Tuesday 3 January 2012

The Third Worst Thing New Labour Did?

I suppose, in the league table of Worst Things, New Labour's attempts to micro-manage school curricula in England don't rate as high (ie as bad) as the Iraq War and selling us all to the bankers. Whether their policies on education come in at number 3 can be debated but bear with me.

 'Accountability' is one of those words that politicians, managers and the journalists who hover about them love to use - as if it has any real meaning. Consider this: when New Labour came into power they made a conscious decision: whatever the Tories were baying for in the field of education they would 'deliver' - but even more so. David Blunkett, the man for whom the word 'hubris' was invented,  even boasted about it, claiming that it would make New Labour permanently electable. So, as we in education all remember, New Labour imported a business model of education in which the child would be treated as so much raw material on whom hundreds of  small tasks would be performed ('units'). The teacher would be the operative who did the performing (this is 'input' in business terms), the child would be tested to see if the input worked and their test scores would be 'output'. At no point in this process would teachers, children, parents and carers be considered to be human - that's to say, beings who reflect on experience, express needs and who have the power to alter what kinds of experience are made available to them.

As we all noticed (apart from the willing creeps who brought this stuff in and went around justifying it), this great scheme was one of the very few examples of legislation and policy which applied to England only. In the great, pompous justifications of 'what does it mean to be English?', perhaps this bit of policy could be nailed to the flag of St George: to be English meant that we had the National Literacy Strategy...hurrah hurrah hurrah. Not. So the 'English' got it full square. Children, teachers, parents - schools - were sacrificed on the altar of the business model so that New Labour could win elections in the suburbs of London, Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool. I think that was Blunkettism in action.

But what happened to it all? I can only talk directly about the National Literacy Strategy in primary schools here, which was one major plank of Blunkettry. For those who don't know, this was in practice a matrix (apologies for the word), a timetable, a blueprint which mapped out for every primary school classroom in England, what a teacher should do in the 'Literacy Hour' - a daily timetabled event. It was both content and pedagogy ie what was to be taught and how, worked out term by term, day by day over the years of primary education. The documents which laid this out were sent out to schools and, apart from the name of the Secretary of State (Blunkett, you'll remember had other summits to climb), appeared anonymously - and it's this matter I'd like to dwell on.

Ministers don't 'deliver' these things on their own. Blunkett - sagacious and knowledgeable chap that he is - wasn't capable of micro-managing a teacher's day. People had to be recruited. Who were they? Who sat down at the Ministry and worked that stuff out? Which ex-teachers, academics, professionals went in there and slotted all that they knew about classrooms, teachers and children into this absurd matrix? Who was it who transformed themselves from being fully paid up human beings into masters of automata? I've tried to find out but have failed.

But why bother? Why should I be curious? For the simple reason that this is what education is about. I mean, education is about wanting to know stuff. It's about wanting to know that the stuff you find out is true or verifiable. It's about wanting to know that the stuff you've looked at and done things with or to can be done again under similar conditions - if not, why not. It's about wanting to know about what human beings can do with stuff so that the world can be better. But these human beings appeared out of the night, wrote this document that tied teachers and children into routines which had no justification other than that it fitted the 'scheme', fitted the Ford production line process that they had invented.

And then - I can barely type this without spewing - they disappeared back into the night. Yes, as most people reading this will know, in the last days of New Labour, the National Literacy Strategy was abolished. Again, anonymously. They just vanished it. It became a Late Strategy.

How much did it cost? How many billions of hours of teachers' time were taken up with discussing how to 'implement it', how many hours of teacher training time taken up to 'gear up' the teachers and student-teachers to make it all work? How many hours of advisers spent justifying it? How much did it cost to write and print and distribute the documents? Will we ever know? Has anyone ever asked? Why doesn't crap like this matter? Why isn't it an outrage?

And, for me, where is the intellectual 'rigour' as they love to call it, which summons the authors of the Strategy and asks them why it was a crucial and necessary document, policy and strategy at the beginning of a decade and an unnecessary one at the end of it? Who are these people, where are they, how do they sleep at night? To repeat, education is supposed to be an honest, intellectual endeavour. If you study things at the level of research and policy, there is supposed to be high, high premium placed on evidence, reproduceable experimentation, verifiable data. If you produce stats, if you make claims that this or that 'works', you must, must, must author it. But this bunch of people loomed up and faded away...while hundreds of thousands of teachers, children and parents did what they were ordered to do on account of this unaccountable bunch.

Could you get away with something like this in other fields of human practice? That's an open question. It would have to be genuinely equivalent - where both the content and 'method of delivery' were determined by  a Secretary of State, applicable only to England, and then abolished ten years later. I ask, because quite genuinely I wonder if in education we are so 'domesticated' by the system that we sometimes miss the strangeness and uniqueness of what happens. Perhaps the in-built structures of authority and hierarchy (a kind of civil army with ranks and all) make it very hard for people to see round and behind the arbitrary, inconsistent and intellectually dishonest nature of what passes for 'policy'.

To be clear: I'm not asking for a lynching. I would just like to see the people who created the monster to sit in a public place where they could be questioned by teachers, parents and those who experienced what they devised and then abolished.  Who are you?