No sporting chance of a reasoned debate

4th November 1994 at 00:00
They're at it again, John Major and Gillian Shephard. Like chronic alcoholics under treatment, who are back scrabbling at the door of the drinks cabinet as soon as they think nobody's watching, they just don't seem able to stop themselves from making half-baked suggestions about what ought to be going on in schools. It's all so agonisingly familiar. What they need is an organisation like Alcoholics Anonymous, where they would have an opportunity to come to terms with their problem. At least they'd meet a few old friends in therapy - "I'm John Patten and I'm a politician."

What is particularly saddening is that they seemed to be making such good progress. The debate about the curriculum may not be a particularly profound one, but at least it is a debate. What on earth are we to make of this latest scheme to replace the national curriculum with cricket and elocution lessons?

I'm not just being awkward or provocative. I'm aware of the argument that none of it really matters, that it's all conference talk, a way of painting schools blue, but I still think it does damage. It makes more difficult the whole business of providing leadership in school. How can you plan ahead when all you are being offered is a future that looks and sounds like the Pathe news?

This, in my view, is the real sleaze, not all that entertaining gossip about sex and money. The problem is not wrong-doing but mediocrity. The clue to it all lies in that curious insistence by John Major that "sport is in the national character". What he means is that he likes watching cricket, and he can't imagine how anybody might not share his feelings. That being the case, it's only reasonable to make sure that everybody has the chance to play team games in school. Sleaze of this kind is also about pursuing your own interests, but in a different way.

So what do you do about it? The short answer, of course, is nothing. But somehow it creates a vacuum where serious thinking ought to be. It vindicates all those headteachers who have justified inaction over the past five years by saying that they'll wait and see what happens next.

For those who are less patient, the experience is a bit like serving at the court of some mad East European despot or being chief minister to the sultan in a comic opera. Success depends upon being able to anticipate the whims of the all powerful one. There's no need to be able to take initiatives, to think ahead, to provide leadership.

On the contrary, it's better to be able to stall on change, to conceal bad news, to play for time in the sure knowledge that whatever the problem is, it will eventually go away. The attention of the sultan will be caught by something else in a few moments time, and everyone can take a breather.

Maybe they can reform themselves, but I have yet to be convinced. Every time I check the cabinet, I discover that somebody's been at the bottle again.

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