Vinnie Jones for chief inspector, OK?

1st December 1995 at 00:00
Did you see that notorious advert for state schools which appeared in the press recently? It was published under the banner headline, "Problems in private schools worry parents", and the text stated: "The educational crisis surrounding the teaching standards in private schools has been heightened by recent press reports of drugs and sex scandals in them. We all know that teachers in state schools have to be properly trained, while those in private schools do not, so the real casualties are the pupils."

Rather below the belt for local authority schools to advertise themselves by rubbishing their private school counterparts, don't you think? What's that? You never actually saw this shameful newspaper advert? Well, neither did I, because I just made it up. It is based on a real advert for private schools which used similar innuendo about state schools.

In the advertising trade this is known as "knocking copy". It is the "Brand X" style of ad that either directly or obliquely attempts to undermine its competitors. The tag line reads something like: "Wizzo cleans a lot better than some washing powders we could mention." Nudge nudge.

A few years ago I complained about the private sector in education resorting to the same shabby tactics, by paying for whole-page adverts, and in some cases several-page supplements in local and national newspapers, and then knocking the state system in the accompanying piece of deathless prose which extolled the virtues of private education. The fact that there is a discreet flag at the top of the page saying "Advertising Feature" is neither here nor there, as the whole text is set out in exactly the same style as the rest of the newspaper, making it look as if it is part of its normal editorial content.

I was sad to see the resurrection of this sleazy way of drumming up customers for private schools in a local newspaper, where, under a banner headline reading "Classroom conflicts make parents think again", the following opener appeared: "The educational crisis surrounding the teaching standards of state schools have (sic) been heightened by recent press reports of falling standards in classrooms. While teachers and the Government draw the battle lines over the national curriculum and funding, the real casualties are the pupils who are suffering poorer educational standards."

Nasty, eh? The imagery is rich with the language of war - "battle lines", "casualties", "suffering". The problem is that a hostile attack like this will provoke an aggressive response. If the advertisers of private schools have become so desperate that they revile teachers in maintained schools who are doing their best against the odds, then they must not grumble if the same happens in reverse one day: "We all know what happens to teachers who get fired from state schools for fiddling the accounts - they get jobs in private schools", or "Do you want your child to be normal, friendly, sociable, or do you want an unspeakable toffee-nosed prig? Well, if it's the pretentious snob you're hoping to raise, then there's not much doubt where you should be sending him."

What is particularly disappointing about this recourse to aggressive defamation is that there is no need for it. At both national and local level, good independent schools have lived harmoniously with their local authority counterparts. The heads of many independent schools have not been afraid, in their national conferences, to speak up on behalf of their state school colleagues. At local level there are numerous examples of friendly relationships. Someone should publicly disown the knocking approach to recruitment before it becomes established again.

The Government must love this aggressive dog-eat-dog free market stuff. It is exactly what the right wing wants to see. The strong triumph by any means possible, the weak go to the wall. Except that it is not a free but a rigged market, with the Government interfering at every turn. The latest wheeze from John Major is to allow grant-maintained schools to borrow more money, using their buildings as collateral. Not that this actually gives them anything, other than a bigger debt. All of which goes to show that Major, living up to his reputation as a dolt over education, cannot even manage to fudge properly.

Perhaps the state sector should fight back. If competition and the market are so good at raising standards, then why can we not set up a privatised Government in competition with the present bunch of incompetents? I suppose this is a bit like asking why there is only one Monopolies Commission, but some stiff competition for the Government would not come amiss. Norman Wisdom could be the privatised Prime Minister, so the quality of clowning in that office would improve, the speaking clock could become parallel education minister, thereby upping considerably the intellectual level of thinking in that department, and footballer Vinnie Jones would make a first-rate privatised chief inspector of schools, showing the Office for Standards in Education how to tackle incompetent teachers without leaving a mark.

The state sector could run a national advertising campaign. Every evening, at peak viewing time, television commercials would extol the virtues of state schooling. Instead of the well-known milk chocolate ad, viewers would see Harry Ramsbottom, fearless teacher of Year l0 at Little Piddlington School and Community College, swinging across ravines, skiing along the edge of avalanches, climbing up steep walls. But he is not delivering a box of chocolates.

After all the private school advert hype about "battle lines", "casualties" and "suffering"; after teaching 40 pupils in a leaking classroom with less than Pounds 10 per head to spend on his pupils' books; after being comprehensively rubbished by Panorama and every other newspaper or broadcast feature in the land, he is just desperately trying to get through the snowdrifts to attend a one-day school-based in-service training stress management course on "Sex for the debilitated".

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