Unable to see the wood through the trees

14th March 2003 at 00:00
SOME objects are beyond satire. They are simply too self-parodying to be worth the bother of sending them up. They are objects that no one with any shred of decency would spend any time denigrating because they are so obviously unloved, ill-conceived and misbegotten. Only a cad would make their misery worse by mocking them.

Such an object is Circular 0301 from the Learning and Skills Council and I am about to turn into a cad. Two simple facts will show what I mean. Fact 1: this document is largely about ways in which bureaucracy can be reduced and trust in FE restored. Fact 2: it is the longest circular in the history of public administration and introduces dozens of new ways of auditing, monitoring, reviewing and generally shackling colleges.

That it finds nothing irreconcilable in these two facts is, some say, testimony to the sheer impenetrability of the national LSC. Probably everyone in the organisation knew the circular was a mistake, these cynics say, but no one was able to get the message through to anyone else. But I know the people who produced it. They are intelligent, often brilliant men and women, with a deep commitment to public service. They are shrewd administrators.

It must have pained them to create this sprawling mess of a circular and there can be only one reason they did so. Politicians: New Labour politicians with a deep-seated belief that schools and colleges cannot be relied on to bring about improvements under their own steam.

Education is too important to be left to the professionals. Only by intervening directly in the process can the state bring about the improvements it sees, and we all acknowledge, as necessary.

I knew a local authority planner once. He was convinced that trees could not grow into forests without the intervention of benign bureaucrats. Trees needed management if they were to grow into proper woodland, he said.

Heaven knows what would happen if they were left to their own devices. The fact that trees had been doing what comes naturally for untold aeons before the invention of local authority planning departments was an inconvenient truth he dismissed with a wave of the hand.

We have had enough of the sort of messy, unpredictable, tangled undergrowth you get from unmanaged arboreta. Trees need to be shown where to grow, how far they should stand from their neighbour to get proper access to light; dead wood should be identified and ruthlessly stripped away; trees should work together to create orderly groves and copses; they should drop their seeds no farther than their roots extend. Trees, for heaven's sake, need proper targets if they are to produce the sort of woodland effect this country really needs.

This is a true story, by the way. This man had forestry management schemes in operation all over the county and soon things looked a lot tidier and no one got lost in the woods anymore. No one went to the woods anymore, either, and almost all of the natural wildlife disappeared.

It is a feature of this sort of fanatical belief in the power of the centre to impose order from above that any dissent is seen as whingeing by unreconstructed non-modernisers with a vested interest in the status quo.

Ministers have just a short time in post and have to make an impact with the policy they first thought of. There is often no time for a second go if the first one doesn't work. That's why David Blunkett was so annoyed when the judges blocked his asylum wheeze. And why Charles Clarke will not listen to the likes of me telling him that the splendid tree management schemes in Circular 0301 will not work. What they will require is an increasing army of people to administer the development planning, monitoring, target-setting, funding, funding adjustments, and to act as the punishment squads, undergrowth clearers and root-and-branch reform merchants.

To get these jobs, in many cases, they will have to prove they are very good indeed; too good, sadly to be left in colleges and the classroom. So, they will often be the very people we could most do with on the front line in colleges, teaching and managing and creating the time and space for good classroom practice to grow and develop from the ground upwards, rather than in response to bags of duff fertiliser poured on us from above.

After all, the single most important factor in raising standards is the quality of transactions in the classroom. Setting colleges a bunch of targets backed by threats does nothing to provide incentives for the real hewers of wood: classroom teachers.

Graham Jones is principal of Sutton Coldfield College

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar, Buyagift.com, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today