Book of the week
Paul Francis is a former English teacher and deputy head who has written several books with a question mark in the title. I first read his thoughtful book on discipline, Beyond Control?, years ago and have recommended it to student teachers ever since.
In The Best Policy? he puts Labour's four years of education policy and practice under the microscope - and does not like what he sees. Margaret Thatcher's legacy - Ofsted, league tables, naming and shaming, spin doctoring, teacher recruitment problems - are all chronicled. Most of the assiduously compiled supporting quotes and accounts of events are taken from The TES, the Guardian and the Observer.
Francis's principal argument is that politicians and others in charge of education have been dishonest. He understands the political realities, admitting that teachers are sometimes moved to behave deceitfully with their pupils, rather than brutalise them with the truth, but politicians have overdone it.
He argues that this started, as many trends did, with the governments of Margaret Thatcher and John Major. In an early chapter, he describes the ignoring of professional opinion, attacks on civil servants who pointed out why certain policies might not work, and the vilification of critics, contrasting Labour politicians' stance on various issues before and after the election.
His wrath is aimed not only at politicians, but at quasi-politicians, such as Chris Woodhead, and a mass media eager to sensationalise failure, as in the case of the Ridings school in Calderdale, which was the subject of a controversial Panorama programme. The author knew Woodhead when both were involved in English teaching, so some of his story is based on first-hand information.
Francis is a good writer with a persuasive style.The book moves at a decent pace, peppered with descriptions of events in particular schools that exemplify various policies. It is a one-sided account, though a great deal would be echoed by other teachers, and he attaches much of the blame for disaffection in the profession to the dishonesty of politicians.
His worries are the same as those of other practitioners: that teaching is becoming mechanical, selective, over-managed from the centre; that concentrating on pupils at the borderlines to boost league table position may lead to neglect of those who most need help; that official portrayals of "success" deliberately ignore the failures of policies in an attempt to persuade the public that everything is working.
The book is not entirely negative and Francis tries to offer positive suggestions - about a climate of genuine rather than desultory consultation, support for teachers and schools, dropping the emphasis on grades A to C, and greater integrity.
There is a kinder point of view: that thousands of pounds have been poured into books, buildings, action zones, out-of-school activities and summer schools, often in an attempt to help those who are excluded from mainstream society. But Francis does not spend much time on the apologia, simply because his argument is that the Government spends all its time hyping that version of events, so why should he add to it?
Late 20th and early 21st-century education has developed a different style. Gone are the R A Butler guidelines that politicians should not meddle in the detail of what happens in schools. Perhaps some heroic neo-Butlerite will one day win the argument again. In the meantime, Paul Francis's searing indictment of the politicisation of education is an articulate warning. Unfortunately, those who most need to read it will probably give it a miss.
Ted Wragg is professor of education at the University of Exeter