Weapons of mass exclusion

16th May 2003 at 01:00
The Government should drop its strategy of demonising its opponents and ignoring the truth, says John Bangs

early halfway through its second term, the Government is facing some uncomfortable realities. Whether it has the capacity to recognise and act on them is another question.

The under-funding of schools is one such reality. Much has been written about the causes of the current crisis, but over-hyped expectations of the money the Government claims to have put into the system demonstrates the mistake of believing your own propaganda.

School workforce reform is another. It is all very well to attack the National Union of Teachers for not signing its agreement, but the Government knows that any parent, if asked the question: would you want a qualified teacher or an unqualified person taking your child's class? will answer "a qualified teacher".

The saga of tests, unachievable national targets and school performance tables is a third reality. Charles Clarke let slip his doubts briefly at a recent House of Commons education select committee about the tests and targets regime. The same concerns were admitted by Estelle Morris last summer at our conference on creativity, when she admitted she could not square the circle of the impact of high-stakes testing on creativity.

If the Sky anchorman who interviewed me at our annual conference last month is representative, then his account of how he had to go into his seven-year-old daughter's school to tell the headteacher to drop practice tests expresses a level of concern among parents which is reflected across the land. Parental opinion is shifting against the insistent pressure on children of high-stakes testing throughout their school lives.

In dealing with these realities, the Government's strategy is that of the politics of "the big tent"; you are either with us or against us. Concealed behind the deceptively cosy metaphor of those in the education world either being inside or outside the big tent, or indeed on or off the bus of reform, is the weapon of inclusion or exclusion.

This strategy has a number of characteristics. Demonising opponents is one.

Charles Clarke has tried to do this not only with the NUT but also with local education authorities over funding. Ignoring the truth if it comes from a "wrong" group is dangerous. The truth is the truth whoever is the messenger. National curriculum tests, targets and tables undermine learning whether or not it is the NUT that says so. Schools and local education authorities still have empty coffers, whatever the NUT says. Shooting the messenger is the soulmate of the politics of exclusion.

Another characteristic of the "big tent" philosophy is the Government's belief that, because it has a powerful education reform agenda, it can substitute its own dogma for the knowledge and experience of teachers about teaching and learning. A little reported proposal in the Government's paper, A New Specialist System, published in February, is that it intends to promote a set of core principles on teaching and learning, which will no doubt ask teachers and schools to sign up to its views on tests, targets and tables.

The trouble with such hubris is that it does nothing for teaching and learning. Far from promoting autonomy, innovation and creativity, the Government will only appear to be concerned with ramming its own agenda down teachers' throats.

The politics of exclusion also wipe out genuine productive collaboration.

In the NUT's case, an example was the decision by the Government to block a second conference on creativity even though, originally, its officials had given it a fair wind - a bizarre decision in the light of its own commitment to creativity.

Charles Clarke would do well to reconsider whether the politics of exclusion are productive. His colleague, David Miliband, may blithely refer to the "world of NUT propaganda", but the Secretary of State should ask himself whether he would do better to talk to the largest teachers'

organisation in England and Wales.

It was exactly 10 years ago that John Patten, his predecessor, triggered a boycott of tests precisely because he did not heed the warning messages from teachers about the damage caused by the tests.

It is perhaps an appropriate moment to reflect on the warning message which Charles Clarke is refusing to heed. It may be possible for him to dodge individual obstacles or thorny issues. But, as some of his predecessors have found, such issues have a habit of coalescing into a critical mass.

John Bangs is head of education at the National Union of Teachers

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