Leave it to the teachers

Conrad Russell

‘This is not how things were done when we were at the schools.’ This is not John Major yearning to get back to basics: it is Pope Innocent IV writing to the schools of Paris in the middle of the 13th century. There is nothing new about politicians aching to stick their noses into the management of education, nor about their belief that because they have received education, they know all about it.

Yet there have been few times when tension between politicians and what they quaintly call ‘the educational establishment’ has been quite so acute as it is in this country today. The very notion of an ‘educational establishment’ is in large measure the politicians’ own creation. The Tory minister Angela Rumbold, speaking on the Education Reform Act 1988, announced that ‘the educational establishment are gnawing away at this Bill like rats in a cellar.’ By the simple process of locking us all in a cellar, the Government has produced unity between people who would not normally have agreed with each other in a thousand years. Max Beloff, speaking in the House of Lords, once exclaimed in grief: ‘I agree with everything said by the noble Baroness Lady Blackstone – a fate I never thought would befall me.’

He will not suffer that fate for much longer (provided Baroness Blackstone follows the Labour Party’s proposed education policy). Labour’s draft manifesto, New Labour: New Life For Britain, announces the conversion of the Opposition to all the nostrums proposed by the Conservatives. In its words: ‘we have proposed a range of measures to lift standards ... better testing and assessment with target-setting of improved results ... a quicker, though fair, process of removing the few teachers who really cannot do the job.’ This is not a brave new world: it is a painfully familiar old one.

What are the main causes for complaint? First, a real starvation of government funds. This had reached emergency levels when I returned from teaching in the United States in 1984, but faced with evidence of it, ministers have taken refuge in a cult of reorganisation designed to produce ‘efficiency’ and ‘better value for money’ – the usual Whitehall euphemisms for ‘less money’. This reorganisation has produced a flood of acronyms, mostly short-lived. We have had the UFC, initials which I liked to imagine were the wrong way round, and SCAA, which reminds me of Kaa, the serpent in The Jungle Book, so that I long to address it in Kipling’s words as ‘footless yellow earthworm’. And we have FAS, which must make any classicist look for NEFAS. It is doubtful whether any of these have done more than waste a little more public money.

When these remedies fail, we get scapegoating, as illustrated by John Major’s recent assault on ‘outmoded politically correct ways of teaching’ and get quantification, in the publishing of an endless series of school and university league tables. Coming as I do from a university department which has scored top marks every time it was assessed, I have to remind myself daily never to claim any credit for the fact. It is, at best, coincidental. We also get centralisation, of which the Teacher Training Agency, John Patten’s attempt to gain control of the training colleges, may serve for an example; and finally direct intervention, as symbolised by David Blunkett’s threat (Independent on Sunday, 23 February) to ‘lay down from the centre exactly how reading should be taught’. Hobbes would have known what to call this: it is ‘a perpetual and restless desire of power after power, which ceaseth only in death’. Is that a sufficient explanation? It certainly contains some truth, and the desire to intervene in teaching methods shows an itch to meddle which the clergy over the centuries would have no difficulty in recognising. Teaching, like preaching, is a rival form of power, and the reaction of politicians to it is essentially competitive.

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