More than most areas of political debate, education is subject to swings of the policy pendulum. The introduction to this book of essays states that its aim is "to analyse the mistaken thinking, the loose rhetoric, the unctuous moralising and the personal empire-building of the Woodhead Right and the BlunkettMorris Left, which has led to the present situation and its unintended consequences in schools and universities".
The motley group of university lecturers, two retired teachers, an archbishop, a journalist and an MP bemoan the loss of a rounded liberal education, which they neither define nor justify, and its substitution by "managerial ethics". The editors claim that managerial ethics provide a moral rationale for excessive accountability and for a situation in which education serves the labour market.
The book contains a good deal of fairly impenetrable prose from the university contributors, notably in the three pieces from Stephen Prickett. More than half of the book is devoted to a discussion on the state of British universities. It is mainly a criticism of the excessive amount of audit and accountability imposed on the universities by the Quality Assurance Agency. Robert Grant's chapter, on utilitarianism, and Roger Scruton's, on John Henry Newman's Idea of a University, are both updated versions of previously published work. Grant's derision of the current emphasis on qualifications and Scruton's statement that "relevance is the enemy of knowledge" are either academic snobbery or just plain unworldly. Anthony Smith of Oxford University, whose biographical details have been omitted from the list of chapter authors, presents his previously aired views on the case of Laura Spence, the state schoolgirl denied a place at Oxford. Evan Harris, MP, in a thoughtful piece, advocates the use of a broader range of selection criteria for university entrance.
The two chapters by retired teachers, written from the perspectives of a special needs teacher and the head of an independent preparatory school, also criticise the regime of central control and accountability under which schools have been operating since 1988. Diana Mabbutt reflects on the change from Piaget to the child as hurdle-jumper, and on the growth of bureaucracy, with teachers who "always had to plan" now having "to predict, target, justify, evaluate and record". Margaret Sutcliffe's complaint that fear of Ofsted has forced her to re-number the classes in her independent school and introduce IT and outdoor activities, is unlikely to evoke much sympathy.
Disappointed by almost all of this book, I turned with high expectation to a chapter on spiritual education by Archbishop Rowan Williams, a frontrunner as the next Archbishop of Canterbury. His views are interesting, but the scope of his chapter is too narrow to do justice to the depth of his ideas. He fails to address the important question of spiritual education in a multicultural society.
Libby Purves is a very readable newspaper columnist, but her chapter is unworthy of her analytical skills. Full of generalisations, it is a weak justification of her decision to send her children to independent schools.
While it is true that the educational pendulum has swung too far from the unpredictable educational experiences of children in the 1960s and 1970s towards the central prescription of the 1990s, the answer to the educational conundrum does not lie in a reversion to former times. Society has moved on, young people are achieving more, parents' expectations are higher, accountability is here to stay and the future of the teaching force needs more than the largely negative suggestions in this book.
I agree with the authors that to bring a new equilibrium to the education service, we need less accountability and, in schools, less central prescription, but we must seek a new professionalism in which teachers and university lecturers build on the progress of recent years. Schools and universities of the future may not resemble existing institutions, but nor should they revert to previous models.
The title of the book has the Prime Minister's thrice-mentioned priority on education with three exclamation marks, claiming that this emphatic punctuation (which was not, I believe, in the original speech) implies moral indignation and an increase in central control. Such strong feelings suggest an intense dislike, on the part of the editors, of Tony Blair and all his works, an impression encouraged by the choice of photograph on the front cover. Blair hardly looked his best in his sweat-soaked shirt, but then the authors probably wouldn't either. This book addresses an important topic which deserves a more dispassionate treatment.
John Dunford is general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association