The names game

14th November 1997 at 00:00
The phrase "naming and shaming" - which was, according to David Blunkett, first coined by the Socialist Workers' Party - has had a pretty good run since last May. This week, we have seen the first fruits of the policy. The key question is: has it been worth the shame and blame and pain?

It is hard to come to a definite conclusion as yet, mainly because the controversial policy of publicly identifying ineffective schools has two purposes - related but distinct.

The first is to give a strong signal to the rest of the population - parents, employers, local politicians - that this Government is tough on standards, and prepared to crack down on schools which are not delivering the goods. In effect, the 18 schools have been PR sacrifices - playing their unwilling role in the sending out of a clear and unequivocal message.

The second aim is genuinely to lever up standards of education - by raising the stakes for all schools, and overtly targeting those whose pupils are getting a raw deal.

As always, when a policy has two purposes, it is hard to focus on both of them equally. In fact, the Government hasn't done too badly. It looks pretty clear that purpose number one - broadcasting a clear standards message to the country at large - has been successful.

But the success of purpose number two is less clear. Has the trauma of the public humiliation and distress caused by the policy done more harm than good? Teachers are divided; some are bitterly opposed, arguing that this approach has made the situation in struggling schools even worse, and has raised the stakes so high that some staffs have been virtually unable to function - let alone deal with bewildered children and unsettled parents. Others believe that the identification of schools which had been on special measures for two years - without apparently improving - has concentrated minds and resources, thus benefiting both the institutions and the children in them.

One of the most intriguing aspects of the policy is its recognition of the power of language. That "naming" should become such a powerful weapon says much about the secrecy that surrounds many public bodies. Schools are unlucky to be in the spotlight; many British institutions would react defensively were such a light to be shone into their dark recesses.

We are a euphemistic nation - we fear directness. The benign side of this is that we are careful of the feelings of others, and try to achieve improvement without undermining the confidence of those we wish to improve.The downside is that the inadequate and the incompetent are protected - often out of sheer embarrassment. More damagingly, expectations are lowered and desirable standards never made explicit - lest the indignity of not reaching them should prove too traumatic.

Yet in sport, in industry and the City, in politics, in the theatre, individuals have to endure the humiliation of recognising - sometimes in front of millions - that their performance is not up to scratch. Only two months ago, in the aftermath of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, the great British public roundly condemned the Royal Family for failing to fulfil their expected role in a changed and modernised Britain. Why should schools be exempt, especially when the future of so many children depends on them?

Worryingly, it would seem that only after they were named did these schools feel shamed - yet their underachievement had in most cases been common knowledge locally for years. Why had no one felt ashamed before? Indeed, teachers can feel rightly aggrieved that they alone are now bearing the burden of public criticism which should be shared - by local education authorities, governors and even parents.

But they cannot really argue that substantially raising their game could be achieved without pain. In trying to lift both standards and expectations, David Blunkett aims to build a new culture of public accountability. This is hard for a profession which traditionally has carried out much of its work behind closed doors. Architects, it is said, grow ivy over their mistakes; doctors bury theirs. Teachers are now more accountable for theirs - and no one said it was going to be easy.

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