Everything in the garden far from rosy

11th October 1996 at 01:00
I suppose nothing was more predictable than the outrage of the educational establishment at Melanie Phillips's book, two examples being Ted Wragg and Paul Francis (TES, September 27).

In my opinion Professor Wragg's jokes and debating tricks have become so juvenile that I no longer bother to read him, and I notice from her book that Melanie Phillips seems to think as poorly of him as he apparently does of her. Paul Francis, however, despite his patronising tone and the inappropriately matey register of his piece, may have a valid point.

Melanie Phillips's book has three main lines of attack. She seems to believe that the progressive educational establishment ignore or misrepresent research evidence to suit their own political agenda.

She believes that our students are being educated in ways which result in their not knowing very much and not being very skilled at doing much.

She adds that the progressive educational establishment wish to promote an egocentric anarchic multicultural permissive society the precondition for whose creation is the systematic destruction of traditional British culture and values.

It is possible that the overall thesis is correct while the details are wrong. Equally, it is possible that the details are correct but are insufficient to establish the overall proposition.

This I think is where Paul Francis may be right. All Must Have Prizes does seem to promote despair. The apocalyptic tone and aura of hopelessness which characterise the book are in my view both off-putting and excessive.

The details on the other hand are often more telling. There certainly was a sustained and not very reputable campaign to discredit Martin Turner; secondary school English teachers very often do feel that students arrive at 11 with seriously inadequate reading skills despite reasonable intelligence and motivation; there is a major and all but unbridgeable gulf between educational theorists and teachers; those who prefer to teach to a whole class from the front have sometimes been pressured to adopt methods they do not believe in; some social attitudes of recent times have been a disaster for children; and far more children than used to be the case are hopelessly confused.

The end of the world may not be nigh but Melanie Phillips seems to me to show quite well that everything in the garden is far from rosy. I don't really accept her thesis, but I find many of her detailed arguments uncomfortably persuasive.

By the way, the question from Paul Francis "why do we have to put up with (Melanie Phillips and Chris Woodhead)?" should not need to be asked.

We live in the kind of society which permits the expression of all opinions other than a few proscribed by law. It allows all those who have an opinion to strive to publicise it. It is not the sort of society which suppresses those opinions which it finds inconvenient.

That is why we have to put up with them.

It is regrettable that by questions of this kind Paul Francis appears to give credence to Melanie Phillips's subsidiary argument that some people in educational circles wish to silence dissentient voices.

MICHAEL EDWARDS 6 Oakwood Mews Worksop Nottinghamshire

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