Education: Just because you're paranoid...

The View From Here
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The Independent Online
HAVE YOU ever worked out how many people in education enjoy freedom of speech nowadays? It is very few. Headteachers are worried that, if they are too outspoken, their school may suffer. Teachers fear for their jobs and promotion prospects, especially when redundancy is a possibility. Local authorities worry what will happen when they are inspected. Parents are afraid that criticising their children's school may knock a grade off the youngsters' national test scores.

In theory, free speech survives in universities. One of the few privileges left to academics is to be allowed to utter unpopular, unpalatable or unfashionable views, provided that you have the evidence.

This is not a universal privilege, however.

I was once at a conference in a foreign university where the local delegation was led by a professor whose power and personal patronage were legendary. In public sessions his junior colleagues spent all their time agreeing with his previous remarks. I felt like calling out: "No, you can't possibly agree with Professor Bloggins; he's a pompous, inflated prat", but a mixture of dignity, cowardice and awareness of batting for Britain forbade it.

Even in British universities opportunities for free speech are declining. Particularly in areas of public policy, the screws have now been applied firmly for several years. Gagging clauses in research contracts are regarded as normal, but some are punitive. A few years ago, a health education researcher had to sign a clause that forbade him from talking or writing without permission about the project for which he was funded, and from speaking outside the university about any health education topic without obtaining permission a month in advance.

With people's careers partially dependent on their ability to attract external research grants, self-censorship is often practised. For fear of being controversial, some researchers will mute or obliterate completely their criticisms of official bodies that have direct patronage, or are in a position to influence research grants as external referees.

In the Eighties, I applied to a government department for a research grant. It was turned down and a baffling Sir Humphrey letter was written by a civil servant, full of phrases that were vague and obscured the message. Fortunately, when I submitted the bid to a different funding source, the amount was granted immediately. Later I bumped into the civil servant concerned and asked him to explain his bewildering letter. It was simple, he told me. One of the ministers, piqued that I had criticised him on one occasion, had simply said: "I'm not giving that man any money."

One of the more sinister turns of events nowadays is the role played by certain sections of the press. Professor Peter Mortimore of London University, one of the most highly respected academics in his field, recently produced a critique of the policies of the Office for Standards in Education.

Criticise Ofsted, and a whole artillery slides into place. The usual gunners are a leader in The Times, Melanie Phillips in The Sunday Times, and various others who spring into place. Sure enough, one by one these put pen to paper. Fortunately, Peter Mortimore is not the sort of lily- livered person to buckle under such stress.

A few months ago, three professors and critics of Ofsted - John Macbeath, Robin Alexander and myself - were attacked by the Chief Inspector, Chris Woodhead, in his annual lecture, as being "at the heart of darkness".

"Does Robin Alexander really believe that any individual will be empowered in the 21st century if he or she has not learnt to read?" Woodhead asked. No, he does not, nor has he ever suggested it. Anyone who did believe this barmy idea would have been locked away in a deep, dark cave for his own and everyone else's safety.

Right on cue, however, out came the Daily Mail with our three photographs and a headline: "The trio of academics failing our schools, by Woodhead". Standing up and speaking freely is not for the faint-hearted nowadays, whether they are working in academic life or not. I have never cared much whether I get attacked or not, which is partly, I suppose, because in the part of the North where I was born, "good morning" was a head-butt. Many working in education, however, find it distasteful.

In a healthy society, freedom of speech is welcomed - seen as a birthright. Without healthy innovation and debate, we would eventually slide backwards. In education, however, many are now not only afraid to stick their head above the parapet, but also scared to innovate, in case it brings retribution. Paranoia? I don't think so. What I believe is... hold on a minute, let me just close my door first...

The writer is professor of education at the University of Exeter