Well, I never. Is that right?

23rd January 2004 at 00:00
"I told you so!" Aren't they just the sweetest four words in the language.

Certainly they are for those who find themselves at the bottom of that great chain of being that goes: government minister; civil servant; quango jobsworth; college management; lecturing oik.

OK, it doesn't change anything that "they" got it wrong and you got it right, but it does give you a warm glow of satisfaction that can last for all of 30 seconds.

So what have "they" managed to screw up this time? According to a recent report, it concerns who sits next to whom in the classroom. Apparently - and here's a surprise - the arrangement whereby adults study alongside teenagers can be beneficial to both.

But haven't the Government and its obedient servants just spent the past five years prising apart these two groups and dropping them into separate boxes labelled "16 to 19" and "adult"? They have, and it's most unlikely they'll now want to select reverse (a gear which Tony tells us they don't possess anyway) just because the evidence suggests they should. As we know, the justification for this new strain of educational apartheid is that it is in the interests of the younger student to be schooled in separate sixth-form colleges or units within colleges.

But what about the interests of the adults who are left on the other side of the wire? Separate provision is always likely to mean less provision, and less provision normally turns out to mean less for the over-19s.

Now it seems that it's actually in the interests of neither group. The research indicates that - provision aside - the actual experience of learning alongside one another is beneficial to both.

Of course experience tells us that there are some classes where the youngold chemistry just won't work. Sticking one or two grey-haired souls into a room full of hormonally-charged teenagers can be a bit like putting zebras in with the lions. They watch in wonder as the kids swing from the light fittings and then go home never to return (though sometimes they send in a little note thanking you and saying that you don't get paid enough.) By and large though it has exactly the opposite effect. The old are energised by the young, and the young behave in a more mature fashion because the older students are by their sides. In a sense it is an educational experience in its own right. Stereotypes are broken down and people are seen for what they are - people.

And isn't life outside of education integrated? Don't workplaces consist of all ages from wet-behind-the-ears to one-foot-in-the-grave? That phrase "experience tells us" is surely the key here. Experienced teachers know these things. After all, further education has a long and successful tradition of mixed-age teaching. And was that tradition, that experience, drawn upon when the decision was taken to split the two groups asunder? Of course it wasn't.

Because such decisions in education never are based on the opinions of those who know. Almost without exception they are made by those who don't.

You can see that in the way that more and more of the top jobs are being targeted at applicants whose minds are unpolluted by previous knowledge in the field. Or to put it another way, if you know anything about the subject, stay away!

Who then does create educational policy? Government ministers? Hardly. They progress through the revolving doors of office much too briskly to ever get more than a superficial understanding as to what goes on. Even their civil servants don't have the clout they once did.

So that leaves the field open to the rascals and charlatans - otherwise known as consultants and advisers.

The consultant has been there, done that, got the waistcoat. Like an '83 Austin Metro, he was not much good to start with, and not much improved now for having gone twice round the clock. Most likely he's been eased out of his middle management job in a college for having been found to be a bit vague in the old arseelbow identification game.

The adviser, on the other hand, knows all about education because he has only just finished having one. Feted for having brought the "new realism" to his university's student union, he clearly now knows all that he needs to know to make those tough policy decisions. Next year he might even decide to start shaving.

Naturally the adviser knows that he must first consult the consultant. And sometimes the consultant will have to consult another consultant before he feels able to advise the adviser. Sometimes too it might be necessary for the adviser to consult another adviser. Or maybe he will just stick at advising the consultant to consult a little more widely.

And then out of this mad merry-go-round come such gems as key skills, AS and A2s and "separate development" classrooms where each age group can now miss out on the benefits the other would bring.

Stephen Jones lectures at a college in south London

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