Market forces at play in the blackboard jungle

Educating Britain
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When the first edition of The Independent was hitting the streets, so were the teachers. A decade ago, the two biggest teaching unions were involved in a bitter dispute over pay which was to spur the Government on to sweeping reform of the entire education system.

A child starting school in the autumn of 1986 would not have crossed a picket line to get to his classroom, but his teacher would probably have headed home at 4pm. The pupil would have been unlikely to be in the football team because "Sir" was refusing to supervise extra-curricular activities.

The class of '86 did not always wear a uniform, and its teacher did not always wear a tie. Streaming and setting were rare and the comprehensive ideal reigned supreme. Unfettered by the demands of the National Curriculum and testing, a class was free to spend extra time on a topic its pupils were enjoying.

It would be a mistake, though, to imagine that the mid-Eighties were the educational equivalent of Sixties "free love". Relationships between staff and pupils were more formal than they are now. Corporal punishment had only just been abolished, and teachers were far more authoritarian. But teachers did not feel, as they do now, under a new inspection system, that their every move was being scrutinised and their performance judged by results.

The Nineties are the age of competition. Competition between schools for pupils, competition for sponsorship, competition to come top of the exam league tables, competition between pupils for places at the best schools.

The National Curriculum, testing, local management and increased parental choice have changed the atmosphere beyond recognition. Where the educational establishment used to loathe any hint of commercialism, it is slowly learning to embrace it.

Today, a pupil's first image of school may be the smart new logo over the door. Inside the polished lobby stands a besuited headteacher bearing a glossy brochure all about the school and waiting to shake his parents' hands. The child is likely to be in uniform, even in a comprehensive.

In the classrooms, this new slickness tends to evaporate. There are more pupils per teacher, less money to spend on maintenance, and worksheets instead of textbooks. An iron grip is kept on budgets, which schools now manage themselves.

In 1986, many schools did not welcome daytime visits from parents. Now, they encourage them - up to a point. Staff need all the volunteer help they can get, with fund-raising and lifts to sports matches. But teachers still do not welcome interference from newly empowered parents who believe that they know what is best for their children.

And when the class of '86 reach higher education in another three years, what will they find? More of the same, but with knobs on. School class sizes may have grown, but with university expansion, tutorial groups have ballooned. The logos, smart suits and glossy brochures are there too, but the contrast between this and the poverty in which students often live is acute.

Fran Abrams

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