Why teacher-bashing will stay in vogue

27th October 2000 at 01:00
EVERY government needs enemies. Franklin D Roosevelt, to be sure, told Americans that "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself", but that was in his inaugural address.

All politicians go soppy when they first take office. Tony Blair hoped that we could all be one big happy family; even Margaret Thatcher quoted St Francis of Assisi when she first stood on the steps of Downing Street.

But fear is the currency of politics: if people were not convinced that politicians can protect them from anarchy and terror, they might question whether it is worth having a government at all.

This is surely the explanation for ministers' otherwise baffling belief that schools are still in the grip of 1960s trendies and that, for example, comprehensives refuse to put children into ability sets.

The Cold War is over; the Provisional IRA has agreed to a ceasefire; the unions were tamed by Mrs Thatcher; even crime, always a reliable stand-by, is reported to be in decline. For a while, Slobodan Milosevic and Saddam Hussein played useful roles; but now one has been overthrown while the other accommodates hijacked British passengers in five-star hotels. So step forward, Nigel de Gruchy and Doug McAvoy.

These may seem rather small targets for Her Britannic Majesty's Government but an election is approaching and beggars can't be choosers.

If it is any comfort for teachers, ministers seem to have social workers in their sights too: last week, Paul Boateng, a Home Office minister, berated them for letting down children "year and year and year upon year".

You may think that ministers would be better occupied taking on people who really do have power and who really do misuse it: property developers ruining the countryside, supermarkets destroying town centres, media giants forming monopolies. But this isn't that kind of government.

Shortly after Labour was elected in 1997, I predicted in The TES that there would be no let-up in teacher bashing. On the contrary, Isuggested, it would get worse. That was partly because of every government's need for enemies but also because the London chattering classes, to which the new ministers looked for moral sustenance and social networking, had a special animus against teachers.

They had hoped to send their children to state schools but did not like the city comprehensives. So, at inconvenience to their consciences (to say nothing of their bank accounts), they were forced, as they saw it, to pay school fees. For this, they blamed teachers and wanted their revenge.

I think I have been proved right. I would guess that the majority of teachers feel a bit worse about themselves than they did in 1997; they now know that they have no friends in any party likely to form a government. A teachers' union leader recently suggested to me that Labour would transform morale in the education service if it sacked Chris Woodhead. Dream on, I said.

Ministers are not interested in

teachers' morale; indeed they turn the problem on its head, arguing that there would be no recruitment or retention problems if only the staffrooms would stop whingeing.

In this, they follow modern management practice, which is to set ambitious and rigid targets, to give employees "autonomy", and then to hold them "accountable" for the results. Complaints that the targets are unrealistic or the resources inadequate are dismissed as evidence that people are not up to the job.

So expect things to get worse. Expect Mr Woodhead, the most eloquent of teacher-bashers, to go on and on. Expect David Blunkett or his successor to set new and more demanding targets after the general election. Expect more pressure to meet targets as the government spends more on education.

And as the enemies of old fade away - now that both front benches turn out to be full of pot-heads, even the anti-drugs war isn't what it was - expect teachers to take more and more flak.

Peter Wilby is editor of the New Statesman

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