How to counter the culture of failure

27th December 1996 at 00:00
Tyrrell Burgess argues that pillorying people obscures the faults in the system which cause the problems

Ours is a prurient society. There are no circumstances, from deep tragedy to high farce, that cannot be paraded for people to gawp at. No social problem, no moral issue can compete in fascination with villains and victims. The hunt is always on for someone who has failed, someone who can be blamed.

Recent headlines about education have all been of this kind, from an excluded boy and a teacher's idiosyncratic treatment of bullies to a disorganised or bottom-of-the-league school. The trouble is that pillorying people obscures problems of the system, yet it is not people but the system which is within the competence of the various authorities to improve.

Here, then, are some systematic contributions to failure which recent experiences reveal.

We can start with the planning of schools. Local education authorities seem unable to learn from experience that amalgamating schools is destructive. Years ago, the old Inner London Education Authority had a mania for this entirely unnecessary method for abolishing selection. In the end, a number of us got it stopped, but not before it was clear that amalgamating two schools meant at least five years of preoccupation and disruption, with a loss of education to a generation of schoolchildren. Amalgamations are a systematic disaster.

Another famous planning failure is arranging that there should be one school which unwanted children attend. This is not a matter of popularity. There must needs be a least popular school in any area, and left to itself popularity can change rapidly and at random. The damage is done when the system encourages schools to exclude the disruptive then insists that other schools, and in the end one school, take them in. This hides the failure of the excluding schools and the achievements of the receiving. It rewards irresponsibility in the excluding schools and the local authority. "Sink" schools are a failure of the system.

A common feature of several recent stories has been the unhelpful activity of governing bodies. This can be traced to the deliberate rejection of partnership in their composition. Partnership was expressed by the Taylor Committee in equal numbers of those with a real interest in the school: parents, teachers, local authority and "the community". The subsequent legislation changed this balance, giving teachers a smaller share. Governors did not develop the skills of acting as partners: instead many of them saw themselves as representing the "interests" of children or parents against the teachers of their school. One chairman of governors in a recent case explicitly claimed this function. This sort of conflict, which only adds to any difficulties that may arise, is a consequence of the way the system was established and operates.

Another recent manifestation has been the recessive behaviour of local education authorities. This inevitably follows from their loss of powers over funding, admissions and appointments. It is no use expecting a local authority to intervene if it now lacks the instruments to enable it to do any good. The system prevents it. Instead we have the Office for Standards in Education and the Secretary of State. This is hopeless. The system now ensures that if there is a difficulty with a school or even with a single pupil, that difficulty must be resolved in the midst of a kind of Roman holiday. A local problem becomes, quite spuriously, a national event. Children know that vile behaviour is the surest way to 15 minutes of fame.

Let us suppose a school with a problem of discipline, in which authority is for whatever reason precarious. The remedy provided by the system is that a national body, OFSTED, announces that it is sending in a mighty and special team of inspectors. The immediate, and predictable, consequence is that authority collapses utterly and the school has to be closed. Some heroic head is then installed to put things right. He may succeed, but whatever good may be done, there will be only one thing that can be securely attributed to OFSTED, and that is the collapse and closure of the school.

The local undermining of authority is matched by the effect of the system generally. It is true that self-indulgent Secretaries of State have assailed teachers when it seemed to suit them, but fortunately few people take any notice of politicians or believe them when they do. The evil lies rather in the systematic undermining of the teachers' authority. The effect has been consistent and continuous. The contract of employment implies not a profession but a feckless "workforce". The national curriculum is seen to weaken professional responsibility. The league tables suggest the need for goading and harrying to get "results". Method of inspection are in effect punitive.

The irresponsibility of this is breathtaking. The distance the system has sunk may be judged from the following: "Fortunately, we have in this country a tradition of independence and vitality amongst the teachers which guarantees that new knowledge and experience is quickly translated into new courses, new ideas ... and new teaching methods." It was written by a (Conservative) minister of education in 1959. Nobody imagines that he was unaware of weaknesses - but he had more sense than to undermine authority.

Of course, any individual can fail: a child, parent, teacher, head, governor, official, councillor, inspector, Chief Inspector, Secretary of State. When this happens individual remedy is possible, but only if the system is benign. After two decades of thoughtless and restless reform, the system is in too many ways a cause of the failures. It is not self-correcting. Where is the movement to put it right?

Tyrrell Burgess is a professor of social institutions at the University of East London.

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