What do they mean?

7th May 2004 at 01:00
This is another of those warts-and-all exercises of which the Department for Education and Skills is so fond. Self-evaluation means we take a ruthlessly honest look at everything we do, so that we can build on our strengths and eradicate our weaknesses. Being perfect in every way is not an option.

But, as any armchair psychologist will tell you, spotting personal weaknesses is one of mankind's weak points. Strengths, yes: we're very good at that. But a flat denial of our manifold dismal inabilities is one of the things that helps us get through the day. Now, at the say-so of the DfES, we have to give it up. This seems extremely cruel, although not unusual.

Their inspectors are going to come and unearth every little fault and defect anyway, so couldn't we hang on to the odd delusion or two in the meantime? Of course not, don't be silly. For our improvement to be well-managed and effective, self-evaluation must be rigorous. We must use attainment evidence to set our targets of improvement. (Have you noticed how, with just a little bit of re-jigging, all DfES documents sound like the war cries of demented totalitarian idealism?) Now, all this stuff about self-knowledge as a key to securing the future goes back to long before the DfES launched its first consultation document. Think of the oracle at Delphi. You turned up there to find who was going to win the next war, or whether your students were going to get alpha or omega in the next round of tests, and the first thing you saw, written over the door, was Know Thyself. You were then given a cryptic answer by someone who was high on intoxicating gaseous emissions.

This didn't work very well, as poor old Croesus found to his cost. The oracle told him he was going to destroy an empire, and then he lost his own instead. The true genius of the oracle lay in being able to claim afterwards that that was what it had said all along.

Does that sound familiar? Anything the Greek gods could do, the DfES can do better. From godly double-talk to standard government practice in a mere couple of millennia. This shows the benefits of a classical education. Pity nobody gets one any more.


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