FORUM
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Volume 41 Number 3 1999

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CONTENTS | VIEW FULL TEXT

Editorial
Foreword
Vic Kelly. ‘Comprehensive Threats’ Observer – reprint Simon Caulkin
Neil Selwyn. Grid over Troubled Waters
Colin Richards. Payment by performance? Guardian leader reprint and Derek Gillard’s letter of reply
Roy Corden. ‘Shameful Neglect (Oracy)
Pat D’Arcy. Achieving Literacy
Judith Graham. Inference & Deduction
Mike Johnson. Declining use of books in schools
Sarah Borden. Case study into children’s understanding of global food injustices
Philippa Cordingley. Teachers & Research
Paul Hammond. Influence of heads of departments
Trevor Kerry & Brent Davies. Anticipating the 5 term year
Book Reviews

 

Editorial

BACK TO CONTENTS LIST
‘Honey, I Just Shrunk the Curriculum’

And the teachers. And the children. Each in their own way are being, to use an over familiar Americanism, ‘dumbed down’ by present government initiatives. Subject specialists, for instance are concerned that the new curriculum proposals will make for a merely simplistic approach rather than establish the desired simplification; young children’s potential, despite the occasional conciliatory nod in the direction of social and creative development, is still merely reduced to achievement in certain 3R and clerical skills and teachers are identified as a group for whom payment by results is perceived as appropriate and sufficient motivation.

In business, the phrase ‘dumbing down’ has been frequently used as a derisory term in the context of firms that have shed workers and resources in a claim to become ‘lean, mean and hungry for challenge’. The fatal attraction of the short term answer being hard to resist. In the event, they have often shed invaluable experience and know-how and as a result become less ‘intelligent’ as an organisation. As educationalists are only too aware, there are a great many indications that these and similar events are happening in education too because the business model in official eyes, is becoming coterminous with a model for education. Not for nothing is Forum re-printing an article by Simon Caulkin in this edition that originally appeared in the Observer business section. On first reading it may not seem to be about education. On second reading it is inescapably so.

It evidently appeals to bureaucracy to think of education in business terms: we are only too familiar with expressions such as targets, quality management, appraisal, product etc., and in some ways it may have helped to clarify some otherwise fuzzy areas, but being able to speak the language does not necessarily mean one wants to take out citizenship. We still have a sense of unease and misgiving, of being somehow ‘taken over’. The government see this rather negative reaction as just one more example of predictably Luddite recalcitrance on behalf of teachers, yet could the misgivings be based on the fact that while we hear tell of business methods, there’s very little talk of business ethics?

It doesn’t need a long memory to recall what happened when market forces were allowed free rein under the Thatcher government and for market forces in education nowadays read ‘privatisation’. There appeared, then as now, little talk about any other underlying ethic than the one of becoming very rich, preferably very quickly and by whatever means available. Even today, scan the business and management shelves of a large bookshop, as I did recently, and only two out of approximately four hundred volumes so much as mentioned the word ‘ethics’ in their title. Anita Roddick, of Body Shop, interestingly herself once a teacher, has been sufficiently concerned about this trend to establish an Academy of Business based at the University of Bath which serves to promote the study of business ethics.

Why should this concern us though, when schools, we are assured, are secure in their moral base? They are frequently quoted as being the most moral context in which many children will ever find themselves. GCA is valiant in its attempts to secure a place for or recognition of, moral values in education. But if the base is shifting, if ‘edu-business’ is to become to schools as ‘agri-business’ is to farming, then conflict is unavoidable and pupils will be the first to sense a discrepancy in values that are stated and values that are acted upon. Public exam results equal profits, test results equal measurement and league tables remind them and their teachers that it is the weakest (and most vulnerable) that go to the wall. As a ‘Best Buy’ index they are a crude but effective way of introducing business ‘values’ into education. Schools are not favoured that value co-operation over competition and streaming ~ and let us remember that five is the recommended starting age. Can’t start too early knowing you’ll never make it to manager.

The name of the game then is competition. In casting around for a reason to justify an overwhelming need to control, Chris Woodhead has consistently reminded us that the base line is to make Britain, as, if not more, competitive than other countries. In business though, firms that are unsuccessful conveniently disappear, are taken over and never heard of again. Inconveniently for society, however, schools that don’t make it and in particular pupils that don’t make it, become more rather than less conspicuous.

We are reminded ad nauseam that competition has to have losers as well as winners. The losers in this case are these very children but by extension it is also society itself. In one of the neatest pieces of statistical evidence ever to come the way of education, exclusion rates began an inexorable rise from the introduction of the National Curriculum to reach an unprecedented level once the league tables began to be published. The Government, being made aware of the high proportion of the excluded that were involved in juvenile crime etc. have recently ordered schools to cut back on exclusion. In other words, the losers were seen as starting to cost society money in terms of disaffection, court and police time and unemployment. (Inconveniently, the business manuals never mentioned this as a possible outcome.)

The cost to the lives of individual children is incalculable but rather than showing a sudden and inexplicable rise in naughtiness or lack of application, it might be nearer the mark to suggest that schools, who used to give time and resources to such pupils at risk, now, often against their better judgement, find they can no longer do so. They are placed in an unenviable and invidious position as the government vainly tries to have its economic cake and eat it without cost.

The wholesale adoption of this particular, and in the opinion of a number of management specialists, rather outdated business model, is thus proving counter-productive. The more modern business gurus are now starting to talk in terms of trust, mutual confidence and co-operation. Simply put, it seems this makes money.

To the majority of educationists though, these values have always made the kind of ethical sense by which society as a whole eventually profits, albeit in a rather wider and less materialistic sense. To many their adoption as official education policy can’t come too soon.

Annabelle Dixon

 

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