Braced for the silly season

Literacy hour, second 15-minute chunk - language. "Today's topic, children, is 'adjectives'. Now, who can tell me what an adjective is? Harriet? Yes, that's right. It's a describing word, it's a word that tells us a bit more about a noun, isn't it? Who can tell me the adjective that will best sum up the national scene in education during the months leading up to the election? Don't call out, Jason. Yes, I know the government favours whole-class interactive teaching, but put your hand up all the same.

'Silly', yes, that's a good adjective, Alice. 'Opportunistic', ooh, that's a really good adjective, Oliver. 'What-ing stupid', Jason? I didn't quite catch that. Jason! Wash your mouth out with soap and water. I don't care if your daddy is a teacher like me."

There are other descriptors, as well as rude qualifying words, to describe the fever that will contaminate the months leading up to a general election in the spring, but for the time being 'silly' will suffice. Bunker down for a long battle of words, slogans and batty ideas, as the political parties embark on their traditional pre-election auction.

There must be more sensible and civilised ways of generating ideas for an election manifesto, but we seem not to have found them yet. In any case, who believes manifestos nowadays? In the 1980s, the Conservatives said they would ballot people to find out whether or not they wanted to stay in the Inner London Education Authority. Once elected, they shut it down anyway. Why waste time on democracy when the Bill Bastard approach to realpolitik is quicker?

Labour told the electorate in 2001 that they were opposed to top-up fees. Even as late as January 2004, the higher education minister was saying: "We legislated against [the introduction of top-up fees] in 1998; we'll legislate against it now". Ho ho. Weeks later they had been introduced. Oh, come now, these are not really top-up fees as such, just, er, a little three grand contribution to help your alma mater in its hour of need.

As the parties out-silly each other, the main sufferers are those who work in education. They have to worry about whether any of these barmy ideas might actually come into reality in 2006. Did anyone seriously believe that teachers would one day have to apply in writing to the minister if they wanted to introduce an innovation in their school? In good old Britain? Too far-fetched to contemplate even. But the 2002 Education Act required them to do so. The only good feature of this daft game is that most people neither know nor care that such a stupid act even exists.

Be prepared for the worst. The Conservatives will flog their elastic schools, capable of expanding or contracting to fit any size, even though most heads of popular schools do not wish to, and in many cases cannot, expand any further.

Even though they insist they will cut out waste, they will tell the electorate they intend to keep vast numbers of empty places, the equivalent of 1,000 empty schools, to support their version of "choice". Criminally crackpot.

Labour will carry on trying to lure public schools into running inner-city comprehensives, the barmiest idea since Icarus set off for his short holiday in the sun.

After the election, there will be the cold light of dawn. Foolish promises flock home to roost. The winning party will wake up, like some drunk after a night out, wondering how they ended up on the floor dressed as Coco the clown, and who the hell the people are lying on their carpet.

The only sane thing to do is laugh at the crazy auctions and take them for what they are.

"We'll put badly behaved children into referral units."

"Huh, that's weedy. We'll put them in the stocks and let people throw rotten tomatoes at them".

"You wimps. We'll make them run across trenches full of broken bottles and lash them with knotted bootlaces when they reach the far side." Sold to the bidder on my (far) right.

· Ted Wragg is emeritus professor of education at Exeter University


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