Dearing's 'treacle' works its wonders

5th April 1996 at 01:00
It is one thing to subdue a tediously complex beast like post-16 education. It is quite another to reach terms with Observer columnist Melanie Phillips.

You may know Sir Ron as a white-haired Mr Consensus whose long, obscure reports damp down the raging flames of educational controversy.

But this breed of Ron was never going to stop the fire-raising Ms Phillips. She prefers Sir Ron the fixer "with now legendary powers of pouring warm treacle over open wounds". His "cosmetic and cynical" report is a disaster. Its dangerous proposals "leave one with a sick headache". A reference to the report's extraordinary length, perhaps.

In this case she was largely alone with her invective. Most newspapers produced accounts which pleased Sir Ron with their accuracy and showed a heart-warming acquaintance with the executive summary, if not the report itself.

Leader writers and columnists are different because they don't have to read your actual documents. Preferring to gently twitch their antennae, they know, for example, that all education stories are about A-levels. And that stupendously long reports can be boiled down to retreads of tired old columns about the gold standard. This will have saved a lot of work for the Daily Telegraph and The Times, which felt Sir Ron's suggestions "may leave [A-levels] subtly debased".

The Daily Express and the Daily Mail were equally clear that "a shake-up in A-levels" was the story. All other exams are beyond the pale. The Express found "an inner-city teacher", somewhat implausibly called Cornelius McAfee, to savage those education careerists, and it seemed, all new qualifications.

Artful pundits must also have a grip of the eternal verities; and if everyone likes the report, it must be rubbish. As the Daily Telegraph explained: "Any initiative that receives a universal welcome in so contentious a field as education should set alarm bells ringing."

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