‘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.

This is not new, however, and it does not explain why the temperature in educational politics has now risen to a height not recorded since the rows about church schools being funded from the rates at the beginning of the century. Partly, this may be explained in the words once written by Keith Thomas: ‘if magic is to be defined as the employment of ineffective techniques to allay anxiety when effective ones are not available, then we must recognise that no society will ever be free from it.’ Democratic politicians have eyes bigger than their stomachs: they are tempted to promise more than they believe the public is willing to pay for. Speaking for a moment as a politician, I find helping to cost a party programme a painful reminder of how hard this mistake is to avoid.

With every year which passes, the accumulated under-funding further exceeds the sum any party can hope to replace, and politicians therefore try to meet the pressure on them to be seen to be doing something by introducing a series of ‘ineffective techniques’. Hence the perpetual reorganisations, each of which absorbs so much time and money. Hence also the creation of grant-maintained schools, for which, after some hundred hours of Parliamentary debate, I have never yet heard any intelligible justification. The knowledge that things are going wrong which we will never be able to afford to put right also helps to explain the persistent urge to scapegoat. Sometimes this involves ‘trendy teachers’, as in Major’s remarks in Middlesbrough; sometimes it involves Local Education Authorities, of whom he has said: ‘we will improve them if we can, and replace them if we can’t.’ One is tempted to ask John Selden’s question about the abolition of the bishops at the beginning of the Civil War: ‘when the dog is beat out of the room, where will they lay the stink?’ It is no coincidence that the Quality Assessment machinery in universities was introduced in the 1992 Act, the same Act in which the ratio of government money to numbers of students was so altered that quality became for ever impossible to maintain. Nor is it a coincidence that the Opposition’s conversion to this philosophy has come precisely when they have decided that they are, as they put it, not a tax-and-spend party.

The financial pressure also increases the pressure on the state to intervene in the name of accountability. There is nothing new about this, either. In 1080, Pope Gregory VII wrote to William the Conqueror: ‘as I have to answer for you at the awful day of judgment, ought you, can you, refuse obedience to me?’ Mutatis mutandis, this is the voice of a Permanent Secretary at the Department of Education (by whatever name it is for the time being known), preparing to give evidence to the Public Accounts Committee about the misspending of public money in some university. Up to a point, this is fair enough, indeed necessary. The question is how detailed the level of accountability demanded should be. In the Army, accountability to Whitehall stops short of operational judgments taken in the field. In medicine, it stops short of intervention in clinical judgments. Universities and schools need an equivalent form of protection.

This is the very protection they are denied by the vogue for quantitative assessment and league tables now prevalent in Whitehall. These tables rest on two false assumptions. The first is that laymen are competent to assess academic quality: they are not. The second false assumption is that quality can be quantified. This is a little like the magazine which thought it knew a way of discovering the Perfect Woman, who was to be assessed entirely in centimetres. It eventually found her: she was an obscure B-movie actress – which is what she remained. The university teaching assessment, for example, depends on giving the ‘right answers’ to a set checklist of questions. Many academics, including many outstanding teachers, do not believe the ‘right answers’ are in fact right. It is simply a test of whether or not one can pronounce ‘shibboleth’.

It is essential to understand why this pressure for ‘objective’ measurement became so intense, to the extent of being ‘objective’ in assessing the wrong object. For far too long, more subjective methods have been used as a cover for selection in education, which was carried out more on social than on academic grounds. Indeed, it is often alleged that interviews for places in secondary schools still serve this function. To justify this by claiming that social class is the best predicator of success is to argue in a giddying circle. With social class in England, as with race in America, the pressure for ‘objective’ measurement is an attempt to overcome the built-in tendency of privilege to preserve itself. To say that bringing in quantitative assessment is to leap out of the frying pan into the fire should not stop us admitting that the sins of the fathers are being visited on the children. I can remember one of my undergraduate contemporaries, an Old Etonian, describing someone with three times his ability and a Lancashire accent as ‘you know, the sort of person who shouldn’t be here’. That is the kind of mistake which has to be paid for, and the debt is never collected from the right place.

The fact is that the English educational system (far more than the Scottish or the Welsh) has taken over the old functions of the College of Heralds. It used to be the task of the College to conduct regular visitations of the English counties, inspect pedigrees, and decide who was entitled to be called a ‘gentleman’. One need only remember the merriment provoked by Malvolio’s claim to the title to understand the tensions which were at stake. Already by the reign of Elizabeth I, it was recognised that a university MA made a man a gentleman, whatever his pedigree might be. That is the assumption on which today’s educational system is built: it is choosing the gentlemen (and the ladies also) of the next generation’s social hierarchy. This means that all of us approach it with the deepest ambivalence. In any century, people viewing privilege from the outside are torn between a desire to tear it down and a desire to take it over. When Bulstrode Whitelocke, the 17th-century lawyer, eloped with the niece of the Earl of Rutland, his new uncle by marriage invited him to stay at Belvoir Castle, and set out to make him feel small. In his diary, Whitelocke gave away, far more plainly than he knew, how much this treatment drove him from one reaction into the other.

This is a helpful story to remember when listening to the long-running debate on selection in education. Most of us experience two contradictory and equally selfish desires: for our children not to be excluded, and to allow them to exclude others. It is a further ground of tension that while any defensible selection process must depend on the ability of the child, and therefore allow downward, as well as upward, social mobility, what most overt, or covert, advocates of selection really want is selection by the success of the parent. When politicians talk about ‘choice’ it is always parental choice they mean, and a choice in which opportunities are determined by the parent’s wealth, whether directly, or, in the American style, as reflected in his postal address.

Many of us, like Pope Innocent IV, approach the education system with a nostalgic demand for the restoration of the world we knew when we were at the schools. This is nowhere more apparent than in the debate on declining standards of literacy. Here, it must be admitted that the decline of which people complain is real. It has been going on for a long time, and has now reached the point when even copy-editors for university presses cannot be trusted to spell correctly, and when leaders in major national dailies commit the illiteracy of saying something ‘may’ have happened when they mean it ‘might’ have happened had something else been different. And if I had a pound for every undergraduate who has ascribed the Bishops’ Wars to a singular bishop, I might (not ‘may’) be a millionaire by now. When I began teaching, in 1960, such mistakes happened from time to time, but they were rarities. Now the rarity is an undergraduate who does not make them. The problem is real: the question is, what is the cause?

It is a fundamental rule of explanation that causes must be as extensive as the problem. When I went to teach in America in 1979, I found they had the identical problem. They thought that they alone had it, and that there were particular reasons why it should exist within the American educational system. We thus clearly need to look for an international cause. It is another rule of explanation that the cause must precede the effect. The effect was clearly visible by the time of Jim Callaghan’s ‘Great Debate’ speech in 1977, and has remained so ever since. We need a cause which operates on both sides of the Atlantic, which began not later than the Sixties, and is still operating unabated.

The verbal, written culture in which my generation grew up owed its existence to technological change reinforced by cultural change. It began with the invention of printing, and was reinforced by the self-conscious change from the culture of the image to the culture of the word implicit in the Reformation. This is the change which has gone into reverse since the invention of television. Increasingly, people wanting to capture the attention of a school class do not show them a book: they show them a video. It is hard now to imagine the excitement of the Lincolnshire yeoman of Henry VIII’s reign who found a book on the village rubbish dump, cleaned it, treasured it, and took it to the priest to read it for him. It is the visual image which raises this excitement now. If this is the problem, it is beyond the power of politicians to do more than slow the change down: it is a historic cultural shift.

The question is, why should this shift be more apparent in the English-speaking world than it is elsewhere? One may exaggerate the extent to which this is so: contestants in the French equivalent of Mastermind often fail to get their genders right. Yet English does have peculiar problems, in that there is more than one sort of correct English, as everyone who has tried to use a spell-check and been made to spell in American well knows. English has the further difficulty that its standards of correctness are tied up with the English class system: it is difficult to tell people that while the supremacy of a particular social class is dead, the supremacy of their English is not.

These reflections should serve to teach politicians some badly needed humility. Politicians cannot ‘raise standards in education’: only teachers can do that. Politicians cannot change styles of teaching, because teachers cannot teach according to any conscience but their own. If their approaches are wrong, it is they who must decide whether or how to change. Politicians who try to do the job for them are making the same mistake as their predecessors who tried to convert schoolmasters from Protestantism to Catholicism or back again.

Only the Liberal Democrats understand that politicians can give teachers the money to do the job, but they cannot take over the job. Providing the money is the only part of it they can do, and they had better concentrate on doing that. Next time you hear a politician saying he will ‘raise standards in education’, you should no more believe him than if he were offering a new cure for measles. The task is, in every sense, ultra vires. He has neither the authority nor the competence to do it. Only Liberal Democrats still understand that politics and teaching are different skills. It is the politician’s job to find the money, and the teacher’s job to decide what that money will do. We will do our job and trust them to do theirs.

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