On the warpath or on manoeuvres?

10th October 2008 at 01:00
The Conservatives have promised to get tough on some of education's progressive strongholds, but will this skirmishing lead to an all-out assault, asks William Stewart

In what is rapidly becoming an annual ritual, last week saw the Conservatives declare war on the "educational establishment".

And David Cameron had news for those who believed that this was just a rhetorical flourish. The war threat was meant "almost literally", the Tory leader warned in his Birmingham conference speech.

He had a similar message last year, and it is one that has also been consistently sent out by Michael Gove, the shadow secretary for children, schools and families, and Nick Gibb, the shadow schools minister.

In fact, although he has had fewer headlines for his troubles, it is Mr Gibb who has been by far the most outspoken of the three.

At the Tories' conference in 2007, he described the fight he led to make the teaching of synthetic phonics compulsory as "just a skirmish in a battle that is still to be won" against the "ideology promoted by the educational establishment".

This year he had even more to say on the subject. "Why is it that parents aren't happy with three out of five local schools?" Mr Gibb said at a fringe meeting. "What is it about those other three schools that is the problem?

"My own view is that it is because they have adopted untried and untested experimental approaches to pedagogy. Actually, they are tried and tested, and they have failed.

"They go right back to the 1920s, to the John Dewey ideology of education. Wherever it has been tried, it has failed."

Dewey, an American academic, argued that teaching should not just be about imparting facts, and that there should be greater emphasis on problem- solving and critical thinking skills.

Mr Gibb has been inspired by Eric Donald Hirsch Jr, another US academic, who claimed in 1996 that his country's pupils had been failed by teachers who had followed Dewey's methods and neglected subject content.

The shadow minister believes this is a problem that has now crossed the Atlantic.

"So-called progressive education is very dominant in this country, and you don't get promoted or become a professor of education in a teacher- training college unless you are part of the orthodoxy," he said.

"You don't become a head of a local education authority generally - there are exceptions. Generally speaking, you don't get into the senior ranks of the QCA (Qualifications and Curriculum Authority), and you don't get in the Department of Education."

But examine Mr Cameron's speech and there are clues that the Tory battle against the "educational establishment" has its roots much closer to home.

Mr Cameron has condemned the "all must win prizes" approach in his last two conference speeches. The phrase was originally coined by Lewis Carroll in Alice in Wonderland, but it is Melanie Phillips who may have inspired the party leader to repeat it.

The Daily Mail and Sunday Times columnist used it for the title of her 1996 book, a right-wing critique of education in Britain that claimed more rigour and facts were needed in teaching.

She backed the teaching of phonics and attacked the education establishment, which included the Department for Education, teacher training colleges and Whitehall civil servants.

It all sounds very familiar. Would a Conservative government actually be taking us back to the future? Would it see a return to the battles of the mid-1990s, when Chris Woodhead, then chief inspector of schools and Ms Phillips' ally, made teacher-bashing fashionable by calling for the sacking of 15,000 "incompetent" staff?

It is a possibility, but there are clear signs pointing in the opposite direction. Read Mr Cameron's speech carefully and you will see that he only declared war on "those parts of the educational establishment" that clung to the "all must win prizes" philosophy and the "dangerous practice of dumbing down".

To illustrate this last point, he used the example of the chief examiner who awarded a pupil two out of 27 marks for writing "fuck off" in response to a test question.

It was an easy hit for Mr Cameron at conference, guaranteed to win the sympathies of his partisan audience. But it probably also struck a chord with many teachers as well.

Condemning such a maverick act is hardly a strike at the heart of all that the educational establishment holds dear.

When it comes to more contentious issues, such as the quality of teachers, the Tories choose their words much more carefully.

Christine Gilbert, chief inspector of schools, and at least two think tank reports have all recently suggested that it is too difficult for schools to get rid of weak teachers.

But Mr Gove has clearly chosen not to focus on this - a point his predecessors might well have leapt on. Instead, his speech sided with teachers against a controlling, bullying, centralising government that did not believe "professionals should have the freedom to inspire young minds".

"The result has been thousands of teachers leaving the profession in despair," he said. "Under a Conservative government, teachers who want more professional freedom, and parents who want more good schools, won't be powerless and frustrated."

The Conservatives may be strongly opposed to the extremes that they believe elements of the so-called educational establishment are imposing on schools, but they do want to build bridges with the teaching profession.

The shadow education ministers actually believe teachers could be a useful ally if the Conservatives are in government and facing a Treasury keen to clamp down on public spending.

That might explain why they are keen to maintain the social partnership that Labour has built with teachers' unions, and why they gave the National Union of Teachers a number of favourable mentions in their conference education debate.

Whether a positive relationship will be possible when more contentious issues emerge, such as taking huge numbers of schools outside the influence of local authorities through the "free school" model, is another matter.

But it does seem clear, despite the rhetoric, that all-out war with teachers is the last thing they want.

Myra Robinson, page 36

The real enemy of excellence is the entrenched, complacent educational establishment that opposes greater rigour, is suspicious of anything `traditional' and has undermined tried-and-tested teaching methods because they're `old-fashioned' and `authoritarian'.

Michael Gove, Conservative shadow schools secretary, October 2007

I don't think Labour ever got to grips with the educational establishment, some of whom still think it's wrong to say children have got something wrong because that will brand them as failures; who still seem to think that all must win prizes; who still seem to think we have to treat all children the same.

David Cameron, Conservative party leader, October 2007

So-called progressive education is very dominant. you don't get promoted or become a professor of education in a teacher training college unless you are part of the orthodoxy.

Nick Gibb, Conservative shadow schools minister, September 2008

A Conservative government will bring a declaration of war against those parts of the educational establishment who still cling to the cruelty of the `all must win prizes' philosophy and the dangerous practice of dumbing down.

David Cameron, Conservative party leader, October 2008.

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