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Words of comfort to the damned

Literature can be a great comfort in times of distress. Marlowe summed it up in his play Dr Faustus when Mephistopheles announced: "It is great consolation to the damned to have companions in distress."

Great consolation indeed, and literature provides us with evidence that the unholy mess education seems to be in now is nothing new, and that there are plentiful companions in distress in the pages of some of our more famous authors. In one of Isaac Asimov's science fiction novels, a Prince of the Empire visits a far-flung outpost to reassure its citizens that the empire will not pull the plug on the planet, withdraw and leave it to the barbarian hordes.

The prince spends several days on the planet, gives some speeches and holds numerous conversations. At the end of the visit, everyone on the planet feels mightily reassured and heartened. Yet a wayward scientist has developed a computer programme that takes people's words, feeds them in to the computer and then prints out exactly what they have said. The several thousand words the prince has said in public, and the even greater number of words he has said in private, are lovingly compiled and fed into the computer. At long last the print-out emerges. It is a blank sheet. The prince has said absolutely nothing, while appearing to say everything.

I was reminded of this story when listening to Gillian Shephard at the Girls' Schools Association conference in Manchester some while back. The Secretary of State for Education had this none-too-easy audience eating out of her hand, and if memory serves me right, actually received a standing ovation.

Yet, sitting as I was at the back among the journalists, it was difficult not to notice that the poised pens remained so throughout the speech, rather than descending to the page. Nothing reportable was actually said, despite a wash of goodwill generated among the audience by a consummate speaker.

Reassurance is a remarkable commodity in education's free market. It costs nothing, can be created out of nothing and commits the giver to nothing, yet it can produce a return goodwill dividend of significant value. As for its value to education, Shakespeare put his finger on the truth: "Nothing will come out of nothing."

If Asimov and Shakespeare predicted one aspect of the present education debate - saying nothing with utter conviction - then Lewis Carroll and Alice in Wonderland covered another. After all, the leader of the country's only socialist party is a Scottish public schoolboy committed to comprehensives which he did not attend, and which he is not prepared to let his son go to.

The leader of the country's right-wing party attended a grammar school which failed him academically and helped persuade him to leave school early. He is now committed to establishing a grammar school on every street corner, presumably in the hope that it will increase the staying-on rate.

A Labour education spokesman argues for a return to traditional values and teaching methods, suggesting that the next step has to be Margaret Thatcher arguing for child-centred learning, and a ban on Enid Blyton in primary schools; it's not that daft an idea.

After all, the most right-wing leader in post-war history oversaw the establishment of more comprehensive schools than almost anyone else. And one mustn't forget the stance of the world's greatest journalist, Roy Hattersley (all right, I am jealous; he gets a seat in the directors' box at Sheffield Wednesday), who brought a Labour party conference to its feet by a rousing attack on the grammar schools which did such a marvellous job of enabling him.

The upshot of this strict adherence to logic and common sense has its nearest literary equivalent in a Kafka novel or an absurdist drama. In the new play, called Waiting for a Decent Education, the leading characters all seem to be contradicting themselves and each other.

But as school wall after school wall collapses, burying all those on stage in an increasingly high pile of rubble, a clear set of rules starts to emerge for the leading players: One: remember which type of school you went to as a child.

Two: if you were a success there, condemn that type of school out of hand and devote your life to stopping anyone else's children ever attending one like it.

Three: if you were a failure there, build lots of them, and to wreak your vengeance on successive generations make as many as possible attend such schools.

Four: never send your own child to the school you intend everyone else's children to go to.

To everyone's surprise, the play has had bad reviews. The first reason is that nothing actually happens in it, except more schools falling down. The second is that it says nothing new, and the third is that it is the same old people saying it.

Meanwhile, down on Animal Farm things are pretty much the same. Rumour is that Snowball Woodhead is about to "vanish", after which everything can be blamed on him, rather than him blaming everyone else for everything. All animals are still equal, of course, but those with an idea of how to win an election are more equal than others. There is a takeover battle for ownership of the farm, but the animals are confused.

The present owners say that Sugarcandy mountain has already arrived on the doorstep of the farm, and rival bidders say it will only come if they take over the farm. In fact the farm would have collapsed completely by now if it weren't for Mr and Mrs Dobbin (they live in the staffroom stable) who have kept on working harder and harder. The original Dobbin got sent to the knacker's yard when he collapsed. It wouldn't happen now, of course. Not even when I hear that 30 per cent of Dobbins now retire early through stress-related ill-health.

The trouble is that any healthy society must have Great Expectations of its educational policy. As it is, too much Pride and Prejudice and not enough Sense and Sensibility mean we are all too likely to hold A Handful of Dust. We need politicians who can learn To Serve Them All Our Days, instead of serving themselves. It's not too difficult. Teachers have done it for years.

Martin Stephen is High Master of the Manchester Grammar School

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