The 'twigs and buds' school of thought

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The Independent Online
MORE than a million children are waiting. They have only one school education. How many of them are feeling alarmed and angry as they wonder if the politicians and the teachers will agree how that precious education should be measured? They ought to be alarmed: if the promised summer of chaos ensues, they ought to be angry, too.

Not that the issues are easy. 'Education' means many things, and is desperately hard to quantify. A month or so ago, I received a letter from an Independent reader who had recently retired as headteacher of a small village primary school near Shrewsbury, partly because she was fed up with the conflicting demands made upon her. She wrote her letter on a beautiful spring morning, looking out at the countryside a couple of miles from Offa's Dyke.

And she wrote: 'On such a morning last year, I should have thought 'Sod the national curriculum' and led my Gloucestershire rabble up through the village and over the A417 to meander along the banks of the Ampney Brook. After looking for baby coots and moorhens we would have popped into the solitary Ivy Church, leaving our muddy shoes mosque-fashion at the door, for a quiet five minutes and then rushed out for an anarchic session in the withy beds. We would puff back for lunch laden with various stones, rusty bits of farm machinery, armfuls of twigs and buds, and wet socks . . .'

She asked how she was supposed to explain the subtle, contingent value of all this to some nattily suited former bank clerk newly arrived from Bromley as an area inspector, who had never had a pair of muddy shoes in his life.

Now, a bad teacher, this Tessa Dodd - or a good one? Only her pupils can tell, but I suspect she was a very good teacher. The experience of discovery, the cultivation of wonder and shared joy at the natural world are surely an essential part of education. You can, and should, get such things from biology and Shakespeare as well as the environs of the A417. But get them you must.

Anyone who is educated without coming upon a teacher who inspires them, as well as teaching them how to reason and how to concentrate, has been deprived. And under any system of education, the difference between the sparkling, enthusiastic teachers and depressing, second-rate teachers outweighs all other differences. A reform that demoralises and forces out the best teachers will, whatever its other virtues, harm children.

This is the real threat that Mr Patten and his colleagues ought to worry about. There will never be a shortage of teachers. But there will always be a shortage of good teachers. The national curriculum, which is an excellent thing in principle, must never be confused with the national education: it can only be the grid, never the experience, the form and not the spirit. Samuel Johnson said: 'Nothing is more hopeless than a scheme of merriment.' And nothing is more barren than a scheme of education that fails to carry the best of the teachers, the enthusiasts, with it. Without them, it is an empty theory.

And at the moment John Patten, a clever man, is failing to carry the teachers. Strange, that, since he so obviously needs to. After all, nobody else can teach the curriculum or test the tests. You cannot import foreign teachers, like coal, or pick up a few thousand extra maths teachers from the ranks of the jobless.

Yet it is so. Even if their unions don't vote to boycott the tests, which seems unlikely, or the legal challenge against them succeeds, then resentment and anger among teachers will remain widespread.

Some of the union leaders have stupidly exacerbated the crisis by saying that their aim is to destroy the reforms as a whole. But the teachers' argument that ministers have no right to 'impose' such changes is as absurd as the Tory argument that the trouble is all the work of political extremists in the unions. Ministers can't teach, but they, not the teachers, are responsible to voters for the education system.

Strip the posturing away, and you still have a problem. You still have a grossly bureaucratic system brought in too quickly and without the support of enough teachers. So, once again, why? The most popular explanation seems to be the cynical one - that Mr Patten's refusal to back down is a deliberate tactic to bid for the support of the Tory right-wing. This simply cannot be true. The risks of a catastrophic political failure are too great, particularly since many parents will be on the side of the teachers. (As Sir Rhodes Boyson has perceptively pointed out, the Government's own enthusiasm for parent-run schools has helped to create such an alliance).

Instead, I think Mr Patten is the victim of an outdated style of political leadership - the swaggering, aggressive, lead- from-the-front cavalry tactics that won the Thatcherite victories in the Eighties. Ministers rode down opponents so often that 'nerve' replaced 'bottom' as the Tory virtue.

This was fine when there was a big Commons majority and a national enthusiasm for radical changes. But those ministerial attacks depended upon an enormously strong political position in the country. They would lead, but galloping after would go the editorial writers, the popular papers, the radical Tory MPs, then the party in the country - and then, finally, public opinion.

Where are the followers now? Where are the fervent parliamentary enthusiasts for the new curriculum, the galloping propagandists, even the foot soldiers? We still have a Conservative government with pretensions to radicalism, and a residual agenda. Half a league, half a league, half a league onward. The only trouble is there is no radical Tory army following behind. And if Mr Patten is not careful, he will find himself charging these cannon all on his lonesome. I haven't noticed too many strongly worded messages of support from fellow ministers, have you? In fact, in Mr Patten's boots, I wouldn't even be too sure about the horse.

This is all the more unfortunate, since Mr Patten inherited most of his problems from other men, since he is genuinely concerned about the education system, and since all-out confrontation is not really his style. He is a meritocrat and an enthusiast himself. I suspect, indeed, that he would have enjoyed Tessa Dodd's letter as much as I did.

He is also a wholly unconvincing right-winger, as unconvincing in that role as his namesake Chris Patten was playing the Tebbitesque boot-boy during the election campaign. He knows that, sooner or later, he and most of the teachers will have to be on the same side. He surely knows, too, that getting these reforms in place and working well will be a long game, Persuasion, not the Light Brigade. John Major has given him the time to do it, and he has the ability.

If both sides looked more clearly at one another, there is an obvious compromise, about the phasing-in and slimming- down of tests, waiting to be agreed. Teaching union leaders would need to stop fantasising about an insurrectionist final battle against the Tory reforms. Mr Patten and his colleagues, for their part, would have to turn their backs on the comforting illusion that 'decent, ordinary teachers' are not fed up.

Is there enough time and goodwill for such a compromise before we see a summer of disruption and vicious political mud-slinging? Who knows? But if there isn't, it will be a more damning lesson in contemporary civics than the children will ever get in class.

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