Take Tony Zoffis' bullets away

22nd September 2000 at 01:00
APPARENTLY the armed services are so short of money they cannot afford to pay for ammunition, so somebody has to shout "bang!" instead.

"What do you do in the army then?" "Er, I'm the bloke who shouts 'bang!'"

I have been baffled for some time about a man whose job it is to shout "bang!" at those working in education. I kept hearing his name - Tony Zoffis - over and over again.

"Where's that funny idea come from?" "Tony Zoffis".

According to journalists this Tony Zoffis firmly believes that attacking teachers pushes you up the opinion polls, sad if true. But what was the origin of the name Zoffis? Italian, maybe?

Then it dawned on me. There should be a glottal stop, if you'll pardon the expression, after the "z" sound - Tonyz (glottal stop) Offis. At last it made sense. It was Tony's office, the Prime Minister's hidden coterie.

The latest "bang!" from Signor Zoffis to strafe the teaching profession, billed in the press as an "attack", was Tony Blair's speech about comprehensive schools having too much mixed-ability teaching and not coping with able pupils. It seemed contrary to such facts as exist.

Point 1: the attack is odd, coming immediately after the record numbers of GCSE and A-level successes, including those obtaining top A grades.

Point 2: some comprehensive schools may be poor, but as a genre they have been a success. One in 10 pupils went to university in the 1960s, when they were introduced, and about 80 per cent of school-leavers had absolutely nothing to show for their secondary schooling. Now only 7 per cent of pupils leave with no certificate, nearly half the population gets five high-grade GCSEs, a third go to university.

Point 3: a survey of 1,560 comprehensive schools showed mixed-ability teaching operates mainly in the first year.

In the second year 83 per cent of schools use ability setting, and by the third year over 93 per cent do so (Thirty Years On, Caroline Benn and Clyde Chitty, 1996, David Fulton Publishers).

Another oddity was the criticism of what the Prime Minister called the compehensive schools' "one-size-fits-all mentality". This seemed both unfair and inconsistent.

Diversity is important, I agree, so why does the Government lay down the same national curriculum for all schools?

Why do we have the highly prescriptive "one-size-fits-all" literacy hour, where the Government has spelled out an identical 15-15-20-10 minute pattern for every primary class, young or old, every single day?

Let us be clear what I am saying. I agree with specialist schools, education action zones, much of what the Government is doing. I have seen some superb examples.

I welcome the emphasis on helping all children and not just a few, and the significant sums of money for books, equipment, school buildings. I like the literacy and numeracy initiatives, but not the detailed prescription.

Nor is there anything wrong with the Prime Minister asking for a review of comprehensive schools, or of being critical when necessary. He seems a decent family man, genuinely interested in education.

I just don't think the Tony Zoffis approach to schools and teachers is right, with its language of "zero tolerance" (fine for criminals, not for professionals), "tough" this and "tough" that.

One Thursday, last October, the new college for headteachers was opened. It was an excellent move, but on the previous Sunday a story was planted in a national newspaper saying that the Prime Minister would be putting the boot into teachers at the opening.

Why does Tony Zoffis spin against teachers in this way? It might win a few votes, but it is cheapskate, no way to enthuse teachers, a bit like saying:

"Join our crusade, you clueless bastards."

I have agonised while writing this piece - walking round the room, sharpening three more pencils (funny this, I use a word processor), since I would be mortified if Hague and his loony right-wing pals got back. But teachers deserve better than Tony Zoffis firing verbal bullets at them and it would be dishonest not to say so.

Bang! Put him in a cupboard for a few months. He won't be missed.

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