The Rt. Hon. Graham Stuart MP
Chair of the Education Select Committee
Chair of the Education Select Committee
12th March 2013
As you prepare for your discussions with Michael Gove tomorrow you might find the insights contained in this letter useful. I’m a specialist in online discussion forums (I run workshops and give advice on how to make them work well and I’m an FRSA researching and writing on mass online discussion and 21st century enlightenment). I’m also a lecturer in education and have particular expertise in education discussion forums.
You may remember that I first contacted you in the early days of this government during the Ofsted enquiry because I had been trying to explore positive ways forward for Ofsted on the TES discussion forum. I had been very shocked to find that when I did this I was immediately subjected to severe cyberbullying, the systematic deletion of my posts, other inappropriate moderator intervention and substantial personal attacks which went beyond that forum and were clearly designed to discredit me so to a level where my opinion would be meaningless. I was concerned that your enquiry would struggle to reach the quality of conclusion it should have attained as constructive debate appeared to be being actively prevented. My MP, Tony Cunningham, persuaded you to view some of the issues on the forum with him. TES rejected my offers to help them improve their discussion forums and have instead chosen to threaten me with legal action and ban me from their sites.
You may also remember that I raised specific concerns about Ofsted at the Westminster Education Forum you spoke at after that review. You advised me to speak to the Ofsted directorate about these issues. Richard Brooks (the director present) readily accepted this request in public, however his attitude was completely different when I followed this up. I found that there was no place where I could have intelligent discussion about the future of Ofsted.
In response to this I started to work hard on developing small education discussion forums which were run by individuals for the purpose of free speech. The first major progress was made on linkedin.com where there are many such forums and there is no anonymity. It was, for example, possible to systematically explore the intellectual foundations and the practical rationale for Michael Gove’s reforms and to discover that they were not robust. Eventually it became possible to transfer this quality of discussion onto a forum where anonymity was allowed. That forum was the ‘Local Schools Network’ which is lightly and impartially moderated by four labour campaigners.
It was interesting to see key characters around Gove participating in this forum. They simply couldn’t cope with the quality of discussion and found their ignorance exposed by the high quality participants and impartial moderation.
During Easter Recess last year a new character suddenly appeared on the Local Schools Network forum under the pseudonym of ‘Ricky Tarr’. Ricky Tarr could access any information on education at lightning speed. He always knew Michael Gove’s views precisely and thought them entirely rational. He never had to qualify his descriptions of them with caveats such as ‘I think’ he means. This was a very different behaviour pattern to all other posters. Despite careful observation I never found any reason to suspect that this was anyone other than Michael Gove. We chatted at length for many months before he posted that he somebody called ‘Rick’ from the DFE and disappeared. His posts were at first abusive and derogatory but they rapidly improved because on a properly moderated forum such behaviour only discredits the poster. Here is a link to just one of the many conversations I and others had with ‘Ricky Tarr’ on the Local Schools Network.
I was eventually able to properly explore the issues associated with Ofsted in the properly moderated forums and, together with expert regulators from outside education and the Liberal Democrats, have been able to develop the policy insights I’d been unable to attain while conversation was prevented.
It became much more difficult to ‘manage’ cyberspace during 2011, the year of the Arab Spring. This happened because ordinary people became hyperconnected and were able to converse in real time through multiple devices. They also became empowered with platforms which enabled them to set up and moderate their own discussions.
The world is changing very rapidly. At present I can’t see it changing in favour of those who wish to control the thoughts and views of others. We seem, thankfully, to be moving rapidly in the other direction. We need to prepare to positively manage the consequences of this. In state education there is further to move than in many areas of society.
I hope this letter is of some use to you and you committee. Please don’t hesitate to contact me if you have any further questions or if I can help you in any other way.