The very model of a sergeant-major general

7th February 1997 at 00:00
Boing, boing, boing. Look out! There goes the elastic school, bouncing on its eccentric path across the landscape. Just when everyone thought that the Loonytunes section of government policymaking had been quietly parked in the nearest deep-freeze, out comes a whole raft of crazy-horse right-wing wheezes.

The right-wing of government policymaking has begun to flap so vigorously, it is small wonder that the whole beast is going round in circles. Meanwhile, its eyeballs rotate eerily in the same direction, like some huge ungainly Alice in Wonderland nursery mobile.

Over the next few weeks stand by for a torrent of demented proposals from the dogmatic free-market ideologues in the Government, from elastic schools to privatised canes inlaid with little music boxes that play Land of Hope and Glory.

The belief that schools can expand and contract at the flick of a switch has been and gone a few times during the past few years. It is based on the right-wing utopian idea that a "free market" in education would solve all problems of choice and quality. According to this nutty philosophy, any school that is popular would simply expand indefinitely at the expense of its neighbours, thereby putting them out of business if they failed to compete.

The elastic school idea is all very well, provided there is stability and schools remain roughly equal in public esteem. Any significant changes, however, and chaos would ensue. A new head teacher, a new fad or fashion, and the result is dystopia, the exact opposite of utopian paradise.

What is forgotten in this mad quest for a return to 19th-century laissez-faire liberalism, is that the commercial market can sometimes produce unintended and disastrous consequences. In the commercial world, for example, businesses tend to get bigger as smaller firms go bust and the giants then slug it out. Do we want bigger schools? More to the point, do we want school bankruptcies on a wide scale?

Let us assume that the town of Dystopia has six high schools, each containing about 1,000 pupils. Parents are allowed to send their children to any of the six and the school must expand to accommodate them.

After a while two schools become very popular, two remain medium-sized, and two less popular schools shut down as their numbers fall. Parents now only have a choice of four schools. Eventually, two giant schools with 3,000 pupils replace the four, but then become unpopular because of their large scale. Parents ask for more schools to be built of a manageable size.

Will we really be willing to fund lots of new schools, face up to empty and unused buildings on a large scale? Imagine the spectacle of endless mobile classrooms, redundant in one area but needed in another, cruising up and down motorways, pursued by thousands of teachers driving around looking for jobs in elastic schools. What if the market produced a single Dystopia High School with 6,000 pupils?

The marketeers' answer to this, of course, is either that it would never happen, or that, if it did come about, this must be what parents wanted. In theory, the free market sorts out all the problems. The same argument used to be put forward about unregulated field centres. The bad would close down, it was said, as schools discovered they were no good. Sadly, it took the Lyme Bay canoe tragedy to explode the myth that the market can control quality.

Another right-wing chuckler is the proposal to invest large sums of money in school cadet corps. Even though neither John Major nor Michael Portillo chose to join their own school military units, they seem to believe that huge sums of public cash should be injected to make this the most favoured voluntary school activity - outrageous when you think of the many worthwhile school activities that are starved of funding.

It seems bizarre, after the Dunblane tragedy, that it is warfare preparation that is identified as the top priority for financial support. In the debates about the 1944 Education Bill a Mr Wakefield MP asked if pupils should be required to practise shooting on a miniature rifle range. RA Butler, the sensible minister of the time, rejected the idea, even in time of war, saying that politicians should not interfere in schools.

It is all symptomatic of the quest for an imagined bygone age of great and magnificent glory, when well-scrubbed children sat obediently in rows, eagerly learning their tables up to a 1,000 times a 1,000, and no one ever wrote the word "accommodation" with a missing letter "m".

I don't want to be a spoilsport, however. I sometimes feel guilty arguing against a return to the 19th century if that is what people really want. Perhaps typhoid, squalor, hypocrisy and rickets were a lot more fun than we realise. Let us go the whole hog with Messrs Major and Portillo on the militia idea. Since it is a right-wing idea, pupils could do their marching drill up and down the school playground to the command of "Right - right - right".

Children could start in nursery schools in a regiment of the Portillinos, striving to meet their "desirable learning outcomes" in khaki uniforms. Once in primary school, they could join a legion of the Portillettes. Secondary-school militia members would belong to a crack squad of Portillons. "Look out! Here come the Portillons". It has an impressive ring to it, like the terrifying Klingons in Star Trek.

Best of all, the army of khaki-clad Portillinos, Portillettes and Portillons would provide a lasting memorial to Mr Major's contribution to education. The Prime Minister could become their leader and role model and, like Lord Baden-Powell, founder of the scout and guide movement, be remembered to the end of time - as Major Major.

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