26/07/2012 03:57 BST | Updated 24/09/2012 06:12 BST

'It Didn't Do Me Any Harm' and Education Policy

Do we really want to develop an education system based on well-meaning but ultimately skewed nostalgia?

Do we really want to develop an education system based on well-meaning but ultimately skewed nostalgia?

I'd like to talk about 'it didn't do me any harm'.

It's a phrase occasionally heard in day-to-day life, usually when someone's talking about a difficult experience they now consider to be positive.

My most recent 'it didn't do me any harm' came over a friendly pint with an elderly gentleman in my Tottenham local. He'd been caned at school, and had 'turned out alright'. You guessed it, it hadn't done him any harm.

This got me thinking about how much we hear the phrase in current education policy. It usually goes a bit like this: 'I did X assessment/ Y type of exam/ learnt about Z, and it didn't do me any harm'.

It's a phrase we need to approach with caution. Far too often, politicians and commentators are guilty of an over-reliance on their own experience of school.

It's definitely simplistic, but I think politicians see it as a useful device to come across as passionate, experienced and in touch with 'normal people'. It's much harder to argue with someone's personal experience, right?

I don't think your view of education should be entirely isolated from your immediate experience of it. I do think it needs to be balanced with evidence and strong input from practitioners and students, and this shouldn't be 'cherry picked' to suit.

Gove's recent plan to scrap GCSEs was a classic 'it didn't do me any harm'. Gove went to school and he had a pretty difficult background. But he did O Levels, and he got good grades. That means that O Levels work, right?

But what about those who aren't heard?

The point is that we rarely hear from those that the system has failed. What about those who it did actually harm?

They're not the ones in the Education Department, on the benches of the Commons, or shooting the shit with Portillo on This Week.

And although it looks like Gove is retreating from these specific proposals, the approach is characteristic of other areas of policy making in education.

Commentators are guilty of it too. Here's a classic 'it didn't do me any harm' from Toby 'I'm a massive success in the face of adversity' Young in his recent article supporting Gove's plans.

Have a read of that article. It's hilarious. Essentially Young thinks that a return to O-Levels is a good idea because; he failed them but it was okay cos he went to a kibbutz and it was pretty cool and then he went to Oxford and life turned out great. Well done to Toby Young for making a success of himself, but don't let his skewed nostalgia let us forget the other factors which help to make someone succeed.

As we approach the first anniversary of the riots, and everyone has another go at the big 'why?' question, let's be cautious of 'it didn't do me any harm'.

A recent one came from an unlikely source, our local MP David Lammy. After a great post-riots stint, he surprised everyone by announcing that we could have helped to prevent the riots if parents could smack their kids a bit more. Presumably he thinks this because it didn't do him any harm, and doing it to his kids hasn't done them any harm either (they may disagree).

Putting aside the fact that I think he's wrong, and would certainly not attend a Lammy-sponsored smackathon to sort out the youth of Tottenham, simplistic answers based on personal experience should not direct policy on matters as important as this. Young people we work with in Tottenham agree. One local teenager says:

'I wasn't smacked and I'm not in a gang. The fact parents think that if they were allowed to smack their kids then they wouldn't be in a gang shows they dont really know whats going on?"

So let's keep this in mind over the anniversary and beyond:

Take personal experience for what it is, the view of the (often successful and influential) individual and nothing more than that.

Sadly, that may be all that counts.