In the thrall of hype dreams and news management

18th July 1997 at 01:00
The philosopher and sociologist Jean Baudrillard argues, as I understand it, that reality has disappeared, that humanity has murdered it. One is inclined to dismiss this as the sort of daft idea that you'd expect from a French intellectual. Then you read that the romance between Claudia Schiffer and David Copperfield started out as a publicity stunt and you begin to see what he means.

It's the same with recent educational events. The Baudrillard thesis (I'm grateful for a lucid explanation in this month's Prospect magazine) is that news, instantaneous and omnipresent, records events as they occur, exhaustively replaying and analysing them, until they are stripped of content and consequences. Indeed, he says, news now happens so quickly that you could say time is running backwards. This, it seems to me, is exactly what happened to Helena Kennedy's report on further education. Widely leaked in advance, it got little coverage when it was actually published. As an event, the Kennedy report was finished before it began.

It wasn't quite as bad for David Blunkett's White Paper - though again we had an event foreshadowed in such detail that, by the time it happened, we were all sick of hearing about it. But if you asked me to sum up the launch and a good proportion of the contents, Baudrillard's "death of reality" would just about cover it.

It was managed with all the slickness we have come to expect of new Labour. When I was last an education correspondent, in the 1980s, press launches were held in crowded, stuffy rooms at the education department's headquarters next to Waterloo station. They were mostly inaudible because of trains rumbling but somebody like Stuart Maclure, then TES editor, would usually manage to ask a succession of questions that exposed ministerial uncertainty or sloppy thinking. You could see and smell the sweat on Sir Keith Joseph's brow as he wrestled with conscience, policy concepts, terror of the media and heaven knows what else.

Last week's event, by contrast, was held in the antiseptic modernity of a conference centre, with ministers on a raised platform, and journalists limited to one question each. We also watched a video, extolling the virtues of Labour's education policy. Like all such videos, it portrayed schools that bore no relation to any reality that teachers know. Children are bright, polite and eager to learn; teachers can explain, to individuals, the intricacies of fractions or subordinate clauses without interruption from other pupils; parents arrive at school in pairs, holding hands; no child ever swears, vomits, yawns, sticks a tongue out, bumps into another, spills paint or throws a tantrum.

Then there is the White Paper itself. I won't quarrel with its general thrust and it is refreshing to read an official document free of that inane Tory babble about choice and markets.

Yet much of it seems to exist in a sort of event bubble of its own, without reference to past, present or future reality. Take mixed-ability teaching in secondary schools. To read the White Paper, you would think that it was rampant and that the evidence against it was overwhelming. In rather sinister language, it says that ministers wouldn't dream of imposing a particular form of grouping on schools but, if anybody dares to carry on with mixed-ability, their results should be "better than expected".

Now turn to Thirty Years On, the account of comprehensive education by Caroline Benn and Clyde Chitty, and you find that, by Year 9, only 6.5 per cent of comprehensives have mixed-ability teaching for all subjects. This was in l993-94 and one could reasonably guess that the proportion is even lower now. The vast majority of schools in England and Wales are already doing exactly what the White Paper demands: setting children by ability for at least two academic subjects and often all of them.

Only in Scotland is there evidence of widespread mixed-ability grouping, with 25 per cent of schools using it for all subjects in Year 9. So what's the Scottish Office doing about it? Scotland has not had an education White Paper yet, but the minister responsible, Brian Wilson, has set up an action group (another example of disappearing reality, since action groups never have power to act) and written to local authorities about its remit. Does he mention mixed-ability? Not a dicky bird. Perhaps Wilson has read the BennChitty conclusion, which is that mixed-ability schools get exam results just as good as anybody else's.

I could go on. The White Paper proposes an induction year for newly-trained teachers, as though this were a brilliant innovation. Isn't this our old friend the probationary year? That was abolished because I well, because it was there, I suppose. Then there are the literacy and numeracy hours. I haven't quite got the hang of these yet. Are they different from English and maths which, I had the impression, schools already teach?

I'm sorry to be boringly old-fashioned (and I accept that, in the past, we were too preoccupied with inputs to the exclusion of outputs) but I'm afraid that all these smartly-packaged ideas for a new era in education will connect with reality only if somebody delivers money. If you didn't see Simon Szreter's article in The TES (July 11), go back and read it. State schools, he explained, employ one teacher for every l9 pupils, private schools one for every l0. This gap has widened since l979: private schools used to be 50 per cent better off, now they are nearly l00 per cent. People have been paying good money for these improvements - the very same people, in many cases, who have the nerve to tell us that class sizes don't matter and that other people's children will be perfectly all right in classes of 40.

Against that kind of reality, almost everything else is waffle. Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, says he has found an extra Pounds 2.3 billion for schools. The Liberal Democrats say that it's all an illusion and inflation will make it worthless. Well, I'll wait for reality. I'll wait for the day when first-class honours graduates flock into teaching; when teachers say they want to work in the inner cities because the pay is so good and the resources so lavish; when well-off parents decide not to go private because they get something just as good for free. That's when I'll believe in David Blunkett's crusade and decide that Baudrillard was wrong after all.

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