The Spectator

Scrap targets

There is no task more difficult than that of educating British children

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There is no task more difficult than that of educating British children. To the natural indiscipline of youth has now been added the indiscipline of parents, many of whom interpret any reports of wrongdoing in school on the part of their offspring as a personal affront, or as the manifestation of the malice of teachers. The teachers themselves have changed out of all recognition in the past few decades, thanks to the long march through the institutions by indoctrinating, and indoctrinated, intellectuals bearing pernicious gimcrack radical ideas. While many are respectable and learned men and women, who view it as their vocation to induct their charges into a civilisation, a tradition and a way of behaving, others sometimes give the appearance, especially when congregated at the conference of the National Union of Teachers, of being a rebellious rabble.

Unfortunately, successive governments have given teachers plenty to rebel against, and justifiably so. Rightly perceiving that there was a problem with British state education, the government under Mrs Thatcher chose precisely the wrong solution: more central control. This is the solution that all subsequent governments have also favoured, because it increases their power and flatters them into believing that they are the Great Helmsmen of British society.

When the teachers threaten, therefore, to boycott the government's latest attempts to dragoon both them and the children – namely, the Key Stage Tests – they are responding to a genuine problem, for all that some of them at least may be acting from the worst of left-wing motives. Not only are head teachers faced with a wretched financial settlement, causing budget deficits in schools across the country, and the consequent loss of staff. The teachers are rebelling against a tendency that threatens to undermine Britain's very foundation as a free society: namely, the ability of professions and institutions to retain their independence from government control.

There is certainly a merit in testing children, in the sense that the results are of use to parents in search of the best schools. But it is the setting of targets which is so baneful, and against which teachers rightly direct their wrath. Schools, like children, are diverse, and do not benefit from this Procrustean mania. Targets distort educational priorities, concentrating resources on those children just below the standard required, to the detriment of the more able and the less able. The only purpose of these targets is to furnish officialdom with statistics, and anyone who knows the operation of bureaucracies in monopolies such as the Department for Education will also know that any statistics emanating from such a source are nothing but organised lies. The Department's mission statement will always be 'Aim low', for it knows that if targets are set low enough, they can always be achieved, and it can then award itself the palm.

The mania for setting targets, started by Mrs Thatcher's government as a distorted imitation of the commerce she so admired, and continued by her spiritual heirs such as Mr Blair, afflicts not just education but our entire administration. It has exerted a profoundly corrosive effect upon all public services in this country, introducing a form of corruption far worse than the merely monetary kind, which after all could be controlled by legal action: that is to say, a deep intellectual, moral and spiritual corruption that renders all official statements doubtful and all official statistics lies, and makes spin, or the public misrepresentation of reality, the queen of the sciences. It is far more difficult to eradicate this kind of corruption; it is like trying to pick termites out of wood.

The very idea that education consists of meeting a few (or many) targets is a deeply barbaric one; an idea that could only emanate from brains that have already been deeply corrupted by megalomania. It is true, of course, that men need to be able to read in order to continue to learn, and that certain skills are a necessary condition of becoming educated; but the fact is that large numbers of people were successfully taught to read before the advent of Mr Blair, and even before that of Mrs Thatcher, by a teacher with mere chalk and a blackboard. Indeed, the evidence suggests that the more we spend on education, the lower the standards of literacy achieved; for it is in the nature of bureaucracies such as the Department for Education to create the problems that allegedly require their services to solve. Central control is not the solution: it is the problem.

If the teachers do indeed leave the classrooms empty next year, they will forfeit public sympathy, and deservedly so. But by their protests they do this country a service, because the government is treating them as a company might treat its salesmen, by setting sales targets; with this difference, that whereas the company has an indisputable method of knowing whether its salesmen have met their targets, the government creates a Kafkaesque world in which everything is constantly shifting, the truth is unknowable, and no one understands what he is trying to achieve beyond the filling in of forms and ticking of boxes to the satisfaction of corrupt inspectors. It is time to confront this great contemporary evil.