Editorial - The strange case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

1st February 2013 at 00:00

An idealistic schism has long existed between the modern Conservative Party's libertarian and authoritarian wings. Under the British Conservative umbrella one might find those who would defend your right to take part in the kinkiest of bedroom antics and those who would advocate chemical castration.

In a way, this awkward disconnect is manifested in our very own secretary of state.

Let's take the new national curriculum, due any day. Just what is Michael Gove hoping to achieve with these reforms? A return to old-fashioned subject matter - the wives of Henry VIII, say? If one listens selectively to Mr Gove's speeches, especially those delivered to the purple-rinse brigade, one could conclude that the curriculum review will lead to rote learning of Our Island Story. (Take that, you lefty teachers and your feminist analysis of Afro-Caribbean emancipation.)

But, of course, it won't, even if the education secretary wanted it to (which is unclear). Because what Mr Gove definitely wants is for the best teachers to have the freedom to teach whatever they want, whenever they want. Scrap those National Strategies, Nick, they're far too Blunkett for us. The only way for the education system to succeed is for schools to grab academy status with both hands, freeing themselves of such nasty constraints as local authority control, pay structures and, gasp, the national curriculum.

What's it to be, then? Is the long-awaited curriculum review the saviour of our Trot-controlled education system, or is it tinkering with a near-obsolete example of control freakery?

Setting aside whether academy heads will actually bother taking advantage of curriculum autonomy (surely they didn't change status just for the wonga?), the government has found a way to square this awkward circle. It's all about the exams, see? It is now fairly well documented that the new secondary curriculum will be drastically pared back to just a few pages. Ministers will be able to expound on the freedom to teach. And thus the libertarian Conservative Dr Jekyll is chuffed.

But wait! Here comes the authoritarian Conservative Mr Hyde. Mr Hyde's obsessions are the exam system and take-up of such airy-fairy subjects as media studies. What we need is the English Baccalaureate, he says. That'll sort them out. All kids will be forced down a traditional route without the need for a dictatorial curriculum.

Thus the problem is resolved, allowing ministers to generate neat fixes for difficult issues such as what to do about "trendy" teaching methods like chunking (see Letters, page 6). It's not that we're telling primary teachers how to teach long division (heaven forfend!), it's just that the Sats marking scheme penalises pupils who use the wrong method. In place of long division and Sats, one can just as easily insert reading and the new phonics check. Clever, eh?

Only, it's not really.

The situation remains as problematic as what to do with a right-wing backbencher with unorthodox bedroom proclivities. Do you fire him or her for being a pervert or celebrate the diversity of Modern Britain?

Alternatively, you could just close your eyes really tight, put on grandad's LP of Churchill's greatest speeches and hope that it all goes away.


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