Millennium thunder, but no rain

2nd October 1998 at 01:00
THE TIMES are improbable, but regardless, there is always something to be learnt from history to help explain them, even that Cinderella of the species, church history. This profound insight has recurred to me frequently since I read the Millennium Review and reactions to it.

Its resemblances to some of the more dire episodes within church history are surprising, and they pop up the way an Alka Seltzer does in water. Nothing against Alka Seltzer, but if this is what we have been waiting for to break the educational logjams, then something stronger in the painkiller department is needed for the teaching force. As they take time off from keeping the educational pot boiling to read it, they will hear the sounds of their representatives setting mood music for the millennium.

Back to church history. The Donatists were a hard-nosed near-fundamentalist group that formed the backbone of the church in North Africa in the fourth century. Noted for their ability to keep the spirit of division alive, they eventually let in Islam permanently. Their Achilles' heel was their headlong rush into faction, and their headstrong drive towards getting things their own way. As with all such groups, reading their handouts always gave the impression that they were right and everyone else wrong, with portentous statements and ringing phrases that on closer examination proved to be less than exhilarating.

The Millennium Review is a good example of the genre. Its key principles read like an exercise in blandness, with all the millennial dynamism of a wet bootlace. Did we wait so long just for restatements of the well handled currency of educational aspiration (and jargon) to come teetering out like tired pantomime queens after the second matinee? At random, did we have to be told that resources must be allocated to support curriculum development? That children with special needs should have additional resources? That a continuing role for senior school managers in the form of headteachers has been discerned?

Could we not have predicted that the principle of disunity would raise its head almost as soon as the press statement hit the streets, with what looked like disclaimers from some participants, and the thunder of abstruse payload calculus being worked out to make sure that secondary factional interests are well represented and remunerated however diabolical the detail?

Anybody who bothers to read the Millennium Review in all its gory glory must surely boil every reaction down to just one question. When will we teachers ever learn that running the maze together is the only way we are going to find the cheese of adequate pay, good conditions of service and status commensurate with the social and cultural importance of our work? The review will change no one's perceptions, and may even reinforce some negative ones, but may give the church historian some fodder for agreeing that times may change but factionalism doesn't.

I have to admit that I am bitterly disappointed by the review and the mood is not lifted by the inclusion of one of New Labour's hobby horses within it, the advanced skills teacher. She or he stands shoulder to shoulder with "supernurse" and "superhead" whose hypothetical interpersonal abilities, dropped into the document The Standard for Headship in Scotland, free her or him from the restraints of reality.

Where is all this coming from? How many educational supremos have read out their focus group's agenda then disappeared, leaving classroom teachers to pick up the pieces? Teachers' representatives fall every time for the magic of the negotiating moment, forgetting there is less permanence to politicians and their manifestos than we are inclined to think.

There is a lot of truth in the Chinese saying: "A lot of thunder, not much rain." And that goes for the Donatists, the politicians and the Millennium Review.

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