Political weeds in the secret garden
The politics of education in England have hit a new low with the fall-out from the latest Office for Standards in Education report on reading standards. As each political party fights for the middle ground, a dangerous political consensus is developing for a new centralised prescription to "solve" each new educational crisis. The Times headline Q "Inspectors get new powers to improve reading" - said it all. Government, opposition and the popular press are suddenly all at one in an (ultimately doomed) crusade to force children to learn to read (and adults to retrain) by government fiat.
It is important that this pre-election skirmishing should be seen for the political, rather than the educational, enterprise it is. Children's learning and literacy is not driven by school curricula, local councils or OFSTED inspectors. It is a function of a delicate web of complicated relationships, often between the child and a particular teacher and more importantly between children, their families and the wider social environment; as far as the school is concerned, the "hidden" curriculum of its values and the balance it strikes between rigour and creativity is a crucial element in the whole process.
Currently the hidden curriculum of most schools is calculated to suggest that life consists of unremitting tests and examinations. However true this may or may not be, there is as yet no evidence that the new testing culture does anything to boost education or learning; genuine learning is a messy, mysterious lifelong process, often inhibited by school timetables and national curricula.
So if teachers are to understand the learning process they need to master the trigger mechanisms which kick-start curiosity and enthusiasm; and to discover why some children acquire, at a variety of ages between 7 and 17, a sudden and gargantuan appetite for it. When the aspiration to understand the world takes off, the literacy and numeracy for that process seem to follow.
Chris Woodhead, on the other hand, has decided to focus his report on failure rather than success; and to attribute to teacher failure the inability of certain seven-year-olds to read to the standard of their "chronological age". In excluding other factors, he has implied that he does not wish to offer sociological alibis to idle teachers and heads. But in doing so he is also aligning himself with the current ideology that it is teachers teaching, rather than children learning which is the key to educational success. There is nothing wrong with a chief inspector having an ideological position; his predecessors had theirs. But refusing to accentuate the positive can be a pernicious educational ideology. It implies that we do not understand why children fail to learn.
In fact, the negative side of the learning equation - why children do not learn - is quite well understood. The blockage lies more in the emotions than the intellect; and is often acquired early, in the first year of life; later on, apathy, disturbance, violence, incompetence and bad management at school can make the problem worse; but so can all these characteristics in the home and in the community; as can an uninterrupted visual diet of television. It is only fair to teachers to put education in its social context.
This new OFSTED focus on failure has played its part in shifting the terms of the educational debate. Thirty years ago, educational processes and curricula formed a secret garden in which politicians never trod. Teachers, on the whole, were trusted. While arguments were about comprehensive schools and the 11-plus, the objectives were agreed to be social as well as educational; both parties wanted One Nation as well as effective schools; in the 1960s both Sir Edward Boyle and Anthony Crosland believed the two were importantly linked.
Today it is the social agenda that has become a secret garden, only mentioned to be discarded as of no relevance to educational achievement. Both major political parties have demanded and got entrance to the territory of the curriculum and teaching method; once there, they have supported crude measures of comparative success in the shape of a league table culture: thus hooked, the politicians can now do little but continue to state their appetite for further intervention in the schooling process. They can never now admit, as most of industry did many years ago, that sensible solutions to learning are bottom-up not top-down; so the more they are asked to deliver on their promises of higher standards, the more they will demand further scapegoats and further powers of intervention.
Politicians can never deliver educational progress; only children and young people can do that. Politicians are there to persuade the taxpayer to provide adequate resources, to encourage young people and their teachers to co-operate in the learning process and to set a framework to encourage that process. This is a lesson for Labour; and Blair, Brown and Blunkett should never forget it, for all their understandable anxiety to establish a reputation for rigour.
Chris Price is former chairman of the House of Commons Select Committee on education.