Twenty things up with which I will not put in 1998

26th December 1997 at 00:00
Here are 20 things I want to see and hear no more of in 1998:

1 Zero tolerance;

2 Stephen Byers telling us that poverty is no excuse for school failure. I have before me a league table of health authority areas, showing that life expectancy in western Surrey is 76.4 years for men, 81.1 for women, while in Manchester it is 69.9 for men, 76.7 for women. What would he do about that? March up and down Manchester hospital wards telling the patients to pull themselves together because poverty and rotten housing are no excuse for dying? Perhaps he will name and shame the city's GP surgeries;

3 The word super, as in super-heads, super-teachers, super-schools, super-louse, super-rat;

4 The establishment of anything called an action group or task force. You may think these are entirely harmless attempts to convince us that ministers are dynamic and businesslike. But they imply a certain Whitehall cast of mind: that teachers are distant colonial subjects, teetering on the edge of lawlessness and disloyalty, against whom punitive military operations need to be mounted;

5 Further extensions of the word literacy, as in emotional literacy, financial literacy, computer literacy;

6 The phrase "heavy burden of debt", as in "graduates will go through life carrying a heavy burden of debt". A debt at nil real interest, which you don't have to repay unless you earn well, is scarcely a debt - never mind a burden;

7 Taiwan. This is an insignificant, offshore island on the other side of the world; its economy will probably go down the tube soon like the rest of south-east Asia. OK, Taiwanese children don't play up in maths lessons, but I don't see why this should make the country an unchallengeable model for British education;

8 Working towards equality, striving towards equality, committed to equality and all those other meaningless slogans that local authorities put on their job ads. They should let themselves be judged by their actions;

9 Mission statements which invariably use too much paper to argue the merits of motherhood and apple pie;

10 Anything whatever about the new millennium, and particularly about whether it starts in 2000 or 2001, a subject on which I have never had an opinion and never will;

11 Oxbridge dons saying that it will be highly damaging if they are forced to have more than one student in a tutorial;

12 Chris Woodhead denying that he is moving to another job;

13 Michael Barber, head of the Standards and Effectiveness Unit, claiming that England excels at football. Michael, it is more than 30 years since we won the World Cup, we didn't even qualify for the last one, and our greatest recent triumph was a 0-0 draw. I do hope that, when you promise that we shall also excel at education, you have something more substantial in mind;

14 People quoting arcane and badly-phrased O-level and A-level exam questions from 40 years ago, comparing them with direct and clearly-phrased questions in exam papers now, and saying that this proves standards are falling;

15 Cartoons that show schoolboys with short trousers and caps, students with long hair and long scarves, and teachers with gowns and mortar-boards. I know cartoonists deal in cliches, but it's time they found some new ones;

16 All photographs and television film of a grinning Tony Blair playing with children andor footballs;

17 The phrase "levering up standards", which is much used by politicians, in the apparent belief that improving schools is a problem of mechanical engineering;

18 Oxbridge dons saying that they are leaning over backwards to admit students from comprehensive schools. Since they leant over backwards to admit students from public schools for several hundred years, they should carry on leaning the other way just to even things up a bit;

19 Stories about insufferable child prodigies (and their smug parents) who can do one or more of: read War and Peace at age four, take A-level maths at six, design computer programs at eight, speak five foreign languages at 10, revise the Special Theory of Relativity at 12, or make a Stock Market fortune at 14;

20 David Blunkett, at press conferences and other public occasions, pretending that he thinks Stephen Byers is sitting on his left, when he knows perfectly well that he's on the right.

However, there are three things, lacking from 1997, that I do want to see or hear in 1998:

1 The identity of the school that employed a man called Stephan Shakespeare who is always writing about education in publications such as the Spectator and the Daily Telegraph, who was described (until recently) as a teacher in an inner-city comprehensive but who sounds as though he's never been near a classroom;

2 A shorter name for that union Nigel de Gruchy runs;

3 Stephen Dorrell. (Governments are supposed to have Oppositions, aren't they?)

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