Ancient lineage of the Mods

21st February 2003 at 00:00
Sharp-suited modernisers have a new enemy in their sights: shabby liberals.

Ian Whitwham shows his colours

Whitehall source thunders: "It's not good enough to be trained and sit in a classroom for 30 years without learning anything new!" Absolutely. Does he mean my Year 10s? No - I'm afraid he means me.

I've been snoozing on the softer edges of pedagogy for nigh on three decades. My number could well be up. Education - like much else - is in the grip of Modernisers. They're all the rage. Modern is good. Those who are not are not good. We are deemed dead wood and tarnished with the dread L word - Liberal. Liberal is Bad. The feud is widespread.

In the left corner: the Libs. Who they? They look battered and rumpled and tend toward the elderly. They are punch-drunk with jargon and silly ultimatums. Duffers who peddle a clapped out Liberal tradition. Some are so unsightly that they have to be hidden in stockrooms on open days, rather like Michael Foot at the Cenotaph. They are quite unspinnable. Off target.

Off message. And, sadly, often off their trolleys. You can meet them cursing at continuing professional development sessions or National Union of Teachers strikes, or in the odd locked ward.

And in the right corner: The Mods. Who they? Straight out of the world of American business management, they are the New Puritans. Sleek, sharp-suited and tending to be zealous.

They are all pumped up with the new high gibberish and fortune cookie cliches - what Professor Ted Wragg calls "world-class meaningless bollocks". They are terrifically interested in interactive white-board training and behaviour modification seminars and testing measurable outcomes - or is it measuring testable incomes? And quite rabid for targets - and syntax and dividing and ruling and uniforms.

I remember this Modern stuff. It happened to me in 1953 in Chalfont St Peter primary school. Miss Hodgson is teaching us the 11-plus. There she is perched at the blackboard drilling us 30 tots in 30 tiny chairs in things grammatical, things numerical. We are waving slates. We are wearing uniforms. We are top stream. We are "good with our brains".

I'm not sure what the rest were good at - dovetail joints? Pointing at themselves? They are headed for something Modern. Something secondary Modern.

We are bored senseless and getting severely harangued. It is grim. But look - there's Keith Goss putting frogs in the powder paint and unleashing them all over Miss Hodgson's piano while we sing The Good Ship Arethusa. We get the giggles. Keith gets hit with a stick. There he goes blubbing in the corner in the Dunce's hat.

I have to pinch myself. This is my classroom in 2003. There still sit 30 tots in 30 tiny chairs all streamed and uniformed and drilled in things grammatical.

They are waving interactive slates and they are bored senseless. It is grim. It is the literacy scheme. They are the not-the-top group - the not transparently gifted and talented. They could well be adepts at the dovetail joint. And there's Dave Mania headbutting a desk. There he goes blubbing into the inclusion unit.

Modern is 1953 - with its world-class testing systems that makes the 11-plus look like a breeze. Or is it 1853? - with Mr McChokumchild and "his surveying and levelling and syntax and prosody".

He is a Moderniser; a performance manager; a consultant. He could test your measurable outcomes and deem your modules a bit wanting, your targets a bit unrealised. You may be a plenary short of the modern model teacher. Modern seems a grim mix of business management and Miss Hodgson's classroom.

I joined this lark 30 years ago to get rid of this stuff. I thought Modern was about the end of the Victorian classroom, of measuring the vessels, of subject boundaries. I thought it was about the seamless web, the electronic democracy of knowledge. About smaller classes and bigger chairs. Pleasure, curiosity and things being various.

I thought Modern was ILiberal. Still, I must obviously get retrained and get Modernised. Or go bust.

Ian Whitwham teaches in a London comprehensive

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