Comic relief as darkness descends

27th December 1996 at 00:00
Some years improve with age. Unfortunately, 1996 got dafter as the months went by. What would have been regarded as hysterical in January became normal by October, as the time for a general election drew closer. In the end, it is a merciful relief that January will count towards 1997, otherwise 1996 could have become embarrassing.

As the dark nights descend, I welcome any comic relief, so the clamour for a dress code for teachers offered rich pickings. I combed the schools of the land, eagerly looking for these staffrooms full of far-out hippies. It was disappointing to find so many soberly dressed teachers. St Michael seemed to be far more popular than St Scruff.

The fuss about bringing back the cane was similar. What should have been a legitimate and straightforward debate about moral education suddenly became a trial of strength. The discussion rapidly shifted to the reintroduction of corporal punishment, as some advocates of caning urged John Major to defy the European Parliament.

The reason that caning was abolished in this country is because of the European Convention on Human Rights, which we have accepted. It rules as illegal any punishment that is "inhuman or degrading". It is exactly the same clause that bans torture or police brutality. If an adult were permitted, on witnessing misbehaviour, to take a stick and beat a child, then a police officer might equally be allowed to clonk a shoplifter with a truncheon.

The prospects for 1997 do not, therefore, seem all that good. With a general election due, the likelihood of a rational discussion on educational issues in the first half of the year is low. This is a pity, as planning for the 21st-century version of the national curriculum will have to start in earnest.

The present curriculum runs until the year 2000. A new one must be communicated to schools in good time, so the revised version will have to be agreed in principle by late 1998. That means starting the consultation process in this coming spring. It would be dreadful if what should be a cool intelligent look at a sensible and imaginative curriculum for the next millennium were to be clouded by pre-election political and ideological hysteria.

After eight years of experience with the national curriculum, there will be no shortage of informed advice, as opposed to guesswork. I only hope that politicians will listen this time. Maybe the inescapable commotion that will accompany the start of the rethink will soon subside and be replaced by a mixture of pragmatism and imagination.

Some of 1997 is all too predictable. In April, at least one person attending a teacher union conference will say, "I am a teacher, not a social worker". In August, the annual A-level and GCSE results will be published.

The overall pass rates will have gone up by 1 per cent, while the number of A-level entries in chemistry and physics will have gone down yet again. The headlines in the national press will say that standards have fallen irrespective of whether there are more or fewer passes.

By November, the annual league tables will be published. The national test scores for 11-year-olds will have gone up again (but standards will still have fallen, according to critics). There will be freezing fog and heavy snowfalls before Christmas. Trendy teachers, absence of caning, lack of a dress code and progressive methods will be blamed.

The new Parliament will take us into the 21st century. My hopes for education are simple. There are five things I should like to see:

* An end to the "Me Tarzan, you scum" style of national management perfected by Kenneth Baker-Clarke-Patten. It is demeaning to any profession, let alone one like teaching that is supposed to have a bit of imagination and initiative, to be subjected to constant humiliation. It would barely be tolerable if the leader were a genius, but this disastrous macho style was developed by a constellation of unalloyed prats.

Even though Gillian Shephard has tried to be different, the general lack of trust of the teaching profession still remains. Only when it ends will the climate improve.

* The instant incineration of much of the paperwork and bureaucracy that has sapped precious time and energy away from the classroom. If fed into power stations, it would heat several medium-sized cities for weeks. Lack of trust lies beneath this affliction too. If you are suspicious of people, you make them write everything down, so you can keep a check on their activities. Paper becomes a god. Sadly, it can also become a substitute for action, rather than the cause of it.

* More positive press coverage of education. Not for one moment should there be any restraint, in a free society, on legitimate criticism of poor performance. All I am asking for is a fair-minded account of what is happening in education. In one recent international comparison we came high in science and low in maths. Some accounts only mentioned the maths.

Examination coursework has ensured that pupils have to work throughout the two years of their GCSE or A-level, not just put in a spurt before the exams as many of their parents did. Yet coursework gets an almost universally bad press. One or two journalists should also try to write a few columns without using the word "trendy". Hard, I know, but worth the effort.

* An end to the market-mad philosophy that tries to set school against school, pupil against pupil and teacher against teacher. Competition is sometimes valuable but in most of daily life co-operation is more important.

Sensible teachers and heads have minimised the bad effects of this fabricated strife and conflict, but it has not done much for children with special needs, who are in danger of being seen as lepers.

* Pigs should fly.

Happy New Year.

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