Saturday, 16 July 2011

Education, Education, Education

Should Rupert Murdoch be in command of multiple media outlets? Despite public passivity on this matter that has lasted for decades, most people would now say no. The scandal that began at The News Of The World has changed the game. Now it is beginning to expand to other titles, with tabloid newspapers unconnected to Murdoch also the subject of suspicion. But there's another issue here that isn't getting nearly enough coverage, and that relates to Murdoch's wider interests – most significantly, his interest in education.

Aside from the media, education is Murdoch's great passion. He is a man who has always understood that power resides in control of information, and education is as important in this regard as newspapers and Fox News. Specifically, his interest over recent years has been in the Free School movement, whose development in the United States he provided with crucial support. That interest has extended to the UK, and the revelation that Michael Gove was paid £1,250 a week for one hour's work for News International, whilst serving as Shadow Education Secretary, is rightly raising eyebrows. [Update: he is still being paid this amount for a Times column.]

The Free Schools movement provides a vital opportunity for entrepreneurs of Murdoch's type. Because of the freedom it offers from the usual restrictions of the National Curriculum it makes controlling the information children receive – and don't receive – much easier. As such it has natural appeal to any number of fringe political movements and ambitious individuals. There's a financial interest for Murdoch too. He is committed to the notion that learning through computers is the way of the future, and just happens to own ninety percent of educational technology business Wireless Generation, which is already snapping up lucrative contracts in the 'States.

In the UK, Free Schools have got off to a less successful start, with the number of initial applications dramatically lower than Gove, as Minister of Education, predicted, and with considerable opposition from the public and teachers' groups. The government's health, justice and now even welfare policies have been compromised in face of difficulties like this, so why has it pressed ahead so hard with its educational strategy despite them? Is this simply about sticking to principle or is it about pleasing a third party whose influence when it comes to winning elections could be more important than policies themselves?

It's worth remembering that Gove started out as a journalist, working for The Times (as his wife still does) – which may itself place him in a vulnerable position as the News Corp scandal unravels further. He has enjoyed a close personal friendship with Rebekah Brooks and it is difficult to imagine that, even in the absence of direct pressure, his approach to policy has not been influenced by his social circle. Further to this, he has among his advisers former New York Chancellor for Education Joel Klein, who closely supported Murdoch's projects. For a man who has been described as a potential future Prime Minister, he would be well advised to tread carefully over the next few weeks. The News Corp contagion could well spread beyond the media.

If this sounds paranoid, consider what Murdoch himself has said on the subject of education in a series of speeches and articles that represent teachers and school governors as conspiring the benefit financially from the current system at the expense of their pupils. We would be better off, he told the New York Times, if schools were more like American Idol. But win or lose, all children grow up to be potential voters. This is why it is vital that we keep our educational system as politically neutral as possible, and to do so we must ensure that it is managed in accordance with choices made at the ballot box, not influence purchased by those who stand to gain.

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