FORUM
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Volume 41 Number 2 1999

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CONTENTS | VIEW FULL TEXT

Editorial Has Anything Changed?
Sheila Dainton. Think Again, Mr Blunkett
Derek Gillard. Kings’ Manor School: an experiment in privatisation?
Colin Richards. Standards, Progress and Improvement: towards an appraisal of the OFSTED Inspection system
David Halpin. Socialising the ‘Third Way’: the contribution of Anthony Giddens and the significance of his analysis for education
Clyde Chitty and Richard Pring. What Future for the National Curriculum in the Next Millennium?
Paul Francis. Beyond the Woodhead Myth
Mike Ollerton. The Irresistible Rise of the UK National Curriculum: the phoenix rising from the ashes of the Berlin Wall
Suzanne Jessel. High Parental Demand and Academic Performance in a Separate School: some possible contributory factors
BLAIR PEACH LIVES! A Conference on Antiracist Education Reports and commentary by Chris Searle, David Clinch and Colin Prescod
Naima Browne. Don’t Bite the Bullet in the Early Years!
Franc Kaminski. Semi-independent Learning: an approach to mixed-ability grouping – a case study
Philip Sawyers. Learning a Musical Instrument: who has a choice?
Bryan Cunningham. Improving Schools, Improving Colleges
Book Reviews

 

Editorial

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Has Anything Changed?

On that exhilarating night in May 1997 when New Labour won a landslide election victory over the Tories, it really did seem to many people that we would soon be at the point where everything had changed. In fact, of course, nothing has changed – at least not for the better – and nowhere is this more true than in the field of education.

In this Summer number of Forum, we are proud to reprint a powerful Guardian cartoon by the brilliant Steve Bell showing the hapless Education Secretary mouthing the slogan: ‘Read My Lips! – Loads More Selection’. We are told that David Blunkett has the main education newspaper items read to him every morning; and one imagines that this particular gem will have sent him incandescent with rage, Mr Blunkett being extremely sensitive and thin-skinned, as I have learned to my cost.

Yet, as Roy Hattersley has often pointed out, there is a sense in which the Education Secretary is a genuine object of pity. If he ever devised a plan to promote comprehensive state education without independent or selective enclaves – and one admits it may be a difficult scenario to imagine – it would doubtless be vetoed by the tight group of trusted advisers who enjoy easy access to Tony Blair. In the area of educational policy-making, Andrew Adonis, Michael Barber, Chris Woodhead and, before his fall from grace, Peter Mandelson, have clearly wielded far more power and influence than have David Blunkett, Estelle Morris or Baroness Blackstone. After all, much of the educational thinking outlined in the 1997 White Paper Excellence in Schools was foreshadowed in the 1996 book The Blair Revolution: Can New Labour Deliver?, co-authored by Peter Mandelson and Roger Liddle, and in the 1996 book The Learning Game, authored by Michael Barber.

Quite apart from the mess over selection policy, it seems clear to me that so many of New Labour’s educational ‘mistakes’ over the past two years were deadly ‘own-goals’ and could so easily have been avoided.

The phasing of the 1998 pay settlement – inexplicable during a teacher supply crisis – was a crass decision which lost much teacher goodwill.

It was surely a grave misjudgment for the former Minister of State Stephen Byers to ‘name’ the 18 ‘worst performing schools’ shortly after taking office. And it was equally foolish of Tony Blair to announce on the BBC television ‘Breakfast with Frost’ programme before the 1997 General Election that Chris Woodhead would enjoy his full support as Chief Inspector of Schools in the event of a Labour victory. Such ill-conceived pronouncements conveyed a clear message to teachers that New Labour would not attempt to change the balance between pressure and support, as Tony Blair had promised before the Election. At the same time, a government with a genuine belief in the professionalism of teachers would have created a General Teaching Council with the Teacher Training Agency under its control, rather than the other way round.

The introduction of student tuition fees – currently causing difficulties in the aftermath of the elections in Scotland – and the proposal in the 1998 Green Paper Teachers – Meeting the Challenge of Change to introduce performance-related pay for teachers (discussed in this number by Sheila Dainton of the ATL) were hardly calculated to convince students and teachers that New Labour was anxious to govern in their interests.

Then again, the pre-publicity for a recent set of policy initiatives directed at inner-city education was an excellent example of how to cause maximum confusion while, at the same time, continuing the Tory policy of alienating teachers in inner-city comprehensive schools. A front-page story in The Sunday Times of the 21st March announced that ‘an elite 10 per cent of pupils at comprehensives’ were to be ‘creamed off and given special tuition in an attempt by Tony Blair to stem the exodus of middle-class children to private schools’. At least 100,000 children would benefit initially from the Scheme which would, predicted The Sunday Times, ‘sound the death knell for mixed-ability teaching in comprehensive schools’. It wasn’t too clear how the new arrangements would operate, but it seemed likely that the ‘elite pupils’ in the biggest cities, including London, Birmingham and Manchester, would be singled out for extra attention and tuition, sometimes after school or at weekends and sometimes at nearby specialist schools.

Somewhat predictably, this initiative was seen by many headteachers and union leaders as signalling yet another vote of no confidence in inner-city schools. In the words of John Dunford, General Secretary of the Secondary Heads Association: ‘this is not modernising the comprehensive system; it is undermining it’. And according to Nigel de Gruchy, General Secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters/Union of Women Teachers, ‘if this hare-brained scheme is designed to reassure the middle classes, it will not succeed. Desperate middle-class parents can usually afford extra tuition for their children. Their real concern is social. They don’t want their own children mixing with rough youngsters’.

Finally, the Tory obsession with market forces and privatisation seems to have acquired a new and unexpected prominence on the New Labour education agenda. The more obvious examples here are the privatising possibilities implicit within the Education Action Zones Project; the decision to allow a private sector takeover of a state secondary school in Guildford, Surrey; and the naming of 10 consortiums that will take the lead in privatising state education in areas where the local authority is found to be failing to provide an adequate service for the pupils in its schools.

Yet re-reading the opening section of this rather depressing Editorial, I have to concede that there is one major exception to that paragraph’s pessimistic verdict.

This concerns the response of New Labour to the recent nail bomb atrocities which, at the time of writing, have been designed to bring bloodshed and chaos to a number of ‘marginalised’ communities in London: in Brixton, Brick Lane and Soho. Generally speaking, the response of leading politicians like Tony Blair and Jack Straw has been sincere and apposite, showing genuine concern and sympathy for the groups of individuals principally affected. The Tories would have mouthed platitudes about the unforgivable threat to law and order and the need for all citizens to be vigilant; but, with a few honourable exceptions, their ‘concern’ would have been trite and synthetic.

It seems to me arguable that it was the brutal and dehumanising culture of the 1980s which paved the way for, and to some extent legitimised, the many atrocities of this current decade. It was, after all, Mrs Thatcher who idolised Enoch Powell and talked of the country being ‘swamped by immigrants’; and it was her Government which attacked the recognition of lesbian and gay sexualities by incorporating the notorious Clause 28 into the 1988 Local Government Act. The phrase outlawing ‘the promotion of homosexuality’ in schools had the insidious and intended consequences of both constructing all teachers as the potential corrupters of their pupils and encouraging young people to think of gays and lesbians as evil, perverted child-abusers.

All this gives us a powerful insight into the Tory Mind. In Lucky George, his recently-published ‘Memoirs of an Anti-Politician’, ex-Tory MP and ex-Minister for Higher Education George Walden writes: ‘scratch the topsoil of the most modern-minded Conservative, and one millimetre down you will find, more often than not, an impermeable layer of Jurassic prejudice’ (page 293).

I would argue that with regard to the important issue of ‘what it means to be British’, things have changed – even if we still have a long way to go if we want to create a truly decent civilised society in which all forms of diversity – racial, cultural, religious and sexual – are welcomed and ‘celebrated’.

In a well-timed speech in Birmingham on the 2nd May, intended to mark the 300th anniversary of the founding of the Sikh religion, the Prime Minister spoke eloquently of the need to build ‘the tolerant multiracial Britain the vast majority of us want to see’. He argued powerfully that an attack on any section of the community was an attack on Britain as a whole:

When one section of our community is under attack, we defend it in the name of all the community. When bombs attack the black and Asian community in Britain, they attack the whole of Britain … When the gay community is attacked and innocent people are murdered, all the good people of Britain, whatever their race, their lifestyle, their class, unite in revulsion and determination to bring the evil people to justice.

What is also clear is that education itself has an important role to play in defeating the sort of vicious nationalism that tolerates attacks on minorities and replacing it with a vision for the 21st century based on respect for human diversity.

Clyde Chitty

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