More madcap memorabilia

21st July 2000 at 01:00
I ALWAYS thought that Free Willy was the title of a Hollywood film. That was until I read William Hague's speech describing what he would do with education if he became Prime Minister. Education would suddenly become free from everything, apparently, though not free from even more crackpot schemes.

The speech was nectar to those lamenting the passage of such satirical delights as Kenneth Baker-Clarke and John Patten. It was the crazy horse ideas they adopted from right-wing thinktanks that sank the educational aspirations of the last Conservative government. Wee Willy Winkie would do well to treat all swivel-eyed rantings with caution.

Many of the madcap market-driven notions from the past were there, eagerly recognised by connoisseurs of loony-tunes memorabilia. "Schools should be free to expand indefinitely" was but one collectors' piece.

There it goes again, the elastic school. Hundreds of rubber Portakabins bounce merrily up and down the M1, having deserted shrinking establishments in quest of expanding ones. Boing, boing. "Quick, grab it!" teachers exclaim as they cluster at service stations waiting to hitch a lift on one.

Not one teacher in the land would disagree with his proposal to reduce bureaucracy in schools. Unfortunately it was his own government that introduced the avalanche of box-ticking and form-filling that has blighted teachers' lives ever since - yet another case of the arsonists wanting credit for calling the fire brigade.

"Schools should be free to pay teachers whatever salaries they wish" was another marketeers' dream-turned-nightmare.

It would mean 24,000 heads having to negotiate 400,000 individual salary agreements every single year, or more frequently. Wonderful. That should cut down on the bureaucracy. Teachers and heads will need an agent if it ever happens. Another 10 per cent wasted on a private company.

Of course, it sounds like an attractive idea if sold as a means to pay teachers more, but this conveniently overlooks the fact that they may also be paid less. The market can be a useful servant, but a cruel master. "Now, let me see, you're a single parent wih two young children and there are no other schools you can teach at in this area, so we'll pay you half salary next year, take it or leave it".

"Schools can select any pupils they choose". This is a brilliant wheeze. Every school can be a grammar school.

Ah, but what about those children nobody wants? No problem under Wee Willy's gormless plan, because in this chaotic rugby scrum of a system anyone can create a new school.

Just set up St Dustbin's for the peasantry behind a high fence, complete with warders.

Using the sort of dubious arithmetic that might have benefited from a few numeracy hours, he abolished local authorities and produced millions of pounds extra for schools. Local democracy may have its weaknesses, but anyone who believes it is completely useless should try being one of 24,000 manila folders in some deep underground vault in Whitehall. Under Wee Willy's hapless plan we can add a few more roles to the currently crippling burden, such as "head-teacher as bus driver".

Whatever Hague may say about trusting schools rings hollow. It was lack of trust from the Conservatives, sadly carried on by the present government, that has led, not only to a huge bureaucratic load (if you don't trust people you make them write down everything and inspect them to death), but to huge stresses on teachers and heads. Now Hague wants parents to be able to call a school inspection at whim.

Fundamental mistrust of teachers persists, despite the rhetoric.

It was not surprising that chief inspector Chris Woodhead endorsed Hague's speech enthusiastically and said it had "struck a chord" with teachers. Hague wants even more powers for OFSTED - which strikes the sort of chord you get if you sit down heavily on a piano keyboard. He will also establish "no notice" inspections, which means the nursery rhyme will need a rewrite.

"Wee Willy Winkie runs through the town Upstairs and downstairs in his night gown Tapping at the windows Crying through the locks, OFSTED is coming pal Today at nine o'clock".

Stuff the lot of them. Have a good summer.

Ted Wragg,

Primary magazine

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