Tory education policy: we have reason to be worried

If one takes the Tories’ education policy to its logical conclusion, as one must, The Spectator (13 January, one Dennis Sewell), makes a useful read. We have reason to be worried.

The ‘bloated educational establishment’ is characterised as the Blob, previously a 1950s film and a term applied to the 1980s US educational system by Reagan’s education secretary. Comprising our own UK Blob are Whitehall diktats, Every Child Matters, safeguarding guidelines, the National College of School Leadership, the NUT, all lumped together indiscriminately.

We then switch to the ‘bitter’ dispute over how much emphasis is giving to imparting knowledge and how much to developing pupil competencies.  Take History:  a class these days may have little idea whether Charles II comes before or after the Roundheads.

Michael Gove is praised for wanting to deepen knowledge and to strip out the ‘fatuous enunciation of high-sounding but empty goals’ from the National Curriculum.

Back to the Blob … now attacked for supporting a social purpose for schools which provides unquestioning support for equality, diversity and, chucked in for good measure, anthropogenic global warming.

Some things to agree with here (too many initiatives, overly prescriptive curriculum, over-emphasis on skills as opposed to knowledge). But it’s not just content but the structure itself that’s being attacked, the idea being that a new structure will somehow of itself transform content.

Once the Blob is punctured, what will we get instead? 

–          Schools independent of the government and local council funding ‘on which it gorges itself’

–          Schools run on the Swedish model, by not-for-profit and community groups,  funded by a capitation fee

–          Power moved away from bureaucrats and the quangocracy to parents and ordinary class teachers (something viscerally anti-authority here)

–          Schools buying into services, such as playing fields, swimming pools …

In sum, a characterisation which is pretty nasty in its language (there’s a lot of that in the Spectator – why do they hate so much?), has some truth at the heart of it, but (ruinously) an obsession with supposed institutional failure, leading to unquestioning support for that dotty fuzzy-headed Swedish model who shows up in every document these days.

What strikes me is how utterly inadequate the solution is to the problem. Schools, teachers, pupils, parents need structure, certainty and ordinary common sense. They don’t want schools closing and starting up, interest groups given free rein, uncertainty over services, no possibility of institutions to which you can show loyalty or with traditions in which you can take pride. If they do, I’d like to meet them.

There’s another saner solution we don’t hear about, from dirigiste Labour or dotty Govean Tories, is one that involves thinning out the bureaucracy, cutting back on directives, devolving power, but keeping the same core structure. Reforming local government to ensure that it doesn’t dictate to schools but does provide services and support where they’re needed, and link up with social services and the community in a coherent fashion. This I admit is a seriously boring solution. It needs radical thinking, shaking out old ideas of which I’m tired as much as Govean right, a clear strategy and long view, great determination – and a sense of realism.

To achieve what they want there will of course need to be a huge amount of central direction (always hard to stop once you’ve started, but let’s assume they do in time back off), ultimately replaced by a wonderful, self-regulating system – the like of which has never been seen in this or any land.

And never will be. Just what do they imagine the end product of their policy will be – other than anarchy?

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