Enter the age of zero tolerance of intolerance

31st January 1997 at 00:00
Zero Tolerance" is one of this year's more macho slogans, much used by politicians as they vie with each other for the highground of instant solutions to complicated and deep-rooted problems. Here are some of my own, each showing all too clearly why the political arena is not my natural habitat.

First must be zero tolerance of continuing racism and its associated concept, the ineducability of any particular social or ethnic group, age or gender. John Major said recently that he didn't pretend that "the future for the young black man in Brixton is yet as open to talent as it is to young white man in the Home Counties. It clearly isn't. But we must try to make it so". We might argue about why this vile state of affairs still exists, but I was impressed that a full and empathetic speech emerged from this particular quarter. Until this point, I had concluded that ethnic and race issues had been swept aside by the three main political parties, especially in education, where it is increasingly asserted that the larger cultural and social context has no significant impact on academic performance.

Second is zero tolerance of the apocalyptic failure model. For instance, international league tables show there is something wrong with our maths curriculum and teaching. The Office for Standards in Education's (unexpurgated) inspection of primary initial teacher training courses identified particular weaknesses in trainee teachers' grasp of English grammar. I think we should deal sanely and specifically with these weaknesses rather than claim they denote a cataclysmic breakdown of the entire system.

Equally, of course, no one should claim that our system is successful simply because our information technology skills are deemed to be superior to those in the United States, Singapore and France, or because we are world leaders in the production of science graduates and CD Roms or that our global performance in marketing and financial services and across all of the Arts is second to none. Of course, more regular reference to such successes, and the school system's contribution to them, would be rather nice. Dream on.

My third zero tolerance is of control freaks in central government (Old Tory or New Labour). There are several problems which could be solved with wit, imagination and economy if we had fewer top-down national prescriptions and more bottom-up pilots and experiments. To name but four:

* how best to train and develop existing and future headteachers; * how to innovate and break open the gridlock in 14 to 19 curriculum and organisational structures; * the development of meaningful and practicable homework and out-of-school enrichment programmes; * retaining and enthusing teachers and developing their expertise, especially in their last 10 years of full-time service.

Central government clearly has a role in identifying such policy needs, and ensuring that they are properly attended to through local authorities and consortia of schools, colleges and other providers. The National Commission on Education proposed the establishment of a Council for Innovation in Learning and Teaching and such a body should be responsible for commissioning, evaluating and disseminating a variety of such developments. It is depressing, however, that "diversity" remains a hot piece of rhetoric but is actually the last thing reformist centralisers want or can tolerate as they repeatedly confuse means and ends.

My final outburst of zero tolerance is directed at the belated buttering up of teachers. Recognising that education's core business is teaching and learning and that teachers and pupils are at its heart is certainly overdue. However, my fear is that such Pauline conversions are too late. Tony Blair exhorts teachers to become engaged in New Labour's "crusade" for higher educational standards. My earlier comments about an apocalyptic failure model and the dangers of centralised prescriptions need to be taken on board if the further commitment and trust of teachers are to be won.

We are also told that Chris Woodhead has "softened" his approach to teachers and one hopes, therefore, that he regrets his more cynical and inciteful descriptions of teachers simply as "producers" in a quasi-market-place, or as "vested interests", with OFSTED standing heroically between these and the "concerns of parents, employers and politicians". Instead, teachers are now labelled "the poor bloody infantry" (how demeaning) and our chief inspector's political firepower is aimed at LEAs and the "school improvement industry". The latter presumably includes the Secretary of State's most favoured creation, the DFEE's school improvement unit.

"Zero tolerance" is not, however, an entirely happy or uncontested concept. John Major, in the speech I cited at the beginning of this column, reminded his audience that "Tolerance is the real test of civilisation". He referred to the Bosnian Serbs' massacre of 5,000 Muslim villagers in Srebrenica. "That's a warning of what happens when people no longer tolerate other religions or values or races". So, perhaps, zero tolerance is a smart, tough slogan which has already reached its sell-by-date, alongside that other rather chilling and unfraternal dictum of the past decade, "that's your problem"?

Professor Margaret Maden is director of the Centre for Successful Schools at Keele University

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