobic working in a Ministerial private office is. As a Minister or adviser you are swamped with material from your department. During my time as one of Michael's advisers I received an average of 200 emails and 100 pages of policy submissions a day. That's on top of constant internal meetings. It was a struggle to see anyone from the outside world. Even when you did they usually wanted something. Schools visits were, normally, carefully stage-managed. When the Minister visits you don't take them to see bottom set year nine being taught by a supply teacher...

So twitter and blogs are a lifeline; a way to access at least some unvarnished truth about what people really think. And while I don't want to overdo the impact of the blogosphere - policy is still primarily driven by the traditional internal processes - I do think its rise is having quite a profound effect.

Suddenly an insightful classroom teacher like Tessa Matthews, Laura McInerney or Joe Kirby has a direct line of communication to the Secretary of State and his advisers. Anyone can make a case against a policy and if it's strong enough to be picked up and retweeted a few dozen times there's a good chance it will be read by the people who matter. I can think of a fair few changes to nascent policy ideas off the back of a particularly perceptive blogpost which raised points that had been missed during internal discussions - and not necessarily from the bloggers you'd expect.

None of this means we don't need more structured ways of ensuring teacher's voices are heard. In yesterday's speech Michael joined the bipartisan chorus calling for a Royal College of Teachers - and plans are advancing. Work also needs to be done to build research networks through Teaching Schools.

But I still think it's exciting that for the first time ever any teacher anywhere can sit down and write something that could shift national policy.


  1. Thanks for being so positive about this as yes, inevitably, a fair amount of cynicism coloured the response to Gove's speech - it sounded a bit like a goodbye speech to me, which perhaps explains why he was piling on the charm ... I am more concerned that other policy advisers/speech writers might be less scrupulous in their intent than you. I've not written speeches for politicians (well not directly at least, I was asked to provide 'suggestions' for content of Ministerial key notes), but have done it for senior science and maths (education) policy makers, so understand the rules behind it. The general message about the impact of social media on Govt policy is an interesting one and like all things currently being proposed in education requires evidence - just not sure how to get it apart from a series of case studies of the mechanics of Whitehall - perhaps the Institute for Government could look at it from more of a research perspective?

    1. It would be a very good project for the Institute for Government to look at this issue.

      As for who wrote the speech I'm as sure as I can be with knowing that he wrote most of it himself.

  2. a curious form of democracy and an even more curious notion of equality. What about the equally knowledgable and experienced teachers who are too busy to blog? Why should teachers be the only stakeholders to have a say in education policy? Politicians have always worked like this. Before the internet they gleaned people's opinions from newsletters, pamphlets, speeches, letters and etc. All that blogging has done is set different 'elitist' boundaries for the groups that can be heard. At least the Heads Round Table consulted more widely but even then restricted to people who have the time to tweet and blog.

    1. Two points:

      1) As I say in the piece we also need more structured forums to get teacher's voice heard in policy-making. I'm not suggesting blogging is adequate by itself.

      2) Blogging is much more democratic than previous forms of publication. If you have a spare hour and an internet connection you can blog - no capital needed. Considerably less elitist than articles, speeches etc...

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  5. So twitter and web journals are a life saver; an approach to access at any rate some unvarnished truth about what individuals truly think. And keeping in mind that I would prefer not to overcompensate the effect of the blogosphere - strategy is still fundamentally determined by the customary inside procedures - I do think its ascent is having a significant impact. Buy Essays