A few days ago I received a letter from a distinguished RSA Fellow. He was dismayed by a quotation attributed to me in an article by the teacher and blogger Matthew Hunter in the periodical Standpoint.
This is the quote:
... The idea that education can only be improved through solving the root cause of social disadvantage has a rotten effect on our nation's classrooms. Consider the following claim from Matthew Taylor, head of Tony Blair's policy unit, now chief executive of the Royal Society of Arts and a prominent education commentator writing about a 2007 study into educational outcomes: "This unprecedented project has revealed that a child's social background is the crucial factor in academic pefomance, and that a school's success is based not on its teachers, the way it is run, or what type of school it is, but, overwhelmingly, on the class background of its pupils." As a teacher, I find it hard to think of a sentiment that does more to undervalue the profession...
I didn't recognise the quotation nor did I agree with its simplistic message. But as regular readers of this blog know, I say a lot of stuff and don't always think before I write.
Fortunately, my ever assiduous PA Barbara sought out the source, motivated in part by Hunter attributing the quote to me in my role as RSA chief executive. She didn't say 'it's one thing to look stupid yourself, it's another to damage the Society's reputation', but I suspect that's what she was thinking.
After a quick search Barbara found the quotation. Far from it the words being uttered by me as RSA CEO in 2007 as Hunter asserted, it was in fact from an article in 2006 by Matthew Taylor, the Guardian's education correspondent. To add a touch of irony the article attacked a set of school reforms which, at the time Taylor wrote it, I was championing as a Downing Street advisor.
Matthew Hunter is a secondary school history teacher, whose traditionalist views have been praised by none other than Michael Gove. I assume that Mr Hunter offers advice to his pupils on the perils of on-line research. He might want to add the following lessons which I draw from this episode:
1. Just because something appears multiple times on the internet doesn't mean it is right. It may well be the same mistake being repeated.To be fair to Mr Hunter the mistake was made easier to compound by The Guardian itself, which wrongly linked my profile to the by-line on the original piece (now corrected!). But as the original article is clearly dated February 2006 and Hunter attributes the quotation to 2007, I can only assume he got it from a secondary source. Mr Hunter's article in Standpoint is now on-line so there is another source of the same misattribution. This underlines that you should make sure when checking something important on-line that you triangulate your sources and don't mistake an echo for separate pieces of verification.
2. Don't turn common sense off when you turn the internet on. Hunter's piece refers both to my RSA role (which began in late 2006) and to my previous post as a Number Ten advisor (which ended in late 2006). Perhaps it should have struck him as odd that I should have somehow slotted in a period as a newspaper journalist between these roles, especially as I seem to have become an outspoken critic of the Government at the same time I was working for it!
3. Be particularly careful when using on-line sources to attack someone. We are all inclined to forgive well intentioned mistakes and I don't for a moment think Mr Hunter's misattribution was deliberate, but he does use my quotation as the fulcrum of his piece and is clearly intending to attack me and by implication the RSA. In a sense he succeeded: the Fellow who first alerted me to the Standpoint article was understandably angry that I should use my role to make such a dogmatic and sweeping statement.
These things happen. Through his blog site and Twitter I have politely asked Mr Hunter for an apology but none has as yet been forthcoming. But Matthew, if you do want to make amends and also show that humility is among your virtues how about using this case study in class? I am sure it will inspire your pupils that even 'sir' can make a mistake.