Looking back on the past imperfect
The telescreen image of my 24-year-old research student crinkled into a smile. "The one thing I'm not responsible for is the date of my birth," she laughed.
"I know," I said, "but you did choose to do a thesis on education in the 1990s - and you chose that awful title "Rags to Riches," didn't you?" "That's hardly the point," she insisted. "Anyway, answer my question. Why was there so much emphasis on school failure in 1995 and 1996? The press seem to have been obsessed with it!" "Looking back," I replied, finally attending to the problem, "it is easy to see that the emphasis on failure was a fleeting phase on the road to the system of true quality that emerged in the late 1990s, though it didn't seem like that at the time. There is a major academic controversy about whether the failure episode was a hindrance to the quality agenda or a catalyst for it."
"I know I should be up to speed on this," interrupted my student, "but it took me so long to make sense of that monstrous legalese in the 1993 Act which you recommended that I've hardly had time to read the literature. How would you summarise the debate you're referring to?" "I'm sorry about the 1993 Act. I regretted mentioning it at the end of our session last week. I remember it was rumoured at the time that it had been distributed with 30 pages missing and nobody noticed for months. It was amended 1,000 times, you know, and don't forget that in those days real power resided at Westminster. The rise of the regions and democratic European institutions came later."
"But what about the debate?" she asked, focused as ever on her essay.
"Well one group of academics believes that the foundations of quality were already in place in the 1980s - you know, school-focused in-service training, teacher-led professional development, examination by coursework - all that stuff. In their view the early Nineties' emphasis on accountability which led directly into the failure debate was a distraction from this agenda, and it took the late Nineties to put it back on track. The opposing group believes that the accountability agenda was the key to change. They argue that the publication of information, universal inspection, firm action on failing schools, and so on, forced change which would otherwise never have happened. The debate is still raging as academic debates tend to do; a lot of heat, not much light in my view."
"So which group do you think was right?" "That's cheating," I grinned, "you're the one writing the essay."
"At least you could point me in the right direction," she said.
"My view is a very boring one; that there's some validity in both. The success of the late Nineties resulted from achieving a synthesis of the Eighties' bottom-up agenda with the Nineties' top-down approach. The early and mid-1980s laid the foundations of appraisal and records of achievement too. Our present portfolios have their origins there. The trouble was the whole system at that time was performing at a level well below what we now know is possible. To make matters worse, people in education in the 1980s took too long to see the accountability juggernaut coming, though it had been on its way since the William Tyndale affair in the 1970s."
"Okay, so things weren't perfect, but that still doesn't justify the standards hysteria of the mid-1990s, does it?" "Well, yes, and no. The need for public services to be accountable should have been accepted much sooner. It now seems so obvious it is barely worth debating. When the dam burst, of course accountability flooded the system. Then the balance between accountability and professional improvement had to be rectified."
"So you side with the academics who believe it was a distraction?" "No, the episode had benefits too. First, we at last had the information base for a serious debate about quality. Second, some rotten schools were put out of business. Third, the whole society was shaken out of its complacency. For generations education had been undervalued by almost everyone and expectations of what children could do had been far too low. In the last four years of the century we did more to change the culture than we had in the preceding 96 years."
"Give me an example"
"Take the media. When the BBC's Charter came up for renewal in the late 1990s it was given an explicit brief to promote the idea of a learning society. I remember they paid a huge sum of money for a brilliant fitness expert from independent television called Mr Motivator and got him excited about motivating children to learn. Worked wonders! Instead of kids arriving brain dead at school after watching the Big Breakfast, they came in enthused about learning. "
"What do you mean?" interrupted the student, "I used to love the Big Breakfast. "
"Why do you think you're finding this essay so hard?" I smiled. "Only joking, only joking!"
"It's amazing how much has changed, isn't it?" replied the student. "I used to struggle to school on a bus through all that traffic - do you remember traffic?"
"I though it was fogeys like me that reminisced on these occasions. In any case, the death of traffic is hardly the most dramatic change since the Nineties, is it?"
"What is then?"
"No one then would have predicted that Crewe Alexandra would one day win the European Cup, would they?"
"No," she agreed, "and they wouldn't have expected their leading scorer to be a woman either."