Where are all the angry parents?

We have a colossal educational blockage that is guaranteeing chronic social division
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The Independent Online
Our state schools are still in crisis, but we let our children suffer in silence

The comfortable assumption is that Fran Crowhurst, Eddie Parkinson, Stefan Simms, Keith McKenna and their co-conspirators are marginal characters. OK, they trapped David Blunkett in a room, hurled abuse and waved copies of a newspaper - the Socialist Worker - that advocates the imposition of an evil tyranny on the people of Britain. But this is just the lunatic fringe of the National Union of Teachers, an irreducible core of hard- left nutters. In reality, we comfortably assume, the politics of education has moved on. Sane right and sane left agree - our schools are not good enough, things must improve.

Indeed, discounting for the moment the threats of strikes and disruption, optimists have been discerning quite a few comforting signs in the educational climate. We have an emollient Secretary of State. Parents have at last begun to show some signs of consumer resistance to low school expectations. Labour has seen the light and defined quality as the first priority in educational policy. A couple of weeks ago Manchester Grammar School said it would be interested, for high-principled reasons of public service, in returning to the state sector by reintroducing the abolished direct- grant system, under which independent grammar schools had at least a quarter of their pupils paid for by local education authorities. The return of Manchester Grammar and other former direct-grant schools would provide a much-needed centre of excellence. And even the hierarchies of the teachers' unions have realised they cannot go on demanding more resources without offering something in return.

In general Stefan Simms and friends can easily be dismissed as a seasonal outbreak of madness, a faint, dim-witted echo from the days of socialist millennarian dreams. But are they? And, more to the point, why do they exist at all?

The most shocking feature of the school league tables, when they finally emerged, was the chasm between the best and the worst schools. At one end of the scale children were routinely leaving school with fat portfolios of qualifications. At the other they were barely scraping a single pass grade.

This gap was too wide simply to be dismissed as the result of different qualities of intake. Indeed, it was so wide that it made a nonsense of any claims still being made for the virtues of the comprehensive system. After all, even in the worst areas, comprehensives should include a mixture of the gifted and ungifted. But, on the basis of the league tables, it is clear that any gifted children unlucky enough to go to certain schools are academically doomed.

This division is a tragedy. It reflects a huge political failure on both the right and the left. It condemns the right for their long years of refusal to take state education seriously. Most of the children of Conservative politicians are among the 7 per cent who are educated privately. They have, therefore, no self-interest in improving the system. Even electorally there has been little pressure. State school parents have been staggeringly quiescent in the face of failing schools. Where are the parents of the pupils at the Battersea Technology College? Why have they not picketed the school demanding improvements?

The left stands condemned for its lumpen commitment to a dissident educational culture. Many teachers have evidently relished the gulf between their methods and "traditional" education and they like having the private sector as a loathsome, privileged adversary to fire their radical delusions. Some of the work set in even highly regarded comprehensives is a joke - politically loaded with hard-left assumptions and quite useless for the children. Far from being "child-centred" this kind of teaching relegates children to being pawns of an illiterate political will.

We have, therefore, a colossal educational blockage that is effectively guaranteeing chronic social division. It is difficult to imagine a system more calculated to deny opportunity to the gifted child of poor parents, nor, in its institutionalisation of low expectations, one more finely tuned to deny help to the average or below-average. And, meanwhile, the clever rich have no incentive to address the problem.

It is in this context that the Manchester Grammar School move - arising from a campaign by the Tory MP George Walden - was so significant. It showed awareness of the seriousness of the problem. If a large number of private schools as good as MGS could be, as it were, renationalised while retaining their standards, then the status of the public sector would be enhanced and the private sector subjected to real competition - rather than simply sustaining itself as a necessary refuge from a discredited state system.

But that initiative is sadly, for the moment, politically marginal. It was no more than coolly acknowledged by Gillian Shephard and John Major. The blockage endures, sustaining complacency on the right and breeding ranting monsters on the left. Meanwhile an abominably abused generation is leaving school incapable of coping with or even being aware of the demands and pressures of a globalised economy and the competitive assault of the highly trained millions in the East.

In this context Stefan Simms and friends become more than an outbreak of spring fever. They become the most extreme symptom of the blocked system. Most of their colleagues may be less photogenically crazed, but an alarming number - as this week's union votes demonstrate - have a commitment to the total avoidance of any measure of educational achievement other than the continued employment of all teachers, however incompetent. They also advertise the perpetuation of an ideology that sees teachers as the masters rather than the servants of society. They wish to use our children as a means of changing the world whether we like it or not.

The best hope is that parents do not take comfort from the few hopeful straws in the educational wind, but rather grow angry at the whole spectacle. Their alliance with the teachers in resisting the increasing size of classes was a start. It is somewhat wrong-headed in that class size is a relatively small issue when set against the fatal inertia of the whole blocked system. And it is hard to understand why parents joined up to that campaign when they could have been besieging all those dismally low-achieving comprehensives at the bottom of the league tables. After all, the sufferings of exported animals are as nothing when set against the hopelessness of systematically deprived children.

Nevertheless, it demonstrated concern and the one positive thing that may emerge from the hounding of David Blunkett would be a significant increase in that concern. For the real lesson of the ranters is that they exist at all. Our educational system still has such low social status that it can employ such people and we have grown so nihilistic that we consign children to their care. Parental revulsion would be a powerful and hopeful new political force. So, on that basis, keep up the good work, Stefan.

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