Is a liberal elite running our schools?
Late last week, the headteacher at my son's school was informed of an inspection in February. On Monday, the lead inspector rang him, demanding that all four pre-inspection forms be completed before Christmas, since the inspector was taking a month's leave, and wanted to read them on the beach.
If those at the frontline of state education were told they were being controlled by a liberal elite, their probable reaction would be "if only". We have schools where the discussion, let alone promotion, of homosexuality is feared; where until last year a "broadly Christian" daily act of collective worship was expected; where league tables dominate priorities; and above all where an inspection system has replaced trust with high-stakes accountability.
And how would the members of that supposed elite - those chief education officers, civil servants and teacher trainers - react? Pulling their heads out of development plans, box-ticking competency procedures or research assessment exercises - they might ask: "If I'm in an elite, how come my autonomy is so limited and my salary so low?" A few decades ago, left-leaning academics and LEA officers may have had greater influence. Yet even at the high point of this liberalising agenda their policies were highly pragmatic. Comprehensives were introduced because selection was demonstrably failing the majority of schools. The greatest effect of the Plowden Report was increased parental involvement. Streaming was tried and abandoned because it was incompatible with maintaining order and motivation in schools, while the vast majority of secondaries have always set by ability.
It was not political correctness that led to a six-fold rise in exclusions over 10 years - a disproportionate number of which were of African-Caribbean boys. If we can blame liberalism, it is the economic neo-liberalism of monetarism and quasi-markets, not the progressive variety. If pupil behaviour is worsening, should we blame soft attitudes, or new, hard-wearing forms of social excluion, the effects of which are only now coming home to roost? And who is responsible for teacher shortages? A liberal elite, or the elite that spent two decades abusing the public sector and all who sailed in it?
Certainly, we have a government committed to addressing these issues, with the overarching vision of equality of opportunity and expectations. Yet their methods can hardly be called liberal. Their standards-based agenda, from the literacy and numeracy strategies to the encouragement of setting by ability, are all guided by undogmatic mantra of "what works".
Labour trumpets educational investment, not through the liberal ideal of education for its own sake or as a route to personal fulfilment and social cohesion, but through an economistic utilitarianism; "the more you learn, the more you earn" as the New Labour sound- bite goes.
But there is emerging what might be termed a liberal pluralist vision to allow leadership where it most matters, in all 25,000 schools. This process has already started as more funding is delegated to schools, and LEAs have a clearer role.
The Conservative proposals for "free schools" do not appear to add much to this process, unless society wishes to tolerate the consequences of market failure, as weaker schools go to the wall.
Those who do shape policy are beginning to re-evaluate the purpose of education. They are looking beyond universal literacy and numeracy, to consider how schools can renew civic engagement, improve the quality of human relationships, encourage rather than crowd out civil society, and drive the creative agenda. Recent appointments to key positions, such as Carol Adams at the General Teaching Council and Ralph Tabberer at the Teacher Training Agency, combined with new technologies, could mark a step towards far more radical learning futures. To quote that liberal lucifer Polly Toynbee: "To be liberal is to be free of superstition and irrational fear, open to the new, optimistic about the future."
Matthew Taylor is director of the Institute for Public Policy Research and former assistant general secretary of the Labour party