If Gove's got a blacklist, who wants to be on it?

17th September 2010 at 01:00

Take a significant part of the economy which, in current circumstances, seems outdated and heavily unionised - an obstacle to progress. The previous prime minister had scars on his back from dealing with their workers, and the new Government's view is that they are `out of control'. Decide to cut thousands of jobs in this part of the economy as quickly as possible, using exaggerated justifications about the work being `uneconomic', and use all the forces of the state to ensure that the destruction happens as quickly as possible.

Sounds familiar? Were you thinking about this government, or the last Tory administration? Miners, or public sector workers? The miners' predicament in 1984 was clearly more desolate than the current plight of public sector workers, and the police are not yet getting new batons, powers, and overtime to cope with unrest. But the similarities are still striking.

It's becoming clear that the Coalition's approach to cost cutting is ideologically driven. And why not? The financial predicament is not just an opportunity. For those whose aim is to succeed where Thatcherism failed, and reduce the size of the state, it's nirvana.

Twenty years ago, Richard Rose demonstrated how most incoming governments faced the dilemma of `inheritance before choice'. You tended to inherit so many programmes that the scope for any real choice about resource allocations or political priorities were severely limited. The challenge for ministers was to create structures to ensure that whoever replaced them had even less room for manouvere than they had.

The banking crisis and its impact on public finances has given the Coalition the chance to disinherit whatever it chooses. Very little is sacred. Although the scope for new choice is severely limited by budget constraints, nothing can feel more powerful than the ability to cut things. Initiate a new programme, and within six months it generally turns into something you never intended it to be. Cut something, and it stays cut.

In education, the selected cuts go well beyond the immediately necessary, and are far more forensically targeted than a blanket destruction of anything `back-office'. It has become a cull of any people or organisations who could form a concerted opposition to the Coalition's reductive opinions about what counts as a `good education'. This agenda is based on a willful misunderstanding of the evidence about progress achieved during the last two decades, and a confused approach to the challenges that undoubtedly remain.

Given the rhetoric around `trusting teachers', it becomes even more important to wipe out those parts of the education community which might offer schools alternative views about learning, and assist teachers in turning this into a reality. Building Schools for the Future, whilst often flawed in its execution, asked us to think deeply about our vision for learning in the 21st century, and the role of schools in our communities, and then to create buildings fit for this vision. The General Teaching Council, unpopular from the moment the bills arrived on thousands of teachers' doormats, did offer teachers carefully calibrated professional development and policy advice. The QCDA, with an emerging user-led approach to curriculum development, had the potential to be far more irritating to the Coalition than their remit ever intended. And the still-uncut programme I am proud to be part of, Creative Partnerships, harnesses the combined imagination of artists and teachers to help thousands of schools take innovative approaches to teaching, learning and leadership. Call us the liberal education establishment, call us `Whole Education' (as the RSA-led campaign is titled), call us `the blob' (as Chris Woodhead named us), it's clear we are more dangerous than we thought, and we're being disarmed.

Once the carnage is over, for those remaining our task becomes more important. Non-government programmes supported by foundations or arms length bodies such as Arts Council England will need to assert their independence as never before. The unions will need to be far cannier campaigners, proposing not a boycott of SATs, but a participation in something much more active and exciting. When your kids and teachers don't indulge in endless SATs booster classes, look what can be achieved instead! Schools themselves, whether academies, free schools or whatever comes next in the ongoing policy distractions about structure, will need to push hard at the trust rhetoric, making radical uses of existing and promised freedoms that could make a genuine difference to outcomes for children. We need to ensure that a 'slimmed down' curriculum doesn't ultimately pin down schools to an even narrower, centrally-prescribed set of priorities.

Even if we aren't a blob - and many do agree with that description, we certainly got sloppy during the New Labour years of plenty - not just plenty of money, but plenty of space for new ideas about learning. We never built a real campaign, coalescing around alternatives, putting aside our particular agenda to fight for something bigger - an education system where all can thrive.

Now we have a clear line to campaign against - not just with words, but with action in the classroom, where we all agree the real change happens. The snipers are out there, so we need to renew our struggle to raise and redefine achievement and, yes, create an alternative coalition, with vigour, rigour and plenty of noise.

Joe Hallgarten is a policy analyst and former primary teacher.

Original newspaper headline: We must fight back as `the blob' if education is ot be victorious on Tories' ideological battleground

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