Editorial - Media-fuelled myths must be laid to rest

6th November 2009 at 00:00
Tabloid reporting of state education is too often the stuff of fantasy

There exists on the web a mildly seditious site called Daily Mail-o-matic. Each click of its refresh button automatically generates a headline in the style of that newspaper - "Is the nanny state turning middle England gay?" or "Are single mothers killing your pets?" and the truly alarming "Have hoodies scrounged off Cliff Richard?" The site's program randomly juxtaposes the paper's heroes with its villains. Taxpayers, homeowners, swans and Diana's memory are in the former category; Gordon Brown, swine flu, yobs and the French in the latter. Guess where teachers appear?

State schools and teachers have been the victims of ill-informed press attacks for decades. But the tabloid bile in this pre-election period is plumbing toxic depths. Descriptions of classrooms routinely succumbing to "howling, indisciplined chaos" (sic) or "dumbed down schools" equipping their pupils with "debased" qualifications are now so common that they are no longer challenged. It is time they were.

The TES has commissioned Adrian Elliott, a former headteacher, to debunk some of the most common myths about state schools circulated by the chattering classes, decreasing numbers of whom attended one, according to the Sutton Trust. He kicks off by tackling the assumption that behaviour in schools today is far worse than in the past (pages 34-35). In subsequent weeks he will scotch the idea that the rise in standards owes everything to easier exams, that grammar schools improved social mobility, that teachers are ignoring the basics and that pupils no longer play competitive team sports because trendy lefties can't abide them.

Mr Elliott's findings will cause despair among tabloid headline writers. Behaviour is unsatisfactory in only 2 per cent of schools, the proportion of girls gaining an A-level has risen almost 400 per cent in a generation and evidence that schools discourage or have ever discouraged competitive sports is as real and convincing as Monty Python's fabled Norwegian Blue parrot.

It would be a mistake, however, to think that these myths have gained currency only because ill-wishers on Fleet Street desired it. Part of their popularity must be attributed to a good thing - a modern expectation that all children deserve to be treated and educated to certain standards. The press hysteria that greets occasional lapses is infinitely preferable to the cold indifference of 50 years ago. It was easy then to ignore the lack of educational achievement for huge swathes of the population because it wasn't considered important.

Unfortunately, a lot of the animosity still directed at state schools is fuelled by an ingrained reluctance to accept mass education. For some, the comprehensive "disaster" is as unforgivable and as perplexing as all that other scary stuff spawned in the 1960s. These cultural refuseniks confuse social with educational elitism, ignore the harm done to generations of children whose potential was routinely discarded and wilfully persist in the fantasy that right-wing governments ditched the old system in a moment of madness rather than accept the obvious explanation - because it didn't work. One suspects that Mr Elliott's words will never convince them.

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