When did Twigg's mind snap?

14th February 2003 at 00:00
WHAT gets into intelligent people when they assume high office? Over the years I have watched some of the brightest people in the land turn into gibbering morons the minute they find themselves in a position of political authority.

One day in January, 19,000 heads of primary schools and 19,000 chairs of governing bodies opened their morning post to find a letter that left many frothing with rage. It was from junior minister Stephen Twigg, nice chap, keen, committed, salt of the earth, beat Portillo in the 1997 general election, and therefore earns my eternal gratitude.

Intrigued at the page full of vitriolic letters in the following week's TES, I asked a friendly head to show me the infamous missive. "Letter? Twigg? Can't recall that," she said,"but then I automatically bin anything with DfES on the top. Otherwise it melts the school's crap detector." Her chairman of governors had received the same message, so she retrieved a copy. I read it with mounting horror. At the end was a scrawled signature that looked like'Sven Turge'. Was it just an embarrassed scribble, or had intelligent Stephen Twigg mutated into Sven Turge, the Nordic automaton?

Headteachers were being harangued to meet their targets. Governors were whipped into a frenzy to hobble defaulters.

All schools were urged to do more phonics. What, all? Including those that already spent every minute of the day chanting "ker a ter equals dog"? Presumably Sven wanted them to start an after-school activity called the Even More Phonics Club. It was hard to describe these fevered missives, but the words "blind" and "panic" came to mind.

Next, I discovered that another DfES letter had gone to chief education officers, commanding them to find out the names of every pupil who was likely to be on the grade 34 borderline. What on earth was going on? "Is that Swinesville primary? It's the CEO here. Can you read out your list for me? Right - Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, Morecambe and Wise, Hermann Goering, Donald Duck I" As a managerial strategy this is exceptionally unintelligent behaviour. It reminds me of the stupid pheasant that walks boldly in front of my car as I drive up our road. Toot your horn and it switches direction, waddling amiably into your front bumper. It has an uncanny knack of doing the exact opposite of what it should do. If you produced a gun it would probably perch on the end of the barrel and peer down it.

A group of scientists has been trying to map the brain of a mouse. Perhaps this is too complex and they should start with an easier assignment, like mapping the brain of the simpleton who advised Sven and his mates to send out these despairing letters, when cool professionalism is required. The message is crude and unsubtle. It reads:

"Dear Anybody, There is no hope of meeting our targets, so we are absolutely bloody desperate. We haven't the foggiest idea what the hell to do. Please help us. Try anything. Get every Year 6 pupil up to level 4 by whatever means necessary. Offer large bribes, fill in their papers yourself, threaten to shoot the little buggers if all else fails, but hit those targets. And if you don't, then a van full of big blokes with broken noses and tattoos will be round to break both your legs.

Yours sincerely, Sven Turge."

In 1993, Tim Brighouse and I worked out a means of encouraging teachers in Birmingham schools to improve by engaging them professionally in the challenge. It has been painful to observe the mangling of this notion at national level into a target-driven culture that is nothing like what we envisaged.

Targets have become a cruel master, not a benign servant; focused on narrow mechanical objectives, not pupils' right to educational advantage; imposed instead of negotiated and discussed; alienating rather than engaging. As a result people develop expedient tactics, such as aiming at borderliners to the cost of the majority, just to meet their targets.

The dreariness of the process is reinforced by putting the frighteners on chief education officers, so they terrorise headteachers, who are then supposed to intimidate teachers, so they in turn hammer level 3 pupils into a figure 4 shape. It is the most crass form of authoritarianism and it does not even have the virtue of being effective.

The good news is that the operation is reversible, Sven. Just shake off the fetters, as well as the cretinous minders, and turn back into intelligent Stephen. You have nothing to lose but the yoke of stupidity.

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