Tuesday, 15 July 2014

So farewell Mr Gove (or why the English seem to hate their own schools system)

I shall not waste any time celebrating the demotion of Michael Gove to Chief Bully at Westminster. Given the damage he has already done as Secretary of State for Education I for one am not in particularly celebratory mood. However looking back on his time in office it does occur to me to wonder why it is that again and again Tory Secretaries of State for Education give themselves the additional title of anti-Schools Minister. Gove is not the first to have done this, just the most brutally casual in his destruction of the State system for which he was responsible.

The problem is that there is always political mileage in rubbishing the State education system and those who teach in it. The tabloids love it of course, as do the right-wing papers, but it never ceases to amaze me how much approbation is on offer, from parents and from 'liberal' papers like the Guardian, to anyone who voices "trenchant" (i.e. negative and ill-informed) criticisms of our State schools. It seems almost a given that English and Welsh state schools are crap (the position may be slightly different in both Scotland and Northern Ireland), "lag behind the world" and require a process of continuous revolutionary change to make them fit for purpose. Oddly enough this relentless storm of criticism tends to seep in to the attitudes of students and parents alike to the extent that should anything unsatisfactory occur in a child's schooling (from bullying to poor results to a deterioration in the child's own behaviour) then clearly the school must be at fault. Parents reserve the right to respond to any such problem with a promise either to "go up to that school and tell Wayne's teachers to sort themselves out!" or to "take poor Annabel out of that dreadful place. Don't worry, Daddy can afford it." And odder still, these attitudes are not conducive to the creation and maintenance of a self-confident school ethos focused on achievement and success.

It doesn't have to be like that of course, and my sense is that in other countries it simply isn't. Other European countries (let alone Asian ones) seem far prouder of their State education systems, and far more inclined to trust that by sending their children to school parents are placing them in the safe hands of highly-skilled educators. Not that said educators are likely to be any better than their UK equivalents (if films like Entre les Murs are to be believed, anyway) but because parents, politicians, the press and society as a whole value their schools more highly in such countries students will inevitably attend in a more positive and compliant frame of mind.

So what makes England and Wales so different? One could argue (as I have done repeatedly) that these attitudes go back to the lovely Margaret Thatcher. Certainly, in a technique enthusiastically borrowed by this generation of Tories vis-a-vis the NHS, she set about rubbishing the State education system so as to reduce public opposition when she implemented her 'reforms.' Certainly she introduced some important tropes on which the tabloid press could fasten in their attacks on schools: the idea of London teachers as "loony lefties" for instance, or of "the education establishment" as a malign and anti-progressive force. She also abolished the Schools Council so that, uniquely amongst the great professions there was no voice for practitioners in any of the overarching regulatory or advisory groups for the schools sector. She was also responsible for the introduction of the insidious notion of "parental choice" of a school place for their children. This was always, practically speaking, a nonsense idea, since parents have only very rarely been able to exercise real choice as to where their kids went to school, but it implanted the idea that some schools were simply not the sort of school one would choose to send one's child to. And, oddly enough, market forces tended not to be that efficient in driving improvement in such schools. Because once you label a school as the sink school in an area and populate it exclusively with students whose parents do not or cannot move their children elsewhere it tends not to thrive.

However perhaps the root cause of this English attitude to schools actually lies much further back. Most countries appear to have realised in approximately the same era the importance of universal compulsory education. And in most countries this system of education quickly came to be seen as a centrepiece of the State's image of itself. The results of this have sometimes been overtly political (like the French Republican education system ), sometimes grotesque (the Nazi introduction of subjects such as Racial Studies for instance) and sometimes- to me at least- deeply cringe-worthy (the US daily pledging of allegiance, anyone?) but they always maintained education, and specifically the State Schools system at the heart of the nation's image of itself.

From the start it seems that the English approach was different. England started its Industrial Revolution earlier than anyone else, and by 1880 when education became compulsory, there were huge numbers of children of industrial workers living in England's cities. And as much as anything else the State education system seems to have become a mechanism not just to provide the masses with the basic skills required to make them more productive but to control them too. This attitude is satirised by Dickens in Hard Times of course, though Mr Gradgrind would not look out of place in Michael Gove's policy team. In England State schools did not define who we were as a nation: public (fee paying) schools did that. Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton, not of some Manchester grade school.

So from the start English State schools do not seem to have been an institution of which we as a nation were proud: that defined our sense of who we were. They were a grubby, tedious necessity to keep the children of the hoi polloi off the streets. Then, when glimmerings of social conscience made such attitudes unacceptable grammar schools were introduced as faux public schools so that a proportion of the great unwashed could lift themselves from this slough of despond and pretend at least that they belonged to the elite whose education defined them as truly English. I say English deliberately here. In Scotland at least it appears that education for all remained at the heart of the nation's sense of itself. And I don't just mean the Prime of Miss Jean Brodie- my own father saw his brothers and uncles club together to finance his journey through university so that he could become a missionary, and thus augment the social status of the entire extended family.

So farewell Mr Gove, but I have to say that I am not particularly sanguine as regards the chance of his departure making any significant difference. So long as we as a Nation hate and despise our State Schools system there is little hope for it.

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