Politicians, don't play the blam game

23rd November 2007 at 00:00

Is it really true that the "root cause of educational underformance in this country is ideology" promoted by the educational establishment? Nick Gibb, the shadow schools minister, clearly thinks so.

He is not alone. In 1999, Tony Blair said a mindset existed within teaching which was "one of the most powerful forces of conservatism in our country". It was time, he said, to take on "the culture of excuses" that tolerates low ambitions, rejects excellence and treats poverty as an excuse for failure.

What have these two statements in common? In a word, politics.

In a democracy like ours, politicians have a duty to speak out against complacency and poor performance, especially in a public service such as education. No teacher would sensibly dispute this. Nor would most academics in our colleges of education, no matter how fond they are of theorising.

But politicians also have a responsibility to ensure their views are based on evidence. Neither schools nor teacher trainers are as conservative as they have been accused. Schools have not been fighting against synthetic phonics, but have been working to introduce it. Nor have they been resistant to setting: almost all secondary pupils are grouped into ability sets in maths, English and science, and often in other subjects too.

What they are rightly anxious about is having political ideology imposed upon them. While synthetic phonics is an essential component in teaching reading, it is not the only solution. Nor is ability setting, especially for younger children.

The latest reports to emerge from the independent review of primary education led by Robin Alexander suggest that pupils do not enjoy working in teacher-designated groups that separate friends and can result in too much or too little being asked of them.

Is Professor Alexander a member of the despised educational establishment? The evidence being assembled by the impressive review process makes uncomfortable reading for the Government. After a decade of radical policies, primary schools have become testing hothouses, leaving children with too little time for independent play.

Politicians - Labour or Tory - cannot complain about schools needing to be free from "the establishment" while also trying to micromanage everything they do. The real establishment is the Government, with all its quangos, not the teaching profession.

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