A word in your ear, Michael

29th September 2000 at 01:00
With the job of top education adviser up for grabs, Sally Tomlinson tells its present incumbent that she would lose the bossiness, military jargon - and football.

OKAY, so I won't get the job. They do not give top civil service jobs to sixtysomething grandmothers, especially when they are also professors of education with Old Labour leanings. But the advert for the pound;90,000-a year post as head of the standards and effectiveness unit does say the Department for Education and Employment is an equal opportunity employer, so it is worth a try.

Of course the job currently belongs to Professor Michael Barber and I do not have his credentials. I never stood for Parliament against Michael Heseltine. But I did babysit Simon Hughes, now of Liberal Democrat fame, for three years and he turned out quite well. And I did send my children to city comprehensives, after which they got two science PhDs and an MA between them and are doing socially useful jobs.

However, I do not support any football team, although this might be a plus as many teachers are irritated by comparisons of football with the learning game. It might also be a plus to suggest changing the unit's culture from the macho club it often appears to be. We could get rid of the military jargon about being tough, having zero tolerance and mobilising parents, as well as all that patronising stuff about pressure and support. And I could probably help school standards minister Estelle Morris, for instance, by telling her it is not a good idea to write as she did recently to two national newspapers, claiming the Government had raised standards by closing 108 schools.

I was on a Labour committee in the early 1990s when we discussed the creation of an education standards commission, a prototype of the Standards and Effectiveness Unit. We never envisaged it being such a bastion of bossiness, imposing strategies and frameworks. Or such a scourge of failing schools, (you know, those schools in poor areas attended by a lot of poor children who cannot quite make five GCSE A-Cs and where it's cheaper to blame the teachers than shove in expensive help), and such a supporter of Fresh Starts that often turn into Sour Finishes.

I do not think we envisaged all the testing, targets and five-year plans either. I have just visited schools in the Czech Republic and they seem keen to get away from that sort of thing. They talked about philosophies of learning and that chap Comenius (although I do not think he ever played for Prague United), and they wanted to hear about inclusive, not selective, education. They were a bit bemused that modernisation in the United Kingdom seem to mean centralised control and teachers being told it is their fault if the national economy is not competitive in global markets.

My aims for the unit would try to build on good things done, but a lot needs to be rethought. It is nice to know that central Government no longer has low expectations of the nation's brains, but we need more recognition about how recent that is. And we need to continue the slow rise in standards over the past 40 years without pompous management-speak or instant initiatives, and recognise the joint efforts at continuous improvement made by teachers, parents, young people, employers, local government and local and minority communities.

I would want teachers to be respected as real professionals, rather than technicians delivering a prepared curriculum, policed by an unpopular inspectorate.

Education markets would have to go, not least because in these petrol conscious days it makes no sense to ferry children around in four-wheel drives. Competition between schools does not benefit all consumers equally, choice is a sham for many parents and increased social segregation works against raising standards for all and developing citizens who care about each other. Selecting a few gifted and talented to placate middle-class groups is not the answer - we have tried that often enough.

Observing the social and economic self-exclusion of highly educated professional and managerial groups should frighten us all. Bringing back more local democratic input into decision-making would be a major aim, and I would want to raise educational standards both for economic ends and also to reclaim education as a humanising, liberalising, democratic force.

So I will not get the job, but I am sure Michael will carry on doing his best when (sorry, if) he gets it. I hope he will listen to David Hargreaves, new head at the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, whose views on the post 14 curriculum really would raise standards. But a speech Michael made in Washington last July did have me worried. He said he wants education in the UK to be the best on the planet.

I hope his next initiative will not be interplanetary school competition, with league tables beamed down from Uranus, and the Vogon chief inspector Metalhead throwing educational failures into outer space. We shall see.

Sally Tomlinson is emeritus professor of education at Goldsmiths College London and a research associate in the department of educational studies, University of Oxford. Her book 'Education in a Post-Welfare Society' will be published shortly by the Open University Press. "Over to you" on www.tes.co.uk

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