Huff and Puff
- We Should Know Better by George Walden
Fourth Estate, 231 pp, £9.99, September 1996, ISBN 1 85702 520 2
- All Must Have Prizes by Melanie Phillips
Little, Brown, 384 pp, £17.50, September 1996, ISBN 0 316 88180 5
Every summer, with the absence of Parliamentary news and the arrival of GCSE, A-level and degree results, the great education debate starts up again. This year’s is accompanied by two jeremiads: one from a politician, the other from a journalist. Both aim at a mass audience. All Must Have Prizes is promoted by its publisher as ‘the book every parent must read’; We Should Know Better is held to ‘chime in with the current collective mood of the nation in much the same way as Will Hutton’s bestselling The State of the Nation did last year’.
In education, it seems, we have never had it so bad. Both books are one-idea affairs whose extravagantly pessimistic analysis is delivered as woe-unto-this-nation polemic. Without, that is, tedious research or first-hand experience of their subject. Neither can have taken more than a few months to dash off. None the less, each one has the answers. Of the two, the politician’s is by far the better. Walden’s one idea is that Britain has a segregated school system which nobody, for their own disreputable reasons, will talk about – except George Walden, who for the last year or two has talked about nothing else. This ‘apartheid’ unbalances the quality of education which our children receive and hypostatises malign aspects of the British class structure. Walden estimates (the source of his information is uncited in the interest of keeping his book ‘jargon-free’) that 7 per cent of the school population is in the private sector. This tiny cohort attracts a per capita investment three times larger than pupils in the state sector. Products of the ‘independent’ schools thrive accordingly. In 1994, 46 per cent of all Oxbridge entrants came from the private sector.
Like others in the Tory Party before him, George Walden has discovered that there are two nations. One is getting all the educational gravy. ‘As long as our independent sector remains divorced from the national educational enterprise, our state system is condemned to mediocrity,’ he prophesies. Reuniting divorced parties is a tricky business. Clearly if Walden, who was a minister for education, couldn’t even start Britain down that road, the great educational harmony is not going to be easily achieved.
What makes We Should Know Better a good read is the author’s satire on our little English hypocrisies. He is amusing on ‘the codes of silence’, the doublethink, the complacencies that constrain useful discussion of the subject. Politicians – more prudent than he is, and therefore able to stay in high office longer than he did – resolutely see no evil: ‘Education Crisis? What Education Crisis?’ Aspiring middle-class parents (even Labour shadow ministers) genuflect to the state system, cross their fingers behind their backs and send their children to private schools. Walden is shrewd, funny and, I believe, wholly correct about the demoralising effect of this middle-class defection to the traditional educational enclaves of the rich and aristocratic:
What distinguishes British teachers in the state sector from their co-professionals in Europe is not just the relatively low status of education, though that is a factor. From their first day in the classroom, however gifted or dedicated they may be, at the back of their minds our teachers know that a million of the richest, most influential and frequently most educationally discerning parents in the country will go to any lengths not to send their children to the schools where they teach. They will spend their savings, remortgage their homes, borrow money at exorbitant rates, beg cash from aged relatives, drive battered cars and insist that they have always preferred to spend their holidays in Cornwall and the Yorkshire Dales rather than Provence or Umbria – anything to avoid consigning their progeny to the schools used by the majority of their countrymen.
Vol. 18 No. 20 · 17 October 1996
John Sutherland thinks the only people who should be allowed to report on what is happening in education or express a view about it are university professors like himself (LRB, 3 October). This appears to explain his despotic redefinition of evidence. Journalists cannot produce evidence about education, it seems, because we are not teachers. Presumably then, since we aren’t MPs, doctors or police officers either, we can’t produce evidence about politics, the Health Service, crime or indeed about anything at all except journalism.
Because I am a journalist, he assumes (with no evidence) that my book took only ‘a few months to dash off’. In his limited world, no doubt he thinks ‘dashing off’ is what all journalists do. For the record, my book took 18 months to put together and drew upon nine years of writing about the subject for the Observer and before that the Guardian. During that time, I spoke to or corresponded with teachers, education psychologists, government inspectors, university professors, GCSE and A-level examiners, politicians, civil servants, parents and pupils, and read many educational texts and research reports. I drew upon all this wealth of material for my book. Yet to Sutherland, none of this is evidence. He says it is all ‘secondhand tittle-tattle’. What is secondhand about talking to these people or reading that material? What would be firsthand?
As any fair-minded person can see, my book is crammed with evidence. Yet Sutherland dismisses it all out of hand as ‘flimsy’. ‘She might have got off her backside,’ he writes with all the elegance of the truly erudite, and ‘bought a day return to Oxford or Norwich’. Well, actually, I did buy day returns to both those places; just as I also visited primary and comprehensive and further education classrooms (how many of these has Sutherland’s backside ever graced, I wonder?) and both there and beyond talked to all those people at all levels of the education system who gave me the evidence of reality that Sutherland trashes with such arrogant disdain. Evidence, for example, of the kind of simple sentences which students reading German at good universities can no longer translate but which would once have been taught to 12-year-olds; evidence from mathematics professors about the collapse of knowledge among undergraduates of basic mathematical principles; evidence from a former chief examiner of the corruption of public examination grades; evidence from a French teacher in a rural comprehensive about the way the National Curriculum and the GCSE prevent teachers like herself from teaching a foreign language properly; evidence from A-level pupils about the failure of their schools to teach them any history or get them to read a book from start to finish.
Then there was the evidence from the mouths of teachers themselves about how they wouldn’t tell a child an answer was wrong because wrong answers were evidence of creativity; or wouldn’t teach systematic grammar because even bright children couldn’t grasp abstract concepts; or wouldn’t teach scientific facts to primary school-children who had failed to find them out for themselves through ‘discovery’ methods. And then there was the evidence I amassed from all those dire ideological tracts masquerading as educational texts, published by university departments of education or respected education journals, which redefined reading as guesswork or memorisation, which urged the transfer of ‘power’ from teacher to learner, which told language teachers not to teach correct forms of language but only enough for children to ‘get the gist’. Yet Sutherland is simply not interested in addressing this evidence. He merely chooses to sneer.
Sutherland boasts that the applicants for degree courses called for interview by his department are virtually all competent in their use of English, and spelling mistakes are rare. If anything, he adds, the standard of written English has gone up over the last twenty years. But the admissions tutor of his own department, Dr John Mullan, subsequently told the Daily Telegraph that standards have declined among applicants, with some of them unable to spell or punctuate properly or get a grip on a sentence. Presumably, though, Sutherland would dismiss this evidence as secondhand tittle-tattle.
Vol. 18 No. 21 · 31 October 1996
When my book, We Should Know Better, came out, I warned the great Vicky Barnsley of Fourth Estate that she had a real bummer. The Right would like my criticism of state schools, but reject my view that our unique system of educational segregation was largely responsible. The Left would applaud my analysis of private schools while claiming, with careless logic, that state schools were doing fine. I was wrong. After reading the book, Tony Blair asked me to discuss its ideas with his staff, which I did. It was well reviewed in the Independent, the Guardian and the New Statesman, and serialised, to my surprise, in the Daily Mail. The chairman of the independent schools’ Headmasters’ Conference,Tony Evans, also expressed interest. Quite a galère.
Only John Sutherland (LRB, 3 October) fell into the logical trap (state schools are doing fine, segregation is harmful) but then he has an excuse: he has not read the book. I want to spend a utopian five billion on opening independent schools to all, he writes. The figure I gave was one billion, plus the proceeds from the abolition of the Assisted Places Scheme, plus fees that the successful children of rich parents would continue to pay, as they do in university maintenance. The remaining four billion would be spent in state schools, on nurseries for all, smaller classes, higher pay for better teachers, science and technology. Utopia? Then he says I want to raise taxes by three pence to pay for the policy he so wildly misrepresents. Oh dear. Tax rises are specifically ruled out on another skipped page, the money to come from the running down of mortgage tax relief (hinted at by Labour) and the taxation of child benefit (proposed by the Commission for Social Justice).
A switch of spending priorities to education is creeping up the political agenda, as is the problem of segregation. Meanwhile, like the Times and the Daily Telegraph, Sutherland seems happier grazing old pastures. Could it be that, like many of my Tory colleagues, he is just another status quo merchant in disguise?
House of Commons
Replying to John Sutherland’s review of her All Must Have Prizes, Melanie Phillips (Letters, 17 October) lines me up in support of her polemic about falling educational standards. She writes that I told a Daily Telegraph correspondent that ‘standards have declined among applicants’ to the UCL English Department, of which I am admissions tutor and John Sutherland is head.
Even in my gloomier moments (two UCAS forms in a row professing admiration for the novels of ‘Jane Austin’), it would be difficult for me to argue quite this. I have been admissions tutor for about a year, and am in no position to chart the decline over time that would fit my views to the case made in her book. Indeed, I tried to suggest to the Daily Telegraph journalist that discussion of standards too often relied on a person’s sense of how things might once have been, and that this was more often determined by prejudice than by evidence.
I did tell the Daily Telegraph that I have a less optimistic view of the state of English in secondary schools than John Sutherland (which is why he suggested to the journalist that she might want to talk to me). I agree that some of my anxieties would chime with Phillips’s. I mentioned some of the changes in examining methods that seem to have taken place without much widespread discussion (in English, for instance, most A-level candidates now being allowed to take their set texts, annotated if they wish, into the exam). I also observed, from my recent experience, that it seemed possible to obtain an A in GCSE English Language and yet be unable to punctuate properly or construct lucid sentences. I did add that the candidates without these skills were not offered places.
Admissions tutors see all the unsuccessful applications, and those of my comments that match Melanie Phillips’s views applied to these. The standard of the successful applicants seems high to me (although perhaps, twenty years ago, UCL English students were even more wonderful). We do not have to run the kinds of remedial literacy courses that she describes in her book. If competition produces high standards, as Melanie Phillips believes, then she will be glad that competition for places in my department seems fierce, and is becoming fiercer. I am sure that such is the case for many English departments. My worry is that the advantage enjoyed by candidates from independent schools is increasing. This is why, as I told the Telegraph and would have been happy to discuss with her, I was more preoccupied by George Walden’s proposals for breaking the independent/maintained school divide in We Should Know Better, the other book discussed in John Sutherland’s review.
University College London