Coughing up to ignorance

27th January 2006 at 00:00
I don't know the answer. They've pinned me to the wall and I don't know the answer. Worse, I've just trapped myself in a sentence that begins "Because Napoleon ...." and I don't know what he did next. I panic, then I see that there are just nine seconds until the bell goes, so I start pretending to cough. The cowardice of fake coughing doesn't matter to me, nothing does, except being safe again, with a plate of biscuits and an encyclopaedia.

Help, help.

Ruth Kelly didn't panic last week. She did what you should do if you can't answer a question: admit it and say you'll find out. Inspired by this example, I shall wear my ignorance on my sleeve from now on. If only because I don't think coughing will work again.

Kelly wasn't alone, though. It has been an open secret for some time that the education department is run by daleks, with their pulverisingly prescriptive curriculum and their obsessive conformity. But daleks do have their uses, and they proved this in last week's sex offender crisis. While the air crackled with cries for Ruth Kelly to exterminate herself, a sleek fleet of daleks flew into formation and descended to work.

Do daleks panic? Yes, they do: whenever they meet something that is not them and cannot be controlled. This happens a lot. Hopelessly inflexible and confused by the concept of alternatives, daleks really don't like democracy at all.

But they do like facts. Facts give them focus. Daleks want complete mastery of information and they know they have it when they all reach the same answer. This is why the examination system is so conformist. But it's also what makes the daleks so useful when you need facts. They exist to take orders. They do not sleep. If they fail in their mission they self-destruct. And they work well with the police. Daleks like computers but must have found those pre-internet paper records vexing. Somehow, though, they span and glided their way through the whole lot.

What a task it was. My favourite description of the sex offender crisis was that it could be "the tip of the iceberg and has opened up a can of worms".

Bleah! So while the daleks pulled frozen worms out of an iceberg, what did the rest of us do?

Panic. Well, some of us did. After all, panic has a vital place in politics. A cheap, effective way to bash an opponent is to accuse them of panicking. Thus Lord Heseltine said recently that David Cameron had the Labour leadership caught "like rabbits in the headlights". Much was done to fuel the panic over Kelly while the daleks got on with their counting. The opposition and the media waved their tin openers around, to suggest that there were lots of big fat worms to come.

But there weren't. Ruth Kelly has survived this crisis, though she's probably now in chains. Let's just hope that panic is not allowed to make policy. I wouldn't like to be one of those frozen worms thawing under the daleks' eyestalks right now. I think our pupils are probably safer than ever before. The daleks can be trusted to make all those lists conform to one law. I just hope that all future worms get the proper appeals process that has been promised to them. It's a shame to exterminate a good teacher.

So the daleks won that battle with facts. But can they do diplomacy? Will they push through their complicated and boring educational reforms? Here's my favourite description of the white paper: "This is another huge iceberg the Government is steaming towards." Oh, no! From one iceberg to another! What a job.

I wouldn't like to have to explain the concept of spin to a dalek. Someone will have to, though. I do remember hearing Ruth Kelly whimper that they would have to "explain these reforms better". She reminded me then of a newly-qualified teacher who's been handed a ghastly lesson plan so complicated that even experienced teachers don't understand it. Lady Morris called the white paper "confusing" and Lord Kinnock called it "strange".

Kelly's response to critics was "They're just plain wrong!" Oh, dear.

That's an eyestalk away from "Obey without question!" Kelly showed steel in the last crisis. She'll have to bend in the next. I just wonder if she'll be given much room to move.

Politics and teaching present similar tests of nerve. You have to answer questions, and people get cross when you can't. You have to explain stuff, and people get cross if they don't like it. Tough jobs, both, but someone's got to do 'em. You can't panic, and you certainly can't pretend to cough and run away.

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