Editorial - When you hang out at the Slough of Despond, the good news tends to pass you by
This Government does doom terribly well. "One thousand children suspended from school for abuse and assault every day", "UK pupils lag Mexicans in social mobility stakes", "The Anti-Christ spotted in Year 8", that type of thing. Its observations are invariably dark - pupils are "struggling", schools "underperforming", exams are "discredited", procedures are "unduly complex", systems are never "fit for purpose", and the entire country is persistently "lagging behind". Sighing, tut-tutting and sorrowful shakes of the head are de rigueur at the DfE. Departmental discos must be awful affairs - wall-to-wall Morrissey, Leonard Cohen, fado and the speeches of Norman Tebbit set to rap.
Even when the news is good, it isn't. Take this week's official assessment of the latest batch of key stage 2 tests (page 6). Ministers duly noted the "welcome improvement" in reading, writing and maths, but devoted far more time to pointing out deficiencies: the "worrying" number of children at the lowest levels, the "declining" proportions at the top, the disappointing performance of boys. All of which are undeniably true and cause for concern. But why stress the negative?
On one level, this is commendable. Traditionally, ministers have rushed to claim credit when it wasn't their due and done their damnedest to conceal the crap. It's refreshing when politicians point out that all is not well. And up to a point it's necessary. If ministers believe education is motoring along in second gear - and they do - they are right to think that complacency is the enemy of progress.
On the other hand, low political calculation contributes as much to the mood music as high principle. After all, widespread reform is justified only if the system is deeply flawed. Cue dissing on a grand and indiscriminate scale. "One in three pupils fail (sic) to reach the expected level in the three Rs," ministers sadly and incorrectly intone, rather than "one in three fails in at least one of the three Rs", thereby neatly and unfairly inflating failure.
More egregious still is the Department's neglect of good news because it doesn't fit its relentlessly gloomy narrative. Figures out last week showed that suspensions had fallen by 7.6 per cent in a year, permanent exclusions by a third in five years and that the total number of pupils excluded for attacking school staff had plunged by 40 per cent in the same period (page 1). Official delight was as conspicuous as goodwill at a stoning.
Of course, normal service will be resumed as the election nears and your schools become their schools. By then ministers will be highlighting great strides and lots of leaping forward in a display of enthusiasm that would doubtless embarrass Mao. In the meantime, the Government runs the risk of fuelling tabloid ignorance, distorting progress and demoralising a profession that needs support. It seriously needs to lighten up.