Choose bog-standard diversity

9th March 2001 at 00:00
WHEEEEE! Look out! Here come the spinners. "Googlies", "offbreaks", "legbreaks", "flippers", to steal the argot of cricket, will come whistling past your ears over the next few weeks as the image-makers' spin and counter-spin dominate the mass media. The sillier the process, the more the non-spinners will soar in public esteem.

I was glad that both David Blunkett and John Prescott were quick to disown the notion of the "bog-standard comprehensive". It was a demeaning term, usually applied to simple objects. It should never have been used in the first place by Mr Bogstandard, the Government's chief spinologist, because it was wrong. The day I see two identical schools is the day I will cartwheel the length of the High Street.

So what is identical and what is different about schools? They follow the same national curriculum, the same tests, and primary schools are all supposed to have the same structure for their literacy and numeracy hours. These things, you will note, have been externally imposed by successive governments, so are we also to see the end of the bog-standard literacy hour?

Inside these structures the people, textbooks, equipment, teaching strategies are all different. I have never seen two identical lessons: similar, yes; identical, no. Try teaching theoretically the "same" lesson to two different classes. Before long someone has asked a question, or given a different answer and the two supposedly identical lessons are already diverging.

Let us try to construct two identical schools. The head of regular comprehensive is Mr Silas Bogg; in charge of maths is Ms Elspeth Standard. Down the road Normal Comprehensive has Ms Elspeth Bogg as head and Mr Silas Standard runs the maths department.

Damn! Different already. Never mind. Let us suppose that both Regular and Normal Comps have 1,200 pupils, assigned to 40 classes of exactly 30 pupils. All the boys are called Nigel and the girls Felicity. Each pupil is of average height and weight. All the teachers like sausage and mash best, play badminton after school and spend their lunch break filling in crosswordpuzzles.

All pupils were born on January 29. Everyone has an IQ of 100 precisely, lives 600 metres from the school in a multi-storey block of flats with a blue door (on the top floor, come to think of it), owns a cat called Gerald, and .. . er . . . supports Aston Villa. Not easy, this bogstandardry, is it?

It is actually the differences between schools that make them such interesting places. Diversity is well worth celebrating and extending. I am in favour of giving schools extra cash to develop something of which they are proud, though to suggest that this is the only worthwhile area they cover would be an oblique insult to everyone not engaged in the endowed field of activity.

But an important question needs to be answered first. Are we really in favour of diversity? The Conservatives claimed they were and then made everyone do the same curriculum and tests, even told schools how to fill in the attendance register, their school reports and what colour the deputy head's Hush Puppies should be, though the memory may be playing cruel tricks on this last one.

The present Government says it is in favour of diversity, but then imposes the same 15-15-20-10-minute literacy hour pattern on every primary class. The Japanese and Korean governments, when planning for the new millennium, stated they were in favour of more "individualism", but would they panic if the aspiration were fulfilled and numerous mavericks began to appear within what have always been ordered societies?

All of this makes one wonder whether "truth" lies in the rhetoric or the behaviour. If diversity is important, according to spin doctors, then why do the very same artificers become extremely wobbly, turn puce even, when their supporters drift "off message"?

I think we should embrace diversity wholeheartedly, simply because the alternative is uniformity, a killer concept in education. But if we do so, then we must live with the consequences. A diverse system produces people who can think for themselves.

Good. So diversity it is. That's solved Mr Bogstandard's little problem then.

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