A recipe for contentment

5th November 2004 at 00:00
You know how some things do the job better than anything else? The Sherlock household was devastated a month or two ago when our ancient Nutbrown potato peeler gave up the ghost. It only cost coppers, but experiments with more expensive imitations, with fancy handles and stainless steel blades replacing the old rickety tinplate and tool-steel contraption, always came to nought. They were all thrown away, or foisted on to someone else at jumble sales, while the trusty Nutbrown soldiered on. That is, until it didn't.

Then, the tiny silver lining of an otherwise dark cloud: clearing my mother-in-law's home after her death revealed another battered Nutbrown, tarnished and worn, in the corner of a kitchen drawer. Until this one expires, probably at the age of 50 or 60, the Sherlock potato shall once more escape butchery, its peelings thin and even.

Perhaps there's a wonderful kitchen shop somewhere that still sells Nutbrowns, but I doubt it. Where's the profit in making something that is functionally supreme, transcendentally ugly, sells for almost nothing and lasts a lifetime? It's a recipe for domestic contentment and commercial suicide.

Colleagues in the education world who've been around the block a time or two speak in much the same way of some past policies and programmes.

"Remember TVEI? Opened my eyes that did. I realised for the first time just how much progress you could make with these kids. Remember mode three BTEC? That was the way to go! For once they got the blend between a national framework and local initiative spot-on."

It even seems possible that all this is not just nostalgia. I hear no paeans of praise for Curriculum 2000, for example. "That was a policy and a half! Carefully conceived. Cautiously introduced. They really knew about curriculum design back in the last millennium." Maybe it's because it wasn't long enough ago. But just maybe it's because some educational innovations really are the dog's whatnots and others are just dogs. They get swept away every three or four years just the same.

It's not like that everywhere. I was once asked to give a view on the higher education curriculum in design in Portugal. It hadn't changed much since the death `of 50,000 people in the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 last convinced the Portuguese that some changes had to be made. Students copied from textbooks on the classical orders of architecture. They studied philosophy. I shouldn't have been surprised to find lessons on "logick" and "rhetorick". Everything was theory. Nothing practice. It was all so profoundly awful that a dedicated soul had set up a successful private art school on British lines in the vain hope of embarrassing the government into doing something about "official" visual education.

But the most shocking thing was that Portugal produced designers and architects of enormous ability and international reputation. There were buildings going up in Lisbon of a vitality and boldness that would still astound London.

Just occasionally this, and a hundred experiences like it, prompt subversive thoughts. It occurs to me in the watches of the night (to be banished when dawn breaks, of course) that policy doesn't matter very much.

What gave the Portuguese visual arts a boost was a political revolution 30 years ago which abolished a fascist dictatorship and convinced a whole generation that they could do anything they set their minds to. In comparison, it didn't matter too much that the education system was rubbish.

Now here we have Mike Tomlinson coming along with a clump of reforms that deserve to be called revolutionary. It's not so much the content - which seems likely to look pretty much like GCSEs, A-levels and apprenticeships - but the structure.

I have a modest proposal to make. Unlike the Portuguese, who may have overdone things a bit by leaving unregarded parts of their educational architecture untouched for 220 years, we should set a 100-year span for Tomlinson. Not longer, but not shorter. Chris Woodhead and Melanie Phillips will, of course, be consigned to a shared cell in the Tower for resisting the introduction of Tomlinson. Politicians of every stripe who try to make up new policy frameworks for 14 to 18-year-olds before the 100-year limit is over will automatically join them.

It will be permitted to change what goes on inside the Tomlinson framework, but a new Star Chamber will be set up to ensure that alterations do not disturb its basic integrity. Those found guilty of trying to do so will suffer the penalty imposed by the original Star Chamber on an earlier Parliamentarian, William Prynne: branding on both cheeks.

This glorious stability may cause the odd political suicide but, like my trusty Nutbrown, it will bring domestic contentment to teachers everywhere.

Teaching youngsters, like peeling spuds, doesn't change fundamentally. Once you've got it right, leave well alone. And when we've got Tomlinson safely in place and the Tower filling up nicely, we'll do a similar job on learning and qualifications for adults.

But that's another day's work.

David Sherlock is chief inspector of the Adult Learning Inspectorate

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