A voyage through Whitehall

1st November 1996 at 00:00
Duncan Graham is a yachtsman. When he was senior depute director of education in Strathclyde before heading south to Suffolk and Humberside and finally to lead the National Curriculum Council, he put to good use his expertise with mainsail and jib.

In deepest Argyll there was a primary headteacher suspected to be incompetent and lazy. But directorial visits were always stymied by the remoteness of the school and the locals' advance warning system. Graham moored in the neighbouring bay. Next morning he inflated the dinghy and came ashore to find chaos at the school followed by consternation. Early retirement followed. There were "no more hapless youngsters, cross-eyed with boredom".

Graham's memoirs are full of good stories. But they have a point: he remains committed to the welfare of pupils and is angered when they are failed, whether by clapped-out primary heads or self-regarding bureaucrats and slimy ministers.

His is a morality tale. He says that Stewart Macintosh in Glasgow and Hugh Fairlie in Renfrewshire would not survive in their posts today. Their combination of professional advice and wise political leadership would not be welcome.

The change began while Graham was at Strathclyde. But it hit him most south of the border. Scottish authority, run by local dignitaries committed to their schools though not necessarily to dispensing funds.

But the old-style Tories gave way to harder men and women and the dictates of Thatcherite Whitehall. The same pattern was at work in Humberside where Graham became chief executive, though this time his masters were Labour.

Preparation for heading the National Curriculum Council came with membership of the group working on maths courses. The chairman was out of his depth and the committee divided between old-guard educationists and right-wing "plants". Kenneth Baker asked Graham to sort things out.

In time that led to the top curriculum post and close association with the fast changing Education Secretaries. Graham has kind words for the much maligned Baker who had a vision for schools which was continuously clouded by civil servants. John MacGregor was ineffectual and Kenneth Clarke a blustering bully. Graham concluded that professional advice was no longer needed or wanted.

And what of the curriculum? "Scotland's unwritten national curriculum briefly looked a bit suspect in comparison - too much consensus, too little challenging debate. But it proved to have been built on firmer foundations. It is in the European and world mainstream; it has survived the onslaught."

The Education Racket. By Duncan Graham. Neil Wilson Publishing Pounds 12.99.

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