Bring on some good old-fashioned extremists

10th January 2003 at 00:00
It was very disappointing to find that, two years after leaving the Office for Standards in Education, Chris Woodhead was still voted The TES readers'

2002 villain of the year. Where have all the villains gone? They seem to have disappeared into the New Labour mulch.

When the Tories were last in power, there were big, scary bands of people on both left and right whom their opponents could really hate. Terrifying Frances Morrel led the left-wing Inner London Education Authority, controversialists such as Rhodes Boyson served as ministers, and quangos were packed with right-wing academics such as John Marks.

There were dramatic rows during the writing and re-writing of the national curriculum over how to teach history (empathy or kings and queens), what should be in the Canon of great literature (Kipling or Orwell), high-profile resignations and colourful personalities.

English was the hottest battleground, made all the more thrilling because it pitched two former anti-progressive allies into conflict - Brian Cox, who had "gone native" as chair of the committee which wrote the original English curriculum, and John Marks, a key figure in the fight to overthrow it in a traditionalist coup.

Back in the 1970s, although Cox, Marks, Boyson and fellow authors of the notorious Black Papers seemed well to the right of the standard range of opinion, they still provoked outrage and controversy. They provided something to rail against.

Now, so many of their ideas have been adopted by New Labour (prescription of 3Rs teaching, devolved management, baseline assessment) that they have been neutralised. Instead of fiery, opinionated figures from the right and left, we now have worthy managerialists. How can you shake your fist at these people, when they are just tweaking the system?

The problem with this government is that it wants innovation, but also thinks it has all the answers. Its church is so broad that nearly everyone is in it. We need some good, old-fashioned extremists to keep us on our toes.

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