Opt out, you lot, and be quick about it

5th April 1996 at 01:00
For my money, two of the best satirists on television are John Bird and John Fortune. Their brilliant deadpan sketches between the fictitious, but incredibly lifelike Government figure George Parr, and the television interviewer, have just been repeated on Channel 4.

It is a marvellous format, and the dialogue is full of irony, as the hapless George often realises in mid-sentence the monumental daftness of what is going on. The two Johns have sometimes tackled education, with considerable success, so I have been wondering what George Parr might be up to nowadays . . .

"George Parr, you're the architect of the Government's education policy. Could you, I wonder, just explain to us the logic of it?"

"I'm sorry. For a moment there, I thought you said 'logic'."

"I did."

"Ah yes. Well, you see, it's all quite simple really. The Government believes in parental choice. That's why we allow parents to vote for their school to opt out of local authority control and go grant-maintained. And it's been a great success. Tremendously popular."

"But I thought only 1,000 schools have actually opted out."

"Yes. It's really been tremendously popular, a great success."

"And 23,000 schools have voted not to opt out - so that's only 4 per cent of schools that did actually opt out in the past eight years?"

"Yes, it's been tremendously popular in the 4 per cent that did opt out. So popular, in fact, that Mr Major would like to see our policy of parental choice extended."


"Yes. We want all schools to opt out."

"But what are you going to do about the 96 per cent of schools that have voted not to opt out?"

"We're going to compel them."

"Compel them?"

"That's right. It's got to be done by parental choice, you see. So we'll just have to compel them to choose to opt out. It's what we call 'compulsory volunteering', a bit like national service - which some of us would like to bring back, incidentally, for all those long-haired layabouts who won't vote for opting out. But of course, the most exciting thing is that, when all schools have opted out, the Prime Minister wants them to select the best pupils, so they can all become grammar schools if they want."

"But I thought the grammar schools only took the top 20 per cent or so of the population. So what's going to happen to the other 80 per cent - that's about six-and-a-half million children, isn't it?"

"Well, there's no need to nitpick about it."

"Yes. Now, George Parr, another of your plans is to cut down on truancy. "

"Indeed. If children are not in school, how can they learn? We're determined to enforce discipline in schools, so that anyone who plays truant will be dealt with most severely."

"So what will happen to children who play truant?"

"They'll be expelled."

"But if they're expelled, won't they just hang around shopping centres and get into trouble?"

"That's right. But we've got to have something to do for the extra 5,000 police officers we're planning to recruit. So they can arrest the little buggers, that'll keep them busy. And of course, this will help bring down class sizes."

"Class sizes? Ah yes. The Government cut back the money, so schools had to sack teachers, and class sizes got bigger and bigger."

"No. Let's be quite clear about this. There were no education 'cuts'. There were a few 'savings in public expenditure', but no cuts."

"Savings? "

"Yes, 'savings' - or rather 'efficiency gains', as we call them."

"So in what sense is sacking teachers an 'efficiency gain'?"

"Well, some of them might join the police force, for example."

"So then, they could arrest the pupils who're playing truant because the classes are too big."

"Exactly. I couldn't have put it better myself. And here's another example of efficiency gains. As Michael Heseltine has said, we're absolutely determined to cut back on all this dreadful bureaucracy going into schools. Do you realise, teachers are buried under so much paper - pamphlets and prospectuses, glossy brochures, silly demands of one kind or another - they've got no time to teach the children? It's an absolute disgrace."

"So who's sending them all this useless paper?" "Well, we are, actually. "

"I see. So what will you do with any money that you save from these efficiencies?"

"Well, this is something we're very excited about. You see, the Prime Minister is very keen on One-Nation Toryism. So we're going to save Pounds 100 million from the state school budget and give it to the private schools through the Assisted Places Scheme. One Nation. Take from one to give to another who needs it. A bit like Robin Hood."

"But he stole from the rich to give to the poor, and . . ."

"Yes, we're going to try it the other way round for a change - take money from the poor schools and give it to the rich ones, to balance things up a bit. You see it's all part of our policy of choice and diversity. The state schools must compete with private ones, so they must have choice and diversity."

"So on this key issue of choice and diversity then, who actually decides what curriculum a state school can teach?"

"The Government."

"And who decides what national tests children have to do?"

"The Government."

"And who decides the financial formula for how much money schools get?"

"The Government."

"So . . . there isn't much choice, and there doesn't seem to be too much diversity."

"Well, if you're going to split hairs, I suppose not."

"George Parr, thank you very much."

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