Dennis Sewell says that the political cage fight between the Tories and the educational establishment will be the most thrilling contest of Cameron’s first hundred days
The Russell Group, representing Britain’s top 20 universities, warned this week that Gordon Brown’s cuts would bring to its knees within six months a higher education system that has taken 800 years to create. The destruction of our schools system has been a slower, more drawn-out process. There is, fortunately, one last chance to save it. Of all the dramatic political battles that will begin only once the general election has been safely won, the most thrilling — and the one that more deserves to top the bill during David Cameron’s first hundred days — will be the cage fight between Michael Gove and the Blob. At stake will be our children’s and grandchildren’s futures and the Conservative party’s credibility as an agent of genuine social transformation.
In the eponymous 1958 film, The Blob was a protean jelly-like alien that terrorised a small Pennsylvanian town. Indescribable, indestructible and seemingly unstoppable, it consumed everything in its path as it grew and grew. Until, that is, the overblown amoeba got its comeuppance at the hands of Steve McQueen. The Blob entered the political lexicon in the mid-1980s, adopted by William Bennett, education secretary in the Reagan administration, as a term to describe the amorphous coalition of a bloated education bureaucracy, teacher unions and education research establishment that Bennett argued always obstructs or stifles school reform. After his resignation from Ofsted a decade ago, Chris Woodhead began to warn that British education was menaced by a Blob of its own, every bit as slimy, ruthless and voracious as the American original.
The Blob currently has the whole schools system firmly in its grip. From Whitehall it issues diktats: the Children’s Plan, Every Child Matters, instructions on personalised learning, safeguarding guidelines, frameworks and so forth. The Children’s Services departments of local authorities provide a second tier of bureaucratic meddling while skimming off cash badly needed by schools. Through the Training and Development Agency and the National College of School Leadership, the Blob indoctrinates young teachers and determines both their teaching methods and their professional development. It has hijacked the National Curriculum and rewritten it, taken control of the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust, and has even subsumed Ofsted as callously as in the movie it swallowed a janitor.
Owing to the awesome relentlessness of the Blob, nothing in the battle between traditionalists and progressives in education ever gets definitively settled in the traditionalists’ favour.
A vivid example of this phenomenon is the continuing resistance to synthetic phonics. Parents with sons or daughters in the reception class at primary schools today are frequently amazed at the fast progress their children are making in learning to read as they are taught to sound out and blend the basic phonemes that make up most words. There is nothing new about phonics — it was the system used in most schools before the 1960s, when it was supplanted by a succession of more modish ways of teaching basic reading that depended on a combination of guesswork, picking up contextual clues from illustrations, and prodigious feats of memory. Unsurprisingly, the new fads did not work and over several generations vast numbers of schoolchildren were condemned to illiteracy and academic failure, very often followed by a lifetime of low pay or unemployment. This appalling fiasco must surely rank as one of the most egregious cases of serial child abuse ever to have gone unprosecuted.
Throughout these dark years the Blob fought the restoration of phonics at every turn. Educational theorists trumpeted the superiority of the alternative ‘Searchlights’ system. The National Union of Teachers refused to budge. Local education authorities and central government would not act. Only when an academic study in Clackmannanshire proved the superiority of phonics beyond all reasonable doubt did Ruth Kelly reintroduce the method in 2006 as the preferred approach to teaching young children to read in England.
One of the most bitter disputes in education is over how much emphasis should be given to imparting knowledge and how much to equipping pupils with skills and competencies. Of course, schools must do both, but where the balance is struck is crucial. The Blob has always favoured skills: learning how to learn is the key thing. As a result, much of the knowledge content of the various subject areas is discarded. A history class may be unsure whether the Roundheads came before or after Charles II, but if they can use Wikipedia, then that’s OK — they can clarify the details when they get to university. Parents who manage to get a straight answer from their child about what they did at school today are sometimes alarmed to learn that it was ‘managing information’, ‘relating to people’ and ‘managing situations’ rather than French, Physics or Geography.
Michael Gove, by contrast, believes that deepening knowledge is the best foundation for thinking and reasoning skills and has pledged to strip out the ‘fatuous enunciation of high-sounding but empty goals’ from the National Curriculum, leaving ‘a core, knowledge-based, fact-rich entitlement.’ He says he wants to see critical engagement with literary texts and history students to know when the French Revolution began and ended.
The Blob believes that the social purpose of schools is to condition the attitudes of the successor generation so that they provide unquestioning support for equality, diversity and the case for anthropogenic global warming. Mr Gove, however, believes in the value of learning as a good in itself; stresses the emancipatory and empowering effects of education; and he wants schools once again to become engines of social mobility. These divergent visions of what schools are for are utterly inimical.
Gove plans to employ a range of tactics first to shrink and ultimately to destroy the implacable jelly monster. By making schools more independent of both Whitehall and local councils, he hopes to cut off the Blob from much of the funding on which it presently gorges itself. His promised new, free schools on the Swedish model, run by not-for-profit and community groups, and funded by a socially weighted capitation fee, will introduce competitive pressures that will hopefully wean teachers away from pedagogic practices formed in the belly of the Blob and replace them with styles of teaching that enjoy the confidence of the parents of prospective pupils.
For instance, mothers and fathers today sometimes notice that though little Johnny’s homework comes back festooned with fulsome compliments, gold stars and smiley faces — all calculated to raise his self-esteem — the boy’s execrable spelling remains uncorrected. When they take this up with his class teacher they are told about ‘focused marking’ — a system where only a single learning objective agreed between teacher and pupil attracts marks or corrections; everything else — such as spelling or factual accuracy — can go hang. Even some of the best teachers think this is smart. Parents, almost unanimously, think it’s daft.
Mr Gove promises that his reforms will represent a massive and permanent shift of power away from bureaucrats and the quangocracy towards parents and ordinary class teachers. He says that as schools prove their trustworthiness by raising standards they will be allowed to shrug off even the slimmed-down National Curriculum and enjoy comparable autonomy with the private sector.
If he does succeed in saving our schools from the Blob, he will — in true cinematic style — tr
iumph just in the nick of time. The Blob has measures in the pipeline as melodramatic and almost comically unbelievable as anything in 1950s sci-fi schlock. Sir Jim Rose’s report on the future of primary schools threatens almost to eclipse specialised subjects altogether with its emphasis on cross-cutting themes such as ‘human, social and environmental understanding’. Under the rubric of ‘personalised learning’, the ordinary, commonsense tailoring of teaching to each pupil’s particular strengths or needs (something that good teachers have always done) is set be formalised into a process-driven, box-ticking nightmare. And worse will inevitably follow. Steve Munby, the head of the National College of School Leadership, has toyed with the idea of abolishing secondary schools altogether and replacing them with ‘learning centres’ where pupils will work in ‘computer pods’, attend university-style lectures, but otherwise study largely with teaching assistants.
Although the Conservatives seem to have the will to take on the Blob, they must take care not to underestimate the monster’s resilience. There will be threatened strikes. Gove will be denounced by batteries of academics firing specious peer-reviewed studies, and he will have to outflank some of the canniest operators on the corridors of Whitehall. His own colleagues are likely to be seized by panic. The Blob made short work of Tony Blair’s attempts at reform, silently wrapping its tentacles around the Academies and choking every measure of independent life out of them. Michael Gove should not repeat the error of trying to defeat the Blob piecemeal. Only by blasting every part of the creature at once can he hope to destroy it.
In 1978, the novelist Kingsley Amis was amongst a group of former left-wingers contributed to a book entitled Right Turn — Eight Men who Changed Their Minds. He was appalled by the decline in education, and enthused by the Tory plans to reform it. He liked Tory plans of parental control (they were toying with what was to become the Swedish schools model) and looked forward to an increase in teacher-pupil ratio. These were not delivered. The edited extract from his piece, below, shows what little progress the most dedicated reformers have made against ‘the blob’.
For some years now (the actual number is disputable) academic standards in this country have declined, most noticeably in primary and secondary education. The causes most commonly adduced for this decline are the new, or newish, informal teaching methods, lack of classroom discipline and truancy.
Any future Labour government is likely to press on with reducing standards, because its educational aims are likely to be even less educational than its predecessors’. We can look forward to the abolition or invalidation of various exams on the grounds of their ‘divisiveness’.
Little of the above will surprise anyone who has glanced at the relevant Labour policy documents. A glance at the relevant Conservative ones is reassuring. Restoration of direct-grant schools, maintenance or restoration of parental choice. Then — expansion. An improved teacher-pupil ratio, eventually an all-graduate teaching profession. What was all that crack about more meaning worse?
One of the very few positive lessons we can learn from the Soviets is to be derived from their early introduction of a non-selective educational system — and their later abandonment and reversal of it, as obstructing the much-needed upward flow of ability from the poorer classes.
The powers of a minister are and ought to be limited. And he will often do better by doing nothing than by doing something. For example, not providing schools with costly hardware of dubious educational value. Or not introducing an ‘O’ Level in environmental studies (proposed as I write this).
In general, I find Tory educational policies quite different enough from Labour ones to attract my unhesitating support. But I wish they were more different still. At present, like Tory policies in other matters, they seem touched with timidity. with what used to be called me-tooism, with a hedging inclination to promise more of the same only better. Notions of political possibility or impossibility should not be allowed to influence objectives.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated January 16, 2010