Practical jokers are the arch-villains

3rd February 2012 at 00:00

"Never knowingly understated" - that's my motto. So here goes: Noel Edmonds is evil. There, it's out. I suppose I should now stand back and await a bulging inbox of legal retribution or even possibly the distant thunder of national applause. That said, Noel is an easy target. I could have braved accusations of poisonous disrespect by suggesting that the late Jeremy Beadle was wicked - and not in a trendy down-with-the-kids kind of way.

Riskiest of all, I could have followed my truest instincts and compared education secretary Michael Gove with Shakespeare's oiliest villain, Iago. That, however, would most likely have led to a merciless response: a guaranteed early Ofsted visit summoned on the murderous watch of henchman Michael Wilshaw.

So, on reflection, I'll stick with slagging off Noel Edmonds. In linking Edmonds, Beadle and Gove in this way, I'm doing more than playing some dark and wayward game of Happy Families. I'm reflecting on the nature of practical jokers.

I recently re-read something by W.H. Auden, the English poet famed for a face that he himself described as resembling a wedding cake left out in the rain. In his essay "The joker in the pack", Auden paints a clever psychological study of Iago, a character who brings the mighty warrior Othello to a tragic end simply by playing a series of carefully calculated pranks. Oozing charm and syrupy language, Iago convinces the sexually insecure Othello that his new wife Desdemona is being unfaithful. And thus Shakespeare's most intimate tragedy unravels before us, deliciously, appallingly and compellingly.

It was Auden who first showed us that Iago is quite different from the other villains of the period. He's no pantomime baddie. Instead he's the deeply subversive practical joker - the Edmonds or Beadle of a different age. And Auden has something darkly profound to teach us about the nature of all practical jokers, saying, "There is something slightly sinister about every practical joker (because he) likes to play God behind the scenes."

Which is where Michael Gove comes in. Because for a man who keeps telling us that it's all about headteachers being given free rein, there's an awful lot of not-so-subtle pulling of strings going on. And you can't help detecting a sense of sniggering as the next policy firecracker is lobbed over the playground fence.

There's the whole free schools thing, for example, based on dubious evidence from overseas. Part of the joke here, of course, is in the name itself - that misleading adjective "free". These schools aren't free: it's our money being used by other people. As a policy it obviously plays well with parents, as the alluring promise of "choice" usually does.

But as an educational strategy, it is the classic work of the practical joker because of the way it subverts existing systems. Here in Suffolk, a local authority's long-held plan to move to a two-tier education system is suddenly torpedoed by approval of a rash of free schools. Existing secondary schools see falling rolls, surplus places rise, and at a time of much-vaunted austerity any value-for-money considerations are quietly ignored. There's all the talk of curriculum freedom for headteachers while courses with any whiff of vocational elements are publicly rubbished and downgraded in performance tables. It's the freedom to be snobby.

Crass caricatures

It's the tone of much of this that rankles. The Labour years are routinely dismissed by ministers and the Twitterati as complacent and cosy, and we poor dupes were all in that party's money-wasting thrall. Yet late last year a national music strategy was unleashed and, we now hear, a technology strategy will follow. So much for rejecting centralised policymaking.

None of which necessarily matters, depending on where you live and how much you care. Many of us watch from the sidelines, feeling the same faint amusement as when we guiltily watch Police, Camera, Action! footage of a deluded driver powering a getaway car into a field of surly bullocks.

But the sneering at our expense, the constant carping, does start to wear thin. In his assault on the coasting schools of leafy areas, Prime Minister David Cameron said, "Why should we put up with a school content to let a child sit at the back of the class exchanging Facebook updates?" You wonder which policy adviser wrote a line so crass and dim-witted. Is that really what people in the Whitehall bunker think our state schools are like? Do they think parents who send their children by choice to our schools want to hear such ham-fisted caricatures?

Auden taught us that practical jokers enjoy brief popularity but are usually remembered for their core of malice, for being the ones at the edge of the school disco who know they don't fit in and instead lampoon the plump girl in the spotlight. There's something unseemly about them.

Those of us proud to work in community schools in the state sector do become a little weary of the constant unfunny stereotypes hurled our way. And my guess is that one day people who should know better may realise that they need us more than they think.

Jokers don't always get the last laugh.

Geoff Barton is headteacher at King Edward VI School, Bury St Edmunds.

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