Fairy tales for the Loonytune league

21st February 1997 at 00:00
There is a view of life, put forward by the Government and endorsed by some of its agencies, that teachers, and indeed children, are best motivated by the "blame and shame" approach to education.

Hence the constant stress on the discipline of the market and the benefits of competition. The philosophy goes back to medieval times: make them run the obstacle course and if they fall down, put them in the stocks.

In the full list of madcap right-wing free-market ideas launched on the world between now and the general election, John Major's proposal to publish school league tables for seven-year-olds can be entered officially as Loonytunes number 18a. It may actually be 20b, or even 22c, I am rapidly losing count.

Life is a mixture of competition and collaboration, but the view that teachers are driven only by competition is pure folly.

The belief that thousands of professional people are positively slavering with pleasure at the prospect of thumping hell out of the opposition in primary school league tables, and that this alone will spur them on to improve, is the credo of the halfwit if that is not too generous an estimate of Major's brain power.

Even worse is the assumption that children themselves will work harder and learn more because of league tables. I cannot see many six and seven-year-olds showing much interest in promotion and relegation struggles, or, when sponsorship begins to play its part, giving a fig who wins the Chocky Drop League championship trophy.

All that the blame-and-shame culture has produced so far is a casualty list of stressed teachers who seek to quit the profession. The definitive history of education in 20th-century Britain will one day denounce this market-mad period, just as history eventually condemned "payment by results" in the 19th century.

League tables, the shaming and humiliation of teachers, as well as the castigation of children who do not achieve highly enough, will be seen as a brief fin de si cle aberration.

Those right-wingers who see primary schools as too flaccid and soft argue that league tables will stiffen the culture. I doubt whether the creation of more anxiety among teachers and young children will do anything of the kind.

There is a well known relationship between anxiety and performance. The graph of it is shaped like an inverted letter U. Too little and too much anxiety produce poor performance. If we were not at all anxious when crossing the road, we would fail to look around and be run over. Too much anxiety and we would be scared to leave home.

So will league tables for seven-year-olds toughen them up? Will the white heat of competition turn Little Twinky into a red-clawed tiger? Will parents be delighted to watch their anxious children and their nail-biting teachers frantically trying to draw themselves a notch or two up the league? I doubt it.

I have a better plan to make seven-year-olds more competitive. I shall re-write all those traditional namby-pamby fairy tales that give children a false picture of the dog-eat-dog adult world that the marketeers would like them to inhabit, and prepare them for the many cruel predators and competitors they will eventually meet.

First under the axe will be that old favourite, The Elves and the Shoemaker. A witless shoemaker tries to sell shoes for the price he paid for the leather. Small wonder that he fell on hard times and had to be rescued by an army of underpaid midgets. In my rewritten version, the poor sap will simply go bust and have to sign up as a lay inspector with the Office for Standards in Education to pay off his debts.

Jack and the Beanstalk I like. Good sound capitalist message here. Any giant who nods off with an uninsured golden egg-laying goose on his premises deserves to have some opportunist pinch it. It's a tough world.

Little Red Riding Hood, however, will get her come-uppance. Why was she visiting her granny anyway, when she could have been out earning extra cash on a paper round?

If granny is past it, she should have taken out private insurance and been put in a home. In my version, the wolf eats both of them and gets put in charge of a quango or public utility as a reward for his enterprise.

Cinderella I quite like. After all, she shows admirable ambition and upward mobility, coming from a humble home and gulling a prince into marrying her, thereby stepping over all the other rats in the rat race. Furthermore, she gets extra marks for trouncing her own sisters when competing for favours.

In my version, however, the midnight hour is of no consequence. She simply hires a coach and horses and then defaults on the payments, knowing the firm will probably write them off as a business loss.

Many of the other stories are extremely unsound. The three bears don't bother to charge Goldilocks any rent, and Mummy Bear obviously can't cook a decent plate of porridge, so that particular guest house must go to the wall.

Pinocchio's nose should only grow longer if he actually gets caught out when he tells lies. If he gets away with it, he should become a Cabinet minister.

The most worrying story of all, however, is Peter Pan. Captain Hook is fine, as he can serve to remind to all the seven-year-olds what the National Health Service will offer them if they fail to take out private health insurance.

It is Peter Pan himself who is the problem. The poor lad never grows up. If there is one thing that the nation's seven-year-olds will need to do in this market-mad world, it is leave childhood behind - fast.

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