Curmudgeon

12th January 1996 at 00:00
The number of teachers being granted early retirement, we learned a couple of weeks ago, is spiralling out of control. No surprise in that. At least, not for most of us. There is one small group of people, though, who profess themselves unable to explain what is going on. They live in Sanctuary Buildings and call themselves the Department for Education and Employment. When the figures were announced, they couldn't think of any reason why there might have been an increase.

Call me a sentimental old thing, but I am beginning to worry about the people who govern us. Something is seriously amiss. Last year they were unable to explain declining standards in GCSE English results following the introduction of the new syllabuses. Most of us wrote that off as a momentary lapse. But it's happening again, twice in the space of two or three months. First it was the relationship between class size and standards of achievement, and now they can see no connection between the number of teachers leaving the profession and the state of utter confusion to which it has been reduced. What is their problem?

It is fashionable these days to prove your illiberal credentials by denying the self-evident. So, for example, it's chic to demonstrate your belief in the freedom of the individual by denying the link between smoking and lung cancer. I thought at first that the problem at the DFEE might be something along these lines, but I fear it is more serious than that.

You see, their compulsive scepticism about class size or early retirement is combined with a credulousness over other things that really does defy belief. These same people are quite prepared to accept such patent absurdities as the independence of OFSTED, for example, or the reliability of national curriculum assessment. This puts them in the same league as UFO watchers.

So I have a different theory. It has become respectable to make policy on the basis not of rational debate but of gut reaction. Indeed, any attempt to weigh up opposing views, to seek some kind of empirical justification for your actions, is now seen as a sign of irredeemable weakness. Leadership is about visiting your prejudices on other people. The more absurd your views, the more credit you can take for imposing them. Which is my point. The policies now being advanced were actually adopted not in spite of their shortcomings, but because of them. The fact that they were completely indefensible was part of the attraction. That way, their implementation would demonstrate leadership of the most unequivocal kind.

I will give you one example which, I think, clinches my argument - the post Dearing curriculum at key stage 4. The real attraction, for the DFEE, of the requirements for compulsory technology and the introduction of short courses is that they are almost entirely unworkable. There are even precedents to prove that nobody wants them and they don't work. The last time the government introduced half courses was about ten years ago when they invented AS-levels. Despite being relentlessly promoted by central government, they are still no more popular than a Registered Inspector at a Christmas knees up. As for compulsory technology, that was tried three years ago and failed. Can you think of a better way of demonstrating who's in charge.

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