Put a fresh spin on all that tough talk

22nd March 1996 at 00:00
I'm rough. I'm tough. You get in my way in the playground? Then eat dirt, sucker. I'll show you, I'll . . .

Oops! Sorry about that, only I was working on my new tough image. You see, those of us in education are clearly too wimpish. That is why the Government proposes hit squads and the like. The head has a cough? Bring in a hit squad. A teacher over there is consoling some child who has fallen over? Fire the puny weed. From this moment on it's tough, tough, tough all the way for me, the "Now look here, sunshine" approach.

For those avid readers of documents on education who might have believed that dotty ideas have been elusive of late, I can assure you that rich and pungent sacks of them are still coming on to the market. The latest barrel-load comes in a book by Peter Mandelson, reputedly a spin doctor by trade, called The Blair Revolution - Can New Labour Deliver? To which the answer is: "Hopefully yes, but not this kind of crap."

Sit back and enjoy some of the toughest talk in town, as Pete spins a few belters in the Guardian. "Schools require a new, much tougher set of disciplinary sanctions to deal with unruly and unco-operative pupils . . ." (Go on, spin it Pete, talk tough. I like the cut of your jib. Let's hear you spin out the new tough school punishments, loud and clear) ". . . such as compulsory homework on school premises, weekend and Saturday-night detention, and the banning of favourite leisure pursuits such as attendance at football matches. "

Er, come again, Pete? I'm afraid I've spun out of control. I'm just picturing the family scene as the kids arrive home on Friday night. "Right," says mum, "Now Amanda, you'll need a fresh towel for swimming tomorrow." "Well actually, mum, I was talking in class, so the school has banned me from swimming this weekend."

"Never mind," replies mum, "you can go with your brother Billy and your dad to watch the United match in the afternoon." "Thanks, mum, it's a nice thought, but unfortunately Billy was laughing in assembly, so he's banned from watching United for two weeks."

"Well, that's all right," mum persists, "it's your birthday treat on Saturday night, and we're all going to the cinema."

"Er, I'm afraid we've both got Saturday night detention, so we've got to go back to school." Distant crunching sound as Amanda's dad rearranges headteacher's anatomy.

However, I don't want to be a wet blanket about these stunningly original and admirably tough ideas. This could be a first for Britain. So far as I know, even the People's Republic of Albania does not let schools bar pupils from watching Tirana Rovers playing on a Saturday afternoon. I would much prefer to develop Pete's ideas further. There could be an agreed tariff of school offences, all named after the famous spin doctor.

A single Mandy: Minor offences such as illicit chatter, or leaving your seat without permission. Punishment: One Shredded Wheat for breakfast instead of two. and no toast.

A double Mandy: More significant misdemeanours, such as underlining the date once instead of twice, or ruling a half-inch rather than a one-inch margin. Punishment: Only permitted to watch Grange Hill with the sound turned off, no chips for a week.

A triple Mandy: Even worse crimes, like splashing paint, or putting your bag in the aisle so someone will trip over it. Punishment: not allowed to feed the goldfish, forced to go to the Fulham versus Torquay United match.

A quadruple Spinning Mandy: Heinous villainy, such as sticking chewing gum on the underside of the desk, or seeing who can piddle highest up the wall in the boys' toilets. Punishment: Saturday all-day detention for compulsory PE.

If there is a change in Government, then the one thing the whole nation needs is a dramatic change in tone and style. The macho assumption that, willy-nilly, state "toughness" is always best, whether with teachers, children, or society at large, is manifest garbage. Acting tough should be saved for when it counts, not be the first line of defence.

I blame Margaret Thatcher, who deluded herself that she got Government off our backs when the opposite was the case. Her deep distrust of her own colleagues, and of professional groups like teachers and doctors, led to a climate of deep suspicion instead of partnership, so what followed was inevitable.

The first national consequence was a macho style of management, in which professional people had to be told, by prats like Kenneth Clarke, exactly what and what not to do. Hence the endless bureaucracy and form-filling, as teachers, doctors, and other groups, in the absence of trust, are compelled to write everything down for inspection.

The second inescapable result was a proliferation of crackpot, unworkable policies. Since the professions are scorned, advice is sought outside them, so any barmy think-tank or pressure group, instead of being shown to the nearest padded cell, is given greater credibility than teachers and doctors. The latter are seen as "vested" or "producer" interests, while the former, however daft, are said to be the true voice of the consumer.

The third and most unpleasant outcome has been a general climate of stomach-churning conflict, instead of harmony and partnership. This must change as the 21st century dawns.

So spin away, Mandy. Spin tough when necessary. But don't set teachers against families, when both are supposed to be on the same side. Try asking one or two practitioners for a bit of informed advice. It wouldn't come amiss after all these years.

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