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The unpalatable truth is out there

THESE are fearful times. I don't mean because of fuel protests, which now seem likely to wither in the face of a combination of Gordon Brown's economic wiles and Jack Straw's tough policing - a steel fist in an iron glove if ever I saw one. Nor do I mean the oddity of the leadership of the world being decided by a few thousand pensioners in Florida.

No, I mean that we live in an age where career people, who used to be confident enough in their skills to face criticism from their peers and those they served, now treat every doubt as though it were a vial of acid thrown in the face.

Technology is making more information available about what both public and private organisations do; and the loss of social deference and the extension of democracy are making citizens bolder in their criticisms and demands.

We should not react to this by turning our backs on the evidence, yet this is where Britain's most influential professionals appear to be heading.

I have written elsewhere of the most profound discovery of my fledgling political career: the degree to which politicians live in terror that the electorate will choose someone else next time, and that they will be cast adrift with no career or income.

This terror can make them wilfully opportunistic, ready to blow with every gust of change in public opinion; and it can turn strong men and women into meek servants of the party machine, hoping against hope that the leadership will provide a safe haven somewhere, somehow.

Teachers' leaders, too, now seem to be driven more by fear of public criticism than by desire for improvement. The collective shout of joy that rose from teachers at the departure of Chris Woodhead is understandable at one level. The OFSTED boss wasn't just undiplomatic, he was often - though not always - wrong.

Yet it is hard to econcile the savagery of the profession's attacks on Woodhead with the pleasure radiating from heads and staff when they got a "good OFSTED". I have seen the pride in many schools at a favourable inspection; and anyone can go to the Internet and find dozens of sites boasting of the praise given by Mr Woodhead's satraps. If the institution is so evil, surely its approval is nothing better than the mark of Cain?

League tables bring out the same ambivalence. Headteachers who criticise the concept and the practice will not hesitate to point out signs of success emerging from the latest beauty contest. They will justify this by saying that the media or the parents demand the figures.

Technology gives us the capability to collect these figures, and people want them. Unless, of course their own children fail to get into the school of their choice.

Perhaps the widest gap between principle and practice comes in the treatment of ethnic-minority children. Three weeks ago, the Institute of Education in London confirmed what many of us in inner cities already know - the persistent levels of underachievement by students from some ethnic-minority communities.

But the research also showed that a middle-class black child in most schools was unlikely to do better than a working-class white child; and that Afro-Caribbean boys entered school ahead of their peers on most criteria, but after a decade were left 20 points behind the average.

Asked about this, the same teachers' leaders who normally sing instant arias on the shortcomings of the system refused to concede responsibility and implicitly pointed the finger at black parents.

But the information is out there, and in real life we can't ask for a recount when we don't like what the facts tell us

Trevor Phillips is a journalist and broadcaster.

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