Is a liberal elite running our schools?

29th December 2000 at 00:00
Has political correctness run riot, ruining our children's chances of a decent education? Both sides put their case

BYLINE:New Year is a time, not just to look forward, but also to look back over the past year. As I do so, I remember many happy visits to schools and discussions with teachers and pupils. I have seen many dedicated teachers working hard to ensure that they receive a good quality of education.

All too often, however, I have also seen teachers who are utterly fed up with the way their professional judgment is being called into question by a government that is constantly telling them what to do and interfering in the classroom. It's not just the paperwork and red tape, although that is bad enough.

What makes it worse is that this government interference represents a de-professionalising of teaching. Why do we have a crisis today? It is because the Government has taken the enjoyment and satisfaction out of the job for too many. How many teachers actively encourage their pupils to follow in their footsteps? This interference is the latest manifestation of the new liberal elite in education who believe they know what is best for children and are unwilling to trust the judgment of teachers.

This liberal elite believes social deprivation is an excuse for poor levels of achievement, rather than recognising that education is the best way out for young people in such circumstances. This group attacks choice and excellence in our schools, sees inclusion as an aim in itself, regardless of the impact on children, promotes political correctness and sees the aim of education as meeting numerical targets, rather than providing a high-quality, well-rounded education that enables all to achieve their full potential.

This liberal elite is manifest in the Government. There are many trivial examples, such as Margaret Hodge endorsing a view that small children should not play musical chairs, the news that nursery staff cannot tell children they are "naughty" and Education Secretary David Blunkett's endorsement of a book which describes our schools as "fast becoming an anachronism" ad describes teachers as "learning managers".

Of more concern is the way this group has attacked excellence. The Government has abolished grant-maintained status, thus removing schools' freedom to control their own destiny and improve standards. It has put school sixth-forms under threat, introduced numerical targets that force teachers to concentrate on average achievement, brought in more red tape and pursued an inclusion agenda which means the majority are excluded from the education they deserve.

Earlier this year, William Hague attacked the liberal elite in a speech on discipline in schools which won praise from teachers and their unions. The Government's pursuit of inclusion, through cutting exclusions and penalising schools that don't meet targets, means heads are under pressure to keep disruptive pupils in class. Well-behaved children are excluded from a decent education when they are forced to share a classroom with disruptive unruly pupils - as one sixth-former in Carlisle complained to me recently.

Another sign of the liberal elite is the introduction of citizenship lessons. Young people learn to be good citizens by getting a good all-round education and being taught to think for themselves. What will be dropped from the timetable to make way for lessons in conflict resolution and regionalism?

And the results? Today, we see teachers labouring under increasing red tape in a profession where morale has reached an all-time low. As a result, teachers are leaving in droves, schools must use non-specialist staff to cover lessons, some are forced to reduce their hours and the New Year promises to usher in widespread four-day weeks.

Unless this liberal elite in education is challenged, all these things will damage standards and deny the majority of children the chance to shine, to be inspired to learn and to develop their full potential. It's time to reject the liberal elite, trust teachers, give schools freedom to control their own destiny, give parents choice and enable all pupils to develop their full potential.

Theresa May is shadow education secretary

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