Good news is not part of the mindset

13th September 1996 at 01:00
ALL MUST HAVE PRIZES. By Melanie Phillips, Little, Brown Pounds 17.50. Columnist Melanie Phillips has left her liberal credentials behind in her ironically titled new book, says Bob Moon

More books are being sold than ever before. Classical music competes with Brit pop and Swing in the music stores. Arts centres of all kinds open on a weekly basis. Cinema is having a resurgence. Exam results improve year-on-year. Girls' achievement in schools have been transformed in a generation. Half of young people want to go to university, and a third do. Concern for the developing world (Band Aid and beyond) is now deeply embedded in youth culture. Multi-ethnic relationships in schools have never been so good. More than nine out of 10 young people say they really like school.

None of this is to be found in Melanie Phillips' ironically titled All Must Have Prizes. The good news is just not part of the mind set. Instead, we are presented with over 300 lucidly written pages denigrating just about every aspect of the education system with more limited side swipes at social policy generally. The chapter titles will alert Observer readers to the familiar sound of the banshee - "The De-Education of Britain", "The Retreat for Teachers", "The Flight from Parenting", "The No Blame, No Share, No Pain Society".

The utter conviction that calamity has befallen English education, roughly since the resignation of Harold Macmillan, has a frightening intensity. Worrying also is the chord that this deeply pessimistic book will strike in the continuing media onslaught on schools. So, how to review it? A critical TES piece will be worn with a badge of pride. Compliments in a Telegraph leader are de rigueur.

The evidence base is partial. Phillips brings in David Burghes' work on inconsistency between exam boards, but omits the findings on how the standards of maths exams have been sustained over 30 years. One black boy, one French teacher and one University physicist each pop up at just the right moment to confirm how everything has gone to the dogs.

Here is one specific, predictable, example. All the evidence suggests, says Phillips, that the vast majority of teacher training institutions subscribe to a doctrinaire, often hugely politicised approach which strips new teachers of their authority. What evidence? Extended quotes from one student teacher. Source? Footnote 11, a conversation with the author!

Who are her heroes? Anthony O'Hear, John Marks, and the Lewes historians.

And the villains? John Dewey, Carl Rogers and Lawrence Stenhouse, each represented by grossly distorted, selective quotations and, of course, the National Association of Teachers of English.

Most questionable of all is the attempt to present her views as part of a liberal left agenda. Cast educationists from the temple. In their place? Not a lot. One of the last chapters (20 pages) is entitled "A Programme for Survival". The prescription is more authority and school structures, a state-directed reinstating of a parent culture, shore up some institutions (Parliament and the Monarchy), abolish others (you can guess it, teacher training), remodel education along the lines of the Germans and Swiss. Page 335, abolish the National Curriculum, but keep it, page 336 (but only English, Maths and History). A muddled chapter unsustained by the earlier often vitriolic, always angry, polemic of denunciation.

The truth is that this viewpoint, well articulated by a small coterie (each quoting the other with approval) is deeply conservative and elitist. If we didn't have so many people going to University now (the Swiss only have 12 per cent) those who didn't get in wouldn't feel so disappointed! (p.334).

This is the schooling of The Bell Curve. Melaine Phillips just cannot conceive of a world in which everyone can grow, where potential can change, and where values can be debated rather than asserted.

But the solution cannot come from this shaky foundation. The millions of children and thousands of teachers, and the vast majority of parents, are just not like this.

The title is a clever trap for a critical reviewer. It was the Dodo in Alice in Wonderland who proclaimed the race over and cried out: "All must have prizes."

Bring back the Dodo. Education is more than one race. Expectations and rewards are crucial. All must have prizes, stripped of the offensive irony, is precisely the starting point for any new agenda.

Bob Moon, a former headteacher, is Professor of Education at the Open University.

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