Huff and Puff

John Sutherland

  • 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.

Walden is getting out of politics next year and has that freedom which Kris Kristofferson called ‘just another name for nothing left to lose’. He is at his most persuasive in bringing down plagues on both Conservative and Labour ‘educational policy’, so to dignify it. His strongest chapter deals with the ‘bogus solutions’ advocated by Government and Opposition. They are: the abolition of private schools (‘a non-starter’); the voucher scheme (‘less novel than it seems’); the assisted places scheme (‘push-button polities’); the ‘do nothing: state schools will catch up’ approach (‘an improbable scenario’).

What then must we do to be saved? Walden’s book is promisingly subtitled ‘Solving the Education Crisis’ but his solution is, frankly, a let-down; much less fun and much less convincing than the slash-and-burn which precedes it. Independent schools are to be detached from their special relationship with the upper and aspiring middle classes and relocated in a class-neutral ‘open sector’, made up of something like the old grammar schools. This will create a ‘third force’ in education. Independent schools will be attracted to the open sector by cash inducements; state schools will be attracted by the promise of access to the good things previously reserved for the privileged few. Comprehensive lion will lie down with public-school lamb.

‘However it is done,’ Walden concedes, ‘the establishment of an open sector would not be cheap.’ Just how ‘not cheap’ is divulged in the uneasiest of his chapters (‘Money’). As he calculates, ‘the total cost of such measures would be in the order of £5 billion annually – the equivalent of 3p on income tax.’ Obviously it would be money better spent than the billions Norman Lamont blew on a single night defending sterling. But the idea of the next Labour government (to which Walden is clearly looking for the reform) taxing and spending on this scale is as unlikely as their pledging to re-open every coal-mine closed by the Tories over the last 17 years. It won’t happen. For all his posturing as a powerful ex-minister, George Walden is just another forlorn voice in the educational wilderness.

We Should Know Better is a valuable contribution to this year’s education debate by virtue of its straight talking. But its programme is hopelessly utopian. And Walden’s analysis is, where I am qualified to judge it, excessively gloomy. About the plight facing higher educaton, for instance, he writes: ‘The strains are there to be seen: in library provision, in crammed lecture halls, in scarcity of accommodation, and, crucially, in staff-student ratios. In the early Seventies in universities it was a luxurious 1:8 (in France the figure was 1:25, elsewhere around 1:20). Now that figure has risen to 1:12.’ This is not the end of the world. Assuming the lecturer does 12 hours teaching a week (for 28 weeks a year – ‘the strains are there to be seen,’ believe me), the 1:12 ratio represents one hour’s personal attention per student, per week. Valet-teaching, in other words. There’s truth in what Walden writes but things are really not as bad as he says they are.

Whether or not one agrees with all of it., We Should Know Better reads well. Melanie Phillips’s offering is something else. She is even more apocalyptic than Walden, but without any of his saving stylistic grace. According to Phillips,

Britain is now de-educating. The whole of the British education system, from infant classes to degree courses, has been corrupted by [progressive] ideas. The collapse in knowledge among schoolchildren has meant that universities are having to water down their own degree courses to adjust to this new situation. This collapse has combined with the impact of the free market to unpick the academy.

And so it goes on, with a string of negative verbs coined for the occasion. Britain is ‘de-educating’, the academy is being ‘unpicked’, culture is ‘unravelling’, above all the British education system is being ‘deconstructed’, a word Phillips vulgarly misuses as a synonym for ‘destroy’.

All Must Have Prizes opens with two terrifying snapshots. The first is of students of German at Oxford University who, Phillips is informed, ‘can now only speak pidgin German’. The second snapshot is of the English department at the University of East Anglia where – Phillips has been told – incoming undergraduates are given a ‘Guide to Essay Writing’ which ‘helpfully provides a list of words they are likely to misspell or confuse, including “their and there”, “eligible and illegible”, “persecute and prosecute” ’. What kind of undergraduates are these, Phillips demands, ‘who need to be taught such elementary points? How could they have achieved their high grades at A-level, the “gold standard” of the British school education system?’ Nor should we think the rot confined to Oxford and Norwich: ‘the phenomenon is universal.’

These are serious matters. Phillips is not an educationist (a genus she despises) but a journalist on two serious papers and one might reasonably expect some investigation of this alarming hearsay. She might have bought a day-return to Oxford or Norwich and interrogated some of those allegedly incompetent students. She might have written for copies of the first-year exams and sample essays. She might have picked up her phone to inquire of the respective deans the names of the external examiners appointed to oversee standards. She might, in short, have got off her backside.

She did not. For Phillips, second-hand tittle-tattle – if it is alarmist enough – is gospel. One of her recurrent Cassandra wails is about the substitution of ideology for evidence in ‘New History’. But her own evidence is breathtakingly flimsy. On the subject of the ‘The National Curriculum Débâcle’ we are told that

One Wiltshire teacher recorded that, to his personal knowledge, good teachers had been intimidated by local authority advisers who blighted their careers if they dared to teach children to write correct English. This meant, he said, that a number of schools tended to be stuffed in their upper echelons by placemen and favourites; as a result, rank-and-file teachers had little option but to obey such diktats.

Phillips’s book is not well supplied with footnotes, but there is one here. So there should be, since what is described is systematic criminality on the part of a county education authority. And what does the footnote tell us? ‘Private correspondence with the author, 1992.’ This is not, as Phillips claims, ‘record’ but gossip. The whole argument of All Must Have Prizes rests on unsubstantiated assertion. Where one has any personal acquaintance with the subject, Phillips is invariably wrong. There is, for instance, a diatribe on the iniquities of the triennial university Research Assessment Exercise that quotes at length from another unnamed ‘private’ source, and is so inaccurate one can only assume that Phillips misremembered what she’d been told. Why didn’t she write off to the Higher Education Funding Council and get copies of their material? It’s a nice question as to what is most offensive about this book: the author’s ignorance of her subject, the laziness of her methods, or the arrogance of her pronouncements.

Or her bad English. For a book which harps on about the ‘flight from grammar’ and the illiteracy of the young and their teachers, All Must Have Prizes deserves its own prize as the worst-written book of the year. Phillips is to educational polemic what Mrs Malaprop was to drawing-room conversation. Her forte is the resuscitation of dead metaphors. They stir from her prose like the corpses of the undead at dusk. Schoolteachers, she tells us, ‘pay lip-service to phonics’: what other orifice could they use? Other prizeworthy examples include: ‘despite holding his nose at the mauling given to his original proposals, Brian Cox commented ...’ (was he holding his nose because it was bloody, or because of the smell?); ‘opposition to the English proposals was not confined to the fulminations of dons safely corralled within their ivory towers’ (the western corral, or South African ‘kraal’, is on ground level; ivory towers are in the air); ‘Froome’s comments fell among minds that were closed’ (is she half-remembering ‘fell among thieves’? Comments, unlike Pharisees, fall ‘on’ minds); ‘The National Curriculum has incorporated a disastrous series of own goals’ (‘scored’, Ms Phillips, ‘scored’ – unless you mean ‘goal’ in the sense of ‘aim’); ‘Freud had cut the already disappearing ground from under parents’ feet’ (words fail me).

Solecisms of this kind abound in a text which is further disfigured by misprints (‘the bullock committee’ is one of the more memorable) and wildly garbled accounts of the ideas of what Phillips likes to call ‘left-wing gurus’, such as Chomsky, Derrida, Rawls and Foucault. She has not, of course, read their work, but she knows it well enough to dismiss it out of hand.

All Must Have Prizes is a slovenly book, dashed off with the recklessness of a journalist phoning in midnight copy for next morning’s edition. Ill-disposed readers might find it less illuminating about the decline of English education than about the decline of journalism at the papers she writes for, the Guardian and Observer (organs in worse condition than many inner-city comprehensives, some would say).

Even slovenly books can be right. How bad are things? I’m not sure about the big picture, nor would I trust George Walden or Melanie Phillips to tell me. But in those parts of the field where I work, I see neither disaster nor the ‘despair’ which Phillips assures me is rampant in British universities. Nor do I detect the ‘collapse’ of standards she rants about. Some 1200 school-leavers apply annually to enter my department and I would agree that there has been a change in what their A-level performance can be taken to signify. There are several reasons. Increasingly boards are switching to modularity – the arguments for and against which are well known. (I happen to be against.) Moreover, for ‘desk exams’ (those done in an invigilated environment under timed conditions) students are nowadays allowed to bring in their prescribed texts marked up with their own marginal notes. (I’m in favour of this practice, although some of my colleagues are dubious; the arguments are analogous to those about calculators and maths exams.) Since they are competing with each other, A-level boards tend to lace their syllabuses with sexy titles. Favourites over the last few years have been Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads and Jung Chang’s Wild Swans. Shakespeare remains central. Most boards require knowledge of two of the plays, although increasingly candidates can get by with mainly 20th-century materials. There is some evidence that one board in particular has made its exams easier and glitzier in order to attract customers. There was anxiety expressed on this score by the 1993 OFSTED report and regulation may be called for.

The two to three hundred applicants whom my department calls for interview every year take a short unseen examination and virtually all are competent in their use of English. Spelling mistakes are rare. An inability to distinguish ‘their’ from ‘there’ would sink anyone other than a medically-certified dyslexic. If anything, the standard of written English has gone up over the last twenty years. What worries me most is that, in their eagerness for their students to excel, teachers concentrate too intensively on A-level set-books. I would rather an incoming undergraduate had read Jane Austen’s six novels than Emma six times. Lots of small gripes, in other words; but nothing to write a bestselling book about.

Despite all the debating huff and puff the big question hanging over higher education has been taken off the agenda by the Government’s familiar ‘Over to you, Ron’ tactic. Dearing promises, sometime after the next general election, the biggest shake-up since Robbins. Sir Ron is properly inscrutable and his committee is still gathering its facts. But there is no mystery about what the universities want from him – the same revenue-raising powers as their American counterparts. The sums currently floated – £7000 a year, for a three-year course, the loan repayable by a graduate tax – would still make British university education cheap compared to the $25,000 a year that the ‘package’ (tuition and board) costs students at the better private colleges in the United States. If the Tories are returned they will find such a reform bearable, believing as they do that government only got into university funding by accident in the First World War, and has stayed there too long. Labour, even New Labour, would choke on any such proposal. If ‘economic fees’ is the solution Dearing puts to a Blair Administration, we should next year have an education debate worthy of the name.