Derailed by the fast-track debate

2nd February 1996 at 00:00
I never thought I would rue the day that education became such a high-profile issue in the media. But with last week's blanket coverage of "education" stories looking set to continue, the debate about education is getting dafter by the day. Some good ideas for improving schools are being lost in the rubbish and rhetoric that seems to characterise the policy debate in Britain once it's on the front page of every newspaper.

The hysteria over Harriet Harman's choice of a grammar school for her son has been followed by politicians and newspaper columnists falling over each other in the rush to prescribe "innovative solutions" to the problems in Britain's schools.

There is no magic wand that can be waved to raise levels of achievement. Many of the so-called "new" ideas have either been tried and failed, or are already practised widely with varying degrees of success. Often they have been floating around in the policy documents of all the parties for many years only to be re-launched whenever the occasion demands. Yet half-baked ideas put forward by politicians are hyped up by the media and given credence which they scarcely deserve.

All party leaders say education is their priority and none of them has a monopoly on good ideas. Anxious to make national headlines, they sometimes forget that it's local solutions that matter. A successful scheme in a settled rural area or in a leafy suburb may be a disaster in the inner city and too much centralisation of education policy makes schools the political football they have become.

This week's speech by Tony Blair has kept the ball rolling. But while the priority he places on education may be inspired by genuine concern, he has to decide his role. Does he want to be Prime Minister of this country, or does he want to be headteacher of 25,000 schools all at the same time? Teachers find themselves thinking, heaven protect us from bright ideas picked up by politicians on occasional visits to schools.

Fast-tracking may be appropriate for some pupils in some schools. Many schools have experimented with this kind of initiative with varying results but there are huge organisational and resource implications if schools implement fast-tracking on a serious scale. Careful analysis of the Birmingham and Shropshire cases reveal they are more about extra class support rather than fast-tracking within schools.

In the row over selection, the fact that large numbers of schools have their own systems of streaming or setting according to the needs and abilities of their pupils, seems to be ignored.

The assumption is too easily made that mixed-ability schools mean mixed-ability teaching when the truth is often far from that. And while I am all in favour of stretching bright pupils, let us not forget those who struggle academically and may need extra help to achieve the proper levels of literacy and numeracy, and the skills our economy needs.

Other ideas put forward by Tony Blair such as decent nursery education, smaller classes in infant schools and paying teachers more for staying in the classroom deserve support. There is also a need for special attention for the unique problems in inner cities. Teachers and schools need stronger backing in dealing with disruptive and violent pupils.

Unfortunately, these issues will be crowded out by the 'sexier' subjects linked to selection and fast-tracking - a classic case of "fast-track" philosophy derailing common sense.

The Conservatives and the Opposition seem more anxious to trip one another up than to improve the debate.

Teachers are in despair about the politicisation of education. The media, with its unrelenting hostility to teachers, is now in my view part of the problem. I cannot imagine any private-sector company slagging off its employees in public while expecting improvements at the same time.

Internecine party political warfare combined with the mass media's morbid fascination with failure and its refusal to acknowledge any success seriously depress teachers' morale.

If this is going to continue until the next general election, the sooner Mr Major calls it the better.

Nigel de Gruchy is general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers

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