All Must Have Prizes By Melanie Phillips Little, Brown pounds 17.50

The author takes important topics and gives them a distorted analysis

Ted Wragg
Thursday 12 September 1996 23:02
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Take a few prejudices. Lace them liberally with anecdotes. Add some quotes from like-minded mates. Shake them vigorously. Filter out as many facts as possible. Pour into stiff covers and serve chilled. Have you done all that? Then congratulations. You have just written Melanie Phillips's book.

The pity of it is that the author takes important topics, like education and family life, and then gives a distorted analysis of what she chronicles as the immense inadequacy of teachers and parents. Any suggestions of success, like improved exam results, are soon recast as further evidence of failure. Teachers are accused of moral relativism, propagating "the doctrine that no value or activity can be held to be any better or worse than any other".

I have met thousands of teachers in my professional life, but not a single one who holds that view. Where are these monsters who believe that murder and pillage are no better or worse than kindness and benevolence? Ms Phillips should identify them so they can be locked away. If anything, teachers are usually regarded as moral prigs by their pupils, endlessly exhorting them to behave themselves, be considerate to others, pick up litter.

The chapter headings reveal the predominant tone of the book: "The de- education of Britain", "The destruction of morality", "The disordered child". The nation, it is claimed, has gone to the dogs.

Yet a third of the population now enters higher education. Even if degree standards have slipped, as we have moved from an elite to a mass system, the fact remains that thousands of children, who would have left school with no qualifications at all when fewer than 10 per cent went to university, now obtain a degree.

The selective and anecdotal nature of what passes for "evidence" is revealed in the many referenced footnotes. Of the first 18 references in one chapter, 10 are cited as "Conversation with the author", "Private correspondence with the author" or "Author's sources". A further four are from the right-wing pamphleteers Caroline Cox and John Marks.

Throughout the book, quotes from what are called "political insiders" figure prominently and are used uncritically. No prizes for guessing to which political party these powerful shadows belong.

Ms Phillips tries to disarm criticisms of political bias, denying that she has "journeyed from the political left to the right". Not only the principles of her critique, however, but also the perceived villains are indistinguishable from the right-wing polemical tracts that she quotes with such uncritical approval.

Thus the influence of John Dewey, the American philosopher, was "malign, revolutionary and destructive", exactly as argued by the right-wing philosopher Anthony O'Hear, and by John Major's political adviser. Yet in Experience and Education Dewey insisted that teachers may have to intervene more if children are to learn from their experience. Phillips discusses such assertions as the belated apologies of someone whose ideas did not work.

Academics in university education departments are among Phillips' chief villains. I found myself labelled as a trendy who ridicules the use of phonics in the teaching of reading, calling it "phobics". What a pity she could not bring herself to say that I am actually the author of Flying Boot, a reading scheme (Oops! we're supposed to be against schemes) which makes considerable use of phonics, or that the article she quotes was actually satirising hysterical and ill-informed journalism, not the use of phonics. Professor Tony Edwards of Newcastle University is lambasted for saying that curriculum reforms offered "ample scope for subversion". He was actually quoting a DES official. But why spoil a decent prejudice with a few facts?

Authoritarianism, of which she wants more, is viewed uncritically. Theodor Adorno's 1950 analysis The Authoritarian Personality, is simply put aside. It may be an imperfect analysis, but at least it tried to illuminate how civilised nations, like Germany and Italy, had unquestioningly obeyed a single dictator.

The most laughable sections of the book are those that blame educationalists for the cock-ups in testing and the national curriculum.It was actually people working in education who pointed out in advance the disasters about to happen. Julian Haviland, in his book Take Care, Mr Baker!, analysed nearly 12,000 replies to the 1987 national curriculum consultation document. Even though many respondents wanted a national curriculum, every single one rejected the version being put forward.

Melanie Phillips should do better than this. She is a good writer, but she prescribes rigour for others, then eschews it herself. As one critic put it, after reading The Observer's two-page summary of her book, "This is crap by anybody's standards."(1) Prejudices, anecdotes, distortions, followed by a lame "solution", are no substitute for proper analysis.

References:

(1) Fat bloke in pub, September 1996.

The author is professor of education at Exeter University.

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