How Simon Cowell damaging children’s education

Nov 23, 2013 by

 …forget about hard work at school, getting good exam grades and all that nonsense — just leave it all to life’s lottery

Over the past three years, some of the most admirable people in this country have made the journey to Buckingham Palace where the Queen has been pleased to confer on them the knighthoods and damehoods they richly deserve.

From Birmingham to Brixton, Manchester to White City, these heroes and heroines have represented the best of Britain.

But I doubt if their names are known much beyond their own communities  or their words are hung on by more than the few hundred lucky to have come within their orbit.

Michael Gove

Education Secretary Michael Gove writes of his shock at a recent boast by X Factor mogul Simon Cowell that he was useless at school



Sir Christopher Stone and Sir Greg Martin are all but anonymous knights, sadly unknown by the millions of young people who should be listening to what they have to say.

Dame Dana Ross-Wawrzynski and Dame Sally Coates are the sort of women we’d like our daughters to grow into.

But their inspirational leadership is failing to influence  the millions who could benefit from their example.

All four are headteachers honoured by the Queen for helping working-class children to develop a thirst for knowledge in a culture of academic excellence. This Government has increased the number of knighthoods we award to teachers to help recognise their wonderful work.

Simon Cowell said that the secret to success is to be 'useless at school and then get lucky'

Simon Cowell said that the secret to success is to be ‘useless at school and then get lucky’


But despite our best efforts to celebrate these great heads and the wonderful teachers they work with, they are unknown soldiers in the fight to advance social justice.

Instead of celebrating their virtues — hard work, academic rigour, intellectual ambition and creative excellence — our society increasingly prefers to bow down before a new golden calf and worship the cult of celebrity.

Those with the power to shape our culture — the broadcasting schedulers, music business moguls, TV producers and public relations gurus — have ensured it is not Sally Coates or Greg Martin our children are invited to admire and dream of emulating, but that professional celebrity Paris Hilton, or Joey Essex, who is earning large sums for lying around in the jungle on ITV’s I’m A Celebrity . . . Get Me Out Of Here!

The most brutally cynical encapsulation of this new creed came from the principal prophet of the cult, Simon Cowell, last week.

The boy-band manufacturer and creator of The X Factor was being interviewed about his achievements.

Michael Goves says that Britain's Got Talent winners Ashleigh and Pudsey are deemed to have 'got lucky' by Simon Cowell

Michael Goves says that Britain’s Got Talent winners Ashleigh and Pudsey are deemed to have ‘got lucky’ by Simon Cowell



And his gospel was simple: forget about hard work at school, getting good exam grades and all that nonsense — just leave it all to life’s lottery and hope you get a golden ticket onto one of  his shows.

‘I didn’t work hard when I was at school,’ he boasted. ‘I left at 16 and didn’t have any qualifications. I was useless. The secret is to be useless at school and then get lucky.’

When I read these words I could hardly believe he had uttered them, even half in jest.

It’s hard to imagine a more damaging message to send young people today. We live in a world that is growing daily more competitive and where the future belongs to those who work hard, enjoy the best education and pursue the most rigorous qualifications.

In Shanghai and Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan, young people are working harder, for longer, to acquire the mathematical and scientific knowledge that will enable them to shape the future.

Their heroes and heroines are their teachers, the academics who occupy the most prestigious positions in universities, the engineers, architects and technicians responsible for great feats of building and design, the scientists mapping the outer reaches of the universe and the hidden recesses of the genome, and the great writers and artists — from their own nations and ours — who embody high cultural ambition.

It is humbling visiting these countries to find young people whose favourite after-school activity is the astrophysics club. On learning you have ten-year-old children, they ask which is their favourite Charles Dickens novel.

The future will increasingly belong to young people  who have that work ethic, appetite for excellence and innate sense of admiration for intellectual adventure and creative ambition.

It’s what we used to have in Great Britain when we were a rising nation.

As the Mail’s Simon Heffer points out in his wonderful new book High Minds, our heroes in the Victorian era were the manufacturers whose work was displayed in the Great Exhibition, the educators who created our great public schools and who introduced universal state education, the scientists who made sense of the world we were exploring, and the writers who wrestled with the most profound questions of character and morals.

Katie Price
Abbey Clancy

In his Saturday Essay Mr Gove says that some have been able to ride the celebrity circus to wealth and comfort. He says that Katie Price (left) and Abbey Clancy (right) would achieve highly in an environment



In my childhood, the figures whom we were encouraged to learn about, and look up to, were scientists such as Marie Curie and Michael Faraday, engineers from Isambard Kingdom Brunel to George Stephenson, statesmen such as Robert Peel and William Gladstone, and the missionaries Mary Slessor and David Livingstone.

But now, thanks to the influence of Simon Cowell, his acolytes and emulators, the figures who increasingly populate our children’s imaginations and embody their ambitions are reality-show winners and footballers’ wives, cover stars of the celebrity magazine Heat and the regulars in OK!

Whether it’s Chantelle Houghton, who found fame in the Celebrity Big Brother house, cage fighter Alex Reid — former husband of pneumatic model Katie Price — the singer Gareth Gates, or Ashleigh and Pudsey the performing dog, the celebrity circus of reality TV shows and staged ‘talent’ contests, backed by super-market weeklies, throws up young people who have ‘got lucky’ in Cowell’s terms.

Thus they find themselves on the front pages and in Channel   4 commissioning editors’ contact books. But their luck is a fragile flower — their fame a fickle friend.

Some can ride it to wealth and comfort, and there is undoubtedly a shrewdness to the way in which Katie Price or a footballer’s wife such as Abbey Clancy — who has gone from being a contestant on Britain’s Next Top Model to a star of Strictly Come Dancing — operates that is reminiscent of the ruthlessly opportunistic Becky Sharp in the novel Vanity Fair or the scheming Anne Boleyn in the Tudor court.

They have the type of ambition that would lead them to succeed in almost any environment.

But, for most, the camera flashbulbs soon fade, invitations to nightclub openings come less from Mayfair establishments and more from sad seaside resorts, and the media interest is only in misfortune and misery, drink and drug addiction, weight gain, trauma and tragedy.

So Chantelle Houghton tries to maintain interest in her waning celebrity by posing almost naked to show off her defiantly wobbly post-baby body, and that troubled former pop star Kerry Katona gives an interview in which the pain of losing the limelight screams from every sentence.

But in the sense that Simon Cowell defines it, they are still among the lucky ones, because they were, however briefly, on our TV screens and in the VIP lounge in fashionable London nightclubs such as Chinawhite. For one brief shining moment they were ‘slebs’!

There are thousands — tens of thousands — of others who petitioned to be on Big Brother, queued for hours to get on The X Factor or hoped they’d be spotted in some bar or other by a Premier League footballer — but who never ‘made it’.

Along the way, the girls will be pressured into thinking they must have a body like Rihanna and a willingness to flaunt it like Miley Cyrus before they can be taken seriously by the sylph-like female stars who sit in judgment on reality shows.

So they conform to expectations about body image that encourage anorexia and bulimia, plastic surgery and insecurity.

Young men and women are encouraged to market themselves as commodities — to become a component in a manufactured boy band  or merely a fashionable stereotype like a pouting reality-show starlet.

Then they are nudged towards posting provocative Kardashian-style ‘selfie’ photographs on their Facebook pages or uploading snippets of themselves doing something daring — a la Miley — onto YouTube.

And as they tweet and twerk themselves onto any platform going, the impression is created that the only meaningful life is one played out through social media.

For some of them, the scrabble towards celebrity status will involve humiliations played out on the public stage.

We all recognise that for years Channel 4 and Channel  5 used the residents of the Big Brother house just as the governors of Bedlam exploited the tragically vulnerable by parading them for the amusement of voyeurs.

For make no mistake, shows such as The X Factor also invite us to gawk and laugh at human weakness as we observe the painful gulf between some contestants’ desperate urge to be famous and their lack of any discernible performing talent.

It is essential to the formula Cowell has created that we join him in sneering at perfectly good and decent people who have been encouraged to perform songs they cannot sing or routines they cannot master, so they can be seen to fail to  ‘get lucky’.

To our discredit, politicians have paid court to Cowell and indulged the cult of celebrity.

Gordon Brown, a decent man at heart with a genuine love of learning and who should really have known better, celebrated his love of The X Factor, boasted of ringing Cowell to discuss the merits of contestants and even thought of proposing him for a knighthood.

Instead of conspiring with Cowell to keep this circus going, we should be celebrating precisely the people he scorns and the values he mocks — the teachers he has no time for and the learning he cheapens.

Because the real X-factor that will guarantee young people success and happiness is hard work at school.

And the changes this Government is making to education are providing far more young people with the chance to aspire to something more meaningful than the cult of Cowell ever will.

The growth in the number of academies and free schools mean more educational institutions dedicated to helping every child succeed academically.

A new, more aspirational national curriculum is designed to introduce every child to the best that has been thought and written.

The introduction of the English Baccalaureate for  16-year-olds has seen the numbers studying physics, chemistry, biology, history, geography and foreign languages at GCSE rise.

Cambridge academics such as award-winning mathematician Tim Gowers are helping reshape teaching for secondary students.

Meanwhile, distinguished historians have helped shape a history syllabus that gives every student a proper sense of our nation’s story.

New bursaries for top graduates to enter teaching mean more educators with first-class degrees in the classroom.

And a new system of performance-related pay means good teachers being paid more.

But a government can do only so much. If we are to ensure all our children have the chance to succeed, then we need to rediscover the spirit that animated us in our best years — the spirit that is in the rising nations of the East.

We need to relearn respect for teachers, reward them more handsomely, make heroes out of those who live the life of the mind, expect our children to respect adult authority, encourage them to read about the great men and women of the past, breathe a new spirit of intellectual adventure — and value education above all things.

Then we really will all  be winners.

MICHAEL GOVE: How Simon Cowell is inflicting such terrible damage on children’s education | Mail Online.

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