Last week the BBC website ran a story about some new research casting doubt on the effectiveness of free schools. ‘The Swedish model of free schools, lauded by the Conservatives, has not significantly improved pupils’ academic achievement, a study suggests,’ it began.
So what was this study? It purports to be a paper written by ‘Rebecca Allen’, a lecturer at the ‘Institute of Education’. Is this organisation for real? If you visit the website for the ‘Institute’, the suspicion starts to creep in that it is a brilliant hoax devised by a fiendishly clever group of satirists.
If you click on ‘About the IOE’, you’ll see the following sentence: ‘Our distinguished history and current mission are rooted in a commitment to social justice.’ Now you’d think that a taxpayer-funded teacher-training college would be a little more circumspect about disclosing its ideological bias, particularly if its lecturers are hoping to be quoted as impartial authorities when it comes to assessing Conservative policies. But no. That’s perfectly normal.
It’s only when you begin roaming around the site that doubts begin to arise. For instance, the howling grammatical errors on almost every page. Here’s an example from the IOE’s ‘Guide to Policy and Provision for Disabled Students’: ‘If the disability is likely to affect a student’s ability to evacuate the building, we strongly recommend the student to notify their lecturer of their emergency evacuation plan …’ To notify? Notifies, surely? Something fishy going on here.
These suspicions are heightened when you click on an issue of IEOLife, one of two magazines published by the ‘Institute’. It contains an article on the work of CAPLITS (Centre for Academic and Professional Literacies), an organisation that teaches students ‘how to… express meaning effectively.’ CAPLITS is a masterstroke of satirical invention. Note the use of the word ‘literacies’ as opposed to ‘literacy’, just in case you might think CAPLITS attaches more importance to English over, say, finger painting. This point is rammed home by Ken Hyland, the Centre’s head. ‘There is a big difference between learning grammar and learning academic writing,’ he says. ‘We are not a language-learning service — we teach academic literacy.’
In IEOLife there’s a round-up of campus reactions to the election of Barack Obama. Almost without exception, the teaching staff at IEO are concerned that Obama isn’t left-wing enough. ‘I fear that he may get drawn into appeasing the enormous engine of capitalism that drives the United States,’ says Julia Brannen, a professor of sociology. Ken Spours, head of Continuing and Professional Education, says: ‘I want to see international change such as justice for Palestine, but I fear he will have to concentrate on internal issues.’
By now it is surely obvious that IOE and its cast of Malcolm Bradbury characters must be a work of pure invention. But just to make it crystal clear, the authors have included a wonderfully loopy ‘Report on Gender Equality’. I don’t think I’ve ever come across a richer source of politically correct gobbledygook. Among its many delights, it contains a passage on ‘transpeople’, defined as people who’ve undergone ‘gender reassignment surgery’. You wouldn’t have thought there’d be many of them at the ‘Institute’, but that hasn’t stopped the ‘Gender Equalities Officer’ from coming up with a series of pledges designed to protect their rights. She promises to ensure that ‘our equal opportunities policies… do not discriminate against transpeople — especially in terms of dignity at work’ and that ‘trans perspectives are included in equality impact assessment processes’.
Marvellous, isn’t it? A whole policy devised just in case a post-op transsexual ever enrols at the ‘Institute’. The ‘Equalities Officer’ (fresh from her last berth on a Soviet nuclear sub) promises to include the policy as ‘part of the mandatory equality training’.
Surely the whole site is a spellbinding piece of satire? No teacher-training college could be quite so idiotic, could it? Alas, the ‘Institute’ is all too real — part of the University of London, in fact — and a perfect illustration of why reform of our education system is so urgently needed.