Getting one for the price of two

27th September 1996 at 01:00
Paul Francis argues that Chris Woodhead and Melanie Phillips offer no solutions, only similar visions of despair.

I didn't believe it at first. There was the usual staffroom gossip, but I always try to ignore that. I noticed the graffiti by the bike sheds - "Mel 4 Chris" - but thought nothing of it. Then I saw it, with my own eyes: they were there last Thursday, sitting together for our cameras. Journalist Melanie Phillips and chief inspector Chris Woodhead are definitely an item.

Nothing romantic, you understand. This isn't a tabloid slur effected through sexist innuendo. No, the link with Chris and Melanie is intellectual, but it's powerful and dangerous all the same.

They're united by a common emotion - exasperation. Out there are these bloody schools, with bloody kids and bloody teachers, and they won't do what we want.

Except, it isn't "we". It's "I", and what passionately unites Mel and Chris is their feeling of uniqueness, their sense that they have been chosen, separately but simultaneously, to say what's wrong with English education, and to put it right.

You hear Chris on the radio. "I am very worried," he says. There's no sense that he's only a figurehead, the leader of a team of professionals, the tip of an iceberg of shared analysis. No, it's Chris gracing us with his individual insight, and his solution for our problems.

Melanie is the same. She's been writing articles for years, but now she's stitched them together into a book. She knows, for instance, what's wrong with the national curriculum. It has to be scrapped. Just go back to English, maths and history, and it'll all be fine. Now, why didn't I think of that?

I did, actually. Well, not that particular version. But I had criticisms of the national curriculum. I wrote letters, articles and, yes, even a book. And I wasn't the only one.

There's a whole history of argument, haggling, horse-trading and botch-up, which has given us the present state of affairs. And she thinks they're just going to bin it because she's come up with the answers. As Melanie herself might say, come on, please.

Moaning about what's wrong is fairly easy, and everybody does it. Not everyone gets paid for it, and some do it better than others. Reviewers keep saying how ferociously intelligent Melanie Phillips is, even when she gets things wrong. And Chris Woodhead always manages to sound plausible and interested, as though he's thinking on his feet. But that's the easy bit. As Yosser Hughes once said, of a different trade, "I could do that".

The hard part is making it better. And that's where professionals respect people such as David Hargreaves and Tim Brighouse, who don't just pontificate but get in there. They get involved, they work with other people, they take on commitments and they spend time following them through.

This isn't a sexy process. It doesn't produce instant solutions, it does take time and it also involves compromise. Which is why it makes people like Chris and Melanie so impatient. They can't believe it has to be so mucky and so slow. Somewhere, surely, there's a simple, quick-fix solution, and they're the ones to find it.

But not so far. Melanie is not so good on solutions. Her forte is exposing the shallowness of other people's thinking, the pathetic confusions into which they allow themselves to fall. And the only way out she offers is for us to share her vision of despair. With teacher training, for instance: "The place to start is the teacher colleges, which clearly need to be taken apart."

Well, that's a neat, constructive solution. Or maybe your taste is for something more cosmic: "Only when education is understood as the pedagogic and ideological disaster it has become will it stand any chance of being turned round."

So there. And that's what the book's for, to spell out despair. But maybe it's not her job. Maybe she's just a prophet, sharing the vision, demolishing the old edifice, and it's for us peasants to pile up the bricks that will replace it. Maybe, but if so, she ought to have a clearer view of what's involved. Which bricks, and where and how should they be arranged? She keeps re-running this weary routine about English teachers giving up on kids, and being creative at the expense of education.

OK, I started in the Sixties. I've written shows for kids with rock music, I've lit fires in the classroom, I take them out to write poems about trees. But I also make them write sonnets and act out Shakespeare. If a 16-year-old leaves my classroom without using full-stops, it's not because I haven't tried. And if Melanie thinks she's got a simple method for ensuring that everyone's literate before they leave school, I demand she demonstrates it in my classroom next week.

She won't, of course. No reason why she should. But she should take account of the real complexities with which she's dealing, rather than simplifying them into an emotive demonology which blurs the issues and postpones the achievement of lasting solutions.

It would also help if she was regularly closer to a range of practising teachers. As it is, she relies heavily on a few selective quotations, on letters from teachers who feel threatened and on the challenging heroic figure of Chris Woodhead.

Here he comes: "An exceptionally forthright chief inspectorI in a very delicate positionI UndauntedI independent of government. His observations and analysis should be a prime teaching aid for anyone out to raise education standards."

That's all from one article (Guardian, February 5), and you get the picture. The Lone Ranger, pitted against the faceless cowards who can't face facts, will still tell it like it is. That's the kind of hero Melanie likes. Maybe it's the kind, secretly, that she hopes to be herself.

So when she comes to write her book, she thinks that one solution to our problems is someone independent - independent meaning detached from the people doing the work. The Lone Ranger, in fact. Which is why Chris Woodhead's there, alongside, when she comes to launch her book.

She's wrong. He isn't the solution, and he doesn't have the solutions. Teachers are angry at Chris Woodhead, not because he shows the way forward, but because he's a distraction. He's getting in the way, and, while he's the dominating figure, we aren't going to get the planned, careful, communal approach that real reform requires.

Woodhead's strength is in his talking, his solo performance. He can raise questions, like Phillips, and he can, like her, invite contempt for the work of others. They share this arrogant assumption that they are there to say what's wrong, and to tell others how to put it right.

This implies a superior intelligence, which the media seem willing to grant them, but so far I've seen nothing from either in the tough territory of solutions to justify such eminence. I think they're made for each other. But why do we have to suffer them both?

Paul Francis is a teacher in Shropshire, and author of What's Wrong with the National Curriculum? (Liberty Books).

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