Thursday, June 03, 2010

Con-Dem education policy and the politics of faith

I noticed the Observer, fresh from declaring 'loud and proud' that they were backing the Liberal Unionists as the 'progressive' option in the May election, have continued the habit of endorsing silly ideas by backing Michael Gove's plan to make England's schools much more like supermarkets.

It was the basis on which they did this that struck me as truly bizarre: they acknowledge that it isn't clear how the envisaged system will provide incentives to teach 'difficult to reach' young people but they support the system anyway on the grounds that it will produce greater equality! You might reasonably ask, what do they base this confidence on? They are, by their own admission, running on faith here:
"Of course, it is a leap of faith. But it is a leap worth taking."
This is a ludicrous basis from which to argue for a reform of England's schools - although I would have to say that at least it has the virtue of being honest. Because the notion that Sweden's 'free-school' experiment has been a resounding success is simply not borne out by any of the available evidence. But the bloggertarian community disregard this. They are not even interested in the fact that the Swedish education minister himself seems at best ambivalent about the whole thing. You might think they would conclude that Bertil Ostberg is at least as well-acquainted with the Swedish education as they are - but this would be to misunderstand the basis on which they argue for the policy. It is not based on evidence but on pure ideology - and like all ideologues, if evidence disrupts their world view, they simply ignore it.

Surely anyone concerned about education should acquaint themselves with a little history on the subject and perhaps use that as a possible guide to what the future might look like? I noticed whoever wrote the Observer editorial on Sunday couldn't be arsed with this, which is why they attributed the centralisation of education to the Labour years instead of pointing out its Tory origins.

But even if one was unaware of this, there is surely enough in the pronouncements of Michael Gove to give reason to be sceptical? I am referring to one specific aspect of the proposed Tory reforms. Some well-meaning souls have given measured support for the 'free-school' idea on the basis that it will mean more decentralisation. Now as a teacher of some twelve years experience, there is no doubt in my mind that the control of central government over education is one of the major problems in both the Scottish and the English systems. It is for this reason, above all, that if I were teaching in the English system, I would oppose these proposed reforms with every fibre of my being. Because - if we take what people do, rather than what they say as a reasonable guide as to what they are all about - we can and must say that there is not a shred of evidence that the Conservative believe in decentralisation - and quite a lot to indicate that they do not.

What was Section 28 about? Every right-on person on the left knows it was about homophobia. Of course it was. But it was about something else as well. It was about the Thatcher regime's hatred of local government and public sector workers. This was an amendment to the Local Government Act, remember - motivated by tabloid stories about 'loony left' councils - the GLC above all - allowing transexual teachers to take classes wearing tutus and handing out condoms so that impressionable youths could indulge in gay orgies. And when imagining what depravity the LEAs allowed got too much for the Sun and Daily Mail fuelled Tory lynch mob, they did something that would have been intolerable and unconstitutional in the US, or Germany, or most other European democracies: they simply abolished London's local government.

Then there was 'opting out', the National Curriculum, league tables, Doc Martens issued to Her Majesty's Inspectorate - all motivated by the same impulse behind things like the 'right to buy' council houses and rate-capping: at best a suspicion of, and often an outright hostility to, local democracy - this having the pesky habit of producing results uncongenial to central government.

Can a leopard change its spots? It's a rhetorical question, of course. How anyone can be so naive to think that the Tories now believe in 'localism' is beyond me. Consider what we've heard so far. Schools can opt to be academies outside local authority control. If they do this, they will be given more control over the curriculum. Ok, I have a question: if getting more control over the curriculum is a good thing, why do schools have to become academies to get this? To the student of Tory history, the answer should be obvious.

And one wonders how much control even academies will have. Johann Hari picks up the story that Cameron wants to enlist Niall Ferguson to redesign the history curriculum in English schools. In doing so, Johann misses the point. I really can't stand this witch-hunting of historians that goes on in the blogosphere. The problem isn't that Ferguson is an apologist for Empire; the problem is that we have a system where the Prime Minister has the power to nominate one academic to shape the content of a curriculum that is supposedly going to be rolled out over the entire country. That, Johann, should be the national scandal - not because he has happened to pick someone you don't approve of.

There's been plenty more examples of the same sort of thing. Here's the Guardian's account of Gove at the Tory conference in 2009, for example:
"The shadow schools secretary set out a plan at the party's conference in Manchester to sideline local authorities, scrap the curriculum agency, sack the worst headteachers and return to traditional values in the classroom, with pupils expected to wear ties and ex-soldiers imposing discipline."
Ties. The now minister of education wants pupils to wear ties. Actually, later on in the article it gets more specific: he wants not just ties but blazers too - ties on their own being insufficient to combat the culture of dumbing down. In the very next paragraph we are offered the following without any sense of irony:
"The state monopoly over schools would be removed..."
Except when it comes to the weighty matter of ties, of course. Mr Gove has also in the past expressed an opinion on how the furniture in classrooms should be arranged. He likes rows, apparently. And did anyone catch Cameron in the Prime Ministerial debate nonsense talking about how he wanted more setting in schools? I'm pretty keen on it myself - except when I get the bottom set. Then it sucks - and not in a good way.

Do your bit to combat dumbing down people. Call this micro-management from the centre anything you like - but don't call it 'localism' or decentralisation. Because to do that, you really have to be pretty dumb.

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