Friday, 14 September 2012

Education as an STD

Once upon a time, there was a general assumption that teachers mainly read the Guardian, with the Times restricted to headmasters, the Telegraph to psychotic games teachers, and the Daily Mail to the nice lady who taught home economics. That appears to have changed over the last decade, not just because of evolution in the press and the growth of alternative distractions (inappropriate flirting with students on Facebook), but because of the impact of New Labour's education ("power of 3") policy. There was a perfect example of it in a teacher-unfriendly piece in yesterday's Guardian by Martin Kettle, praising the new book by Andrew ("my friends call me Lord") Adonis. What made me hold the paper at a slight angle, to get a better perspective, was a coincidental blog post by the American academic, Corey Robin, who asked the question: Why do liberals hate teachers?

Robin's answer is that liberal parents despise teachers because they exemplify the mediocre. "Liberal" in this US context means upper middle-class professionals. Most of what he says goes for the UK as well, but without the "upper" qualification. Despite the obvious talent of many, and the high value accorded to education as a social good, the people who teach our kids are seen as failures by other professionals. I think he puts his finger on it when he says: "Teachers had opted out of the capitalist game; they weren’t in this world for money". Once we would have admired this, but in the neoliberal order we interpret it as an admission of inadequacy. When teachers, through a union, show that they do care about money, at least to the extent of ensuring a decent living standard for their efforts, we see this as a betrayal of our self-serving image of the profession. They then become little better than paedophiles, out to damage the poor little kiddies.

Culturally, the teacher is a far more rigid stereotype than most professionals. Even doctors are accorded more variety in terms of personal motivation and behaviour. Teachers are objects of benign pity at best, and outright contempt at worst. A common trope has been the teacher's vulnerability to irresponsibility and self-delusion, from Mr. Chips (sentimentalised) through Jean Brodie (tragic) to Brian Glover's PE teacher in Kes (comic). In recent years, fictional treatments have tended to show teachers as undeveloped adolescents (TV's Teachers) or damaged personalities reverting to the role of pseudo-child (Notes on a Scandal).

Alan Bennett's The History Boys is a symphony of caricatures: the narrow-minded, social-climbing headteacher; the tragi-comic, aesthetic pederast; the insincere, flawed Oxbridge coach; and the cynical, resigned woman. The epilogue contrasts the varying degrees of success of the boys in their adult lives not with each other so much as with the teachers, the embodiment of anti-success. Though it is the most sympathetic character who has chosen teaching as a career, his choice appears preordained and the consequence of his nature: "I'm a Jew... I'm small... I'm homosexual... and I live in Sheffield... I'm fucked". The aesthete Hector's exhortation, "pass it on boys, pass it on", implies that the love of learning for its own sake (and by extension pedagogy) might be a sexually-transmitted disease. It's hardly an advertisement for the profession.

Reading Kettle's piece in light of Robin's is a revealing exercise. He starts by contrasting Adonis with Chris Huhne as "two of the brainiest men in British politics". Given Huhne's blustering stupidity over policy and motoring points, you have to take this on trust. The purpose of the deeply unfunny anecdote is to praise Adonis both for his general scepticism and for his enthusiasm for continued educational reform. Cake and eating it come to mind. Kettle notes that the academy model initiated by Blair and Adonis, and enthusiastically continued by Gove, has resulted in just over half of secondary schools being converted. Consequently, "the independent state school model is here to stay". Kettle does not stop to wonder at the oxymoron of "independent state", instead he exhorts us to "get used to it".

In summarising Adonis's case for the original reform (why does he feel he still needs to make this?), Kettle throws up symptoms without causes: educational inadequacy, lack of expectations and discipline, bureaucracy etc. These are just rhetorical cliches, often based on myth. The academy is the non-sequitor panacea. Professional vested interests and the failure of public service reform under Labour, due to union pressure, also figure prominently in his potted history. You may have forgotten how the academy programme was successfully kyboshed by the teaching unions, and how their 10% per annum pay increases every year for a decade ballooned the public debt. Maybe you blinked.

Kettle, as an impeccable liberal, rolls out a panegyric that would have done justice to Lloyd George: "The overall track record of academies is so clearly successful that it becomes perversely reactionary to focus on the failures, albeit genuine ones ... This is less left-right than reform versus the status quo". The privileging of "reform", as a species of progress above the muddy fray of ideological politics, is central to the liberal ideology. Neoliberalism has made a speciality of attacking the "reactionary" stance of organised labour: "dinosaur" unions, "standing in the way of progress", "taking us back" to a horrible past (rubbish in the streets, hospitals without power etc, etc). Kettle and Adonis seem to be still fighting the last war.

As any fule kno', only those academies that could guarantee better results were allowed through in the early waves. The recent examples of poor results, and the increase in aborted launches of free schools, indicates that the low-hanging fruit have largely been picked. Kettle himself recognises that "the more schools become academies or free schools the greater the likelihood that overall score improvements will slow", but fails to draw the obvious lesson that either academy performance will regress to the mean or academy status will not be extended to the under-performing rump. Maybe he didn't do GCSE maths.

The outcome is likely to be a tripartite system of fee-paying schools, academies/free schools and a residuum of "bog standard comprehensives". The original liberal critique of the old tripartite model (grammars, technical schools and secondary moderns) was that it was a pyramid, which resulted in too many middle class kids failing the eleven-plus and ending up in a secondary modern. The comprehensive system was meant to move these up the scale. "Comprehensive" meant teaching kids academic as well as applied subjects. It was only later that the term was interpreted as "young Johnny has to mix with those kids from the council estate".

Kettle finishes with a vision of Adonis's phase two, which the good lord may get a chance to implement if Labour win a majority in 2015 (Adonis won't be standing himself, of course): "a radical renovation of teacher training, based in the best universities and schools, not lower status colleges. Will it work? The unthinking left and the vested interests will hate it, as usual". This returns us neatly to the point about social standing and Corey Robin's observations on contempt. Kettle (and Adonis's) vision is elitist and technocratic. Teachers must evolve into higher status professionals who wouldn't dream of going on strike. Regardless of whether you think this is desirable, you have to be blinkered to believe it is even remotely possible. A profession based on the cream of graduates, disincentivised to industrial action, would require a doubling of salaries. Given the all-party consensus on the increasing cost of the welfare state, this is cloud-cuckoo stuff. More realistically, we will see the fragmentation of the profession through the introduction of variable pay, with the cream being reserved for fee-paying schools and top academies, and the rump schools left with poorly-paid "losers". From a pyramid to a diamond. That's progress, for you.

Though there are real differences in principle and practice between the Tories and Labour, the core features of education policy are common across the (liberal) political spectrum. Labour will push for a smaller rump, but it won't challenge fee-paying schools or the pernicious role of religion. Gove will resuscitate grammar schools as academies, so the middle tier will be further stratified and petty school badge snobbery entrenched. Labour will push for more GCSE passes, the Tories for fewer. The curriculum will be further homogenised to raise standards across the board (Labour) and to ensure standards don't drop (Tories). Universities will continue to accept students disproportionately from fee-paying schools. Most teachers will continue to be despised.

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