Clear the trash, rubbish, refuse

26th November 2004 at 00:00
Today is National Gutters Day. No doubt you have already been feverishly celebrating National Maintenance Week, of which National Gutters Day is, apparently, the exciting climax.

I am not making this up, by the way. Satire nowadays consists largely of finding those aspects of real life that are slightly barmier than the rest of it.

Gutters are the places where society's detritus can be found. Ever eager to make my own modest contribution to today's great national scrub-in, I would like to clear out a few choice bits of educational rubbish.

The first barrow of dross to be shovelled away is the intellectual silt which passes as exam cramming. Year 6 pupils are spending on average two hours a week just practising for English Sats papers, let alone maths and science.

The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority has produced a report saying that some children are being drilled for their Sats (bloody hell, there's a shock).

"In the past, some pupils have learnt or practised pieces of writing . . .

to reproduce in the English tests", the report states. It goes on: "If several pupils in the same class write using similar or identical words or phrases or form, their work may be reviewed for malpractice".

Tell 10-year-olds that understanding literature means counting the commas and underlining the adjectives, or that imaginative writing involves learning someone else's cliches and reproducing them, no matter what the context, and they will follow orders. It is hardly their fault.

An academic I know told me that he asked his daughter to read an article he had written, because it contained a reference to an event she had described to him. The account was correct, she said after looking it through, but the article was not a good piece of writing. Since he is an excellent writer he was a bit miffed about this judgment, so he asked her to tell him why."It's got too many paragraphs, you see, dad", she explained. "You mustn't write more than five".

The situation is a prime illustration of the evil effects of a compliance culture. Smart teachers still find ways of teaching intelligently and imaginatively, even when heavy prescription is combined with punitive sanctions, but the more frightened turn to desperate measures.

One of the common drills is to get children to describe everything in clusters of three. There are three parts to every numeracy hour, so there might as well be three words to every concept. The sunrise has to be bright, beautiful and warm. The child in the playground must run, hop and skip.

Another load of bosh, splosh and tosh ready for sweeping out from the gutters of the Government's wheeze factory is "modernisation" that isn't.

What is modern, for example, about telling schools that they will be expected to introduce uniforms and a house system, other than it taking place in 2004?

It may be an interesting proposal, as turning the clock back often is, but it is certainly not modernisation, assuming the term still has some vestige of its original meaning. If this sort of scheme is modernisation, then so too would be the reintroduction of coracles on cross-channel ferry routes.

Yet any opposition to such outmoded ideas is derided by the Government as the forces of conservatism at work. Returning to the past is modern, whereas seeking a 21st century solution for today's problems is retro.

When it comes to controlling the peasantry, there is no limit to the elasticity of political language. Words mean whatever the powerful say they mean.

Schools are to be set free, but the 2002 Education Act requires them to apply to the minister in writing if they want to innovate. Utterly amazing, intriguing and fascinating.

Another gutter full of rash brash trash is the 117-item early years profile, which successfully survives every assault on it. Reception class teachers have to tick thousands of boxes, although bureaucracy is supposedly being reduced.

Alongside it still lie obstinate masses of yet more paperwork, that successive promises were supposed to obliterate. You can apply gallons, litres and tons of detergent, solvent and water in vain. The revolting gunge just clings on.

I must have misunderstood the nature of National Maintenance Week. Perhaps the word "maintenance" means keeping the status quo, since the prime minister once said he had no reverse gear. But then neither did some early minicars, which is why they are still stuck in 1960s timber and asbestos garages, unable to get out.

How boring, tedious and dreary this crude sculpturing of education is. It makes me angry, cross and furious. I want to shout, yell and scream. Anyone looking closely at all the political rap, pap and crap must surely vomit, throw up and be sick.

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