Leave the status quo behind

3rd July 1998 at 01:00
MUSING, as we all do, about the state of our schools, the post-millennial economic challenge and the Third Way, I recalled a conversation with Kelvin MacKenzie, the former editor of The Sun.

Thrown together at a soiree, we searched for any subject of mutual interest, and hit upon school league tables. "Do you know," he demanded, "how much it's costing us to print them?" He went on to name a five-figure total that I readily believed, having just been through the same sums and troubles myself.

"Why don't you refuse to print them?" I asked. "Not on your life," he roared back. "That John Patten has finally got the teachers nailed to the ground, and I'm with him all the way." So it was The Sun wot done it.

I wonder now just why the editor of The Sun, as he then was, should logically have been backing a policy designed crudely to drive every child and every school on to better exam results. If the youth of Britain could all be galvanised into achieving a respectable tally of GCSE and A-levels, would they still want to read his newspaper, or would they be looking for something with more demanding words and fewer tits?

Since both The Mirror and The Sun are now reputed to be upgrading their intellectual content by a notch or two, that suggests not only that shrewder business brains than mine are thinking along the same lines, but that they have accepted that education really is working after all. A better qualified public is demanding more meat from its media.

We used to talk in the trade about taking newspapers upmarket or downmarket, but now the cliche of choice is "dumbing down" (there is no satisfactory obverse, perhaps because there is less movement in the opposite direction).

Here the situation becomes confusing because, while some tabloids may be inching upmarket and others have lost their way, the broadsheets are tumbling over each other to popularise their pages and rethink the quality label.

On the airwaves, meanwhile, both BBC and commercial television have either dumped the more stimulating programmes or shifted them to the midnight hour. Only Radio 4 has increased its joined-up thinking; like the Daily Mail, it knows who its customers are.

The dumbing down of the broadsheets provides an eclectic or schizophrenic mix, depending on whether you like advice on how to flirt alongside a serious analysis of Victor Hugo, or women's magazine rehashs opposite single currency polemic.

It seems a healthy development, opening up elitist enclaves to a more youthful audience, revitalising language and vocabulary, and recognising the changing nature of society. If only the same standards could be applied to education we might find the Third Way.

Not so long ago one of the heavyweight newspapers that has most vigorously dumbed itself down in pursuit of circulation ran a headline condemning the "dumbing down of A-levels".

Next month we can expect more of the same sort of double standards if this year's examination results show that more young people have succeeded. What world are the leader writers living in?

My argument here is not about excellence but about the nature of A-levels, and in particular the notion that our curriculum and examinations should not be evolving in much the same way as the media - and government - to recognise wider demands in a diversity of ways.

A nation possessed of creative, technological and academic riches needs to multiply them all to enter the next century successfully. The most thriving newspapers nurture the full mix. Ministers know in their hearts that the way to wider educational achievement lies down all three pathways.

And yet the Government is still sensitive enough to sniping about A-level standards to cling on longer than it needs to an examination designed for an era with narrower horizons and lower ambitions for most of its children. Lord Dearing's proposals for a broader sixth-form mix may not be kept on ice forever, but it would be good news if education ministers were as ready to take a radical lead on this as they have on other policy issues.

The same is true of the national curriculum. With the promised millennial rethink hard upon us, there is little sign of a lateral leap out of the status quo. Maybe we shall have to look to the education action zones for all that, on the ground, where it counts. I hope that when the breakthrough comes, ministers will be ready to downface the public double-thinkers.

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