The Passing of a Country Grammar School
The Best Policy? Honesty in education 1997-2001
Paul Francis, 2001
Liberty Books (Much Wenlock Shropshire TF13 6JQ)
256pp paperback £8.00 ISBN 0-9520568-4-4
Review by Derek Gillard
© copyright Derek Gillard 2001
Written over two years and completed in the run up to the 2001 General Election, Paul Francis's book is an analysis of the way the Labour government's policy on education during its first term was undermined by dishonesty.
In his opening chapter, In Margaret Thatcher's Shadow, he dates the introduction of dishonesty in education policy-making to the Thatcher period. Since then, education ministers have shown 'a crude, aggressive manner, putting forward their own views and putting teachers down, ignoring expertise or criticism; a distaste for evidence, argument and consultation, with a reluctance to look seriously at examples in the past or in other countries; and a denial of their own responsibility and the damage they have done.'
Moving on to the New Labour government in Chapter 2, he discusses 'spin, expertise and the real world' and notes with disappointment the New-Labourisation of people like Michael Barber and Tom Bentley. He itemises changes in Labour policy and attitudes from opposition to government. In opposition, Stephen Byers had attacked the Tories' City Technology Colleges as 'a scandalous waste of money when our schools are starved of resources.' In government, Byers became 'the prophet of "naming and shaming"'. There is, as you would expect, much about Blunkett: 'The David Blunkett who worked for Sheffield ... believed in quality education for all.' What a pity, says Francis, that in government he rounded on teachers, accusing them of denying diversity, underplaying excellence, pouring cold water on aspiration and expectation and much more. And there was, of course, his infamous volte-face on selection.
Chapter 3 looks at the treatment of schools and teachers by the media. 'The Ridings was a tabloid dream. Within a month, you had every element an editor could want: pupils assaulting staff, staff threatening a strike, criticisms of the local authority, a head resigning, an inspection hit squad, worried parents, suspended pupils, a school closure, and the arrival of a superhead to sort it out.'
He analyses the methods of the press. Margaret Meek questioned some of the assumptions behind the teaching of literacy. An anonymous Mail on Sunday article introduced her as 'archetypally Politically Correct reader emeritus at London's prestigious Institute of Education'. Paul Francis comments, 'Before we hear a word from her, we are invited to dismiss her as pretentious and dishonest.'
Chapter 4 is a detailed account and critique of the work of Chris Woodhead as head of Ofsted, his antipathy towards teachers and his contempt for any research which did not support his own views. The section on 'The Woodhead Affair' makes particularly fascinating reading.
The grotesque regime of testing and league tables with which schools are now faced is examined in Chapter 5. Francis notes Bob Schaeffer's comment that American schools have become 'test preparation centres'.
The inequalities in state education provision are described in Chapter 6, The Lottery Boom. The unequal funding of schools from TVEI to 'specialist' schools, the pernicious effects of selection, the impossible hurdles parents have to jump to get rid of grammar schools, the divisiveness of religious schools and private education, the undesirable side-effects of parental choice and the 'secret strategy' to get rid of mixed-ability teaching are all analysed.
Chapter 7, Leadership and Lies, looks at the role of the head and government attitudes to it - 'failing heads', 'superheads', 'fresh start' and the rest. Margaret Hodge's trip to Switzerland provided her with insights into what can be achieved by giving teachers 'freedom, power and respect.' Nothing seems to have come of it. Paul Francis concludes, 'We shall not get real improvements until those in power develop the honesty to welcome such insights and look at the business of leadership rationally, without the tribal drums.'
Teachers are the subject of Chapter 8. Low morale, the crisis in recruitment and the huge number of teachers leaving the profession - or planning to leave - have persuaded Lord Puttnam that teachers must avoid 'being seen as a figure on whom change is imposed and, instead, to take on a pro-active role as architect of change.' Stirring stuff, says Paul Francis, but what is needed is for those in control to recognise that 'there is a place for expertise.'
Chapter 9, Honesty in School, looks at relationships between parents, staff and pupils. Paul Francis concludes, 'Our main commitment is not to supporting the government, improved statistics or a rosy view of life, but to clarity of vision and rigorous thought.'
In his final chapter, Free at Last, Francis analyses the devastating effects on schools of politicians' lies and deceits, their refusal to listen and their dismissal of any evidence or opinion which contradicts their own. He insists there is an alternative:
My vision of primary education starts from a recognition that children's creative thought and action lie at the heart of educational experience from infancy and that the primary classroom, at its best, is the setting for a provocative engagement with culture, shared between a teacher and her class. ... We need to build an education system which isn't dependent on political gimmickry.Paul Francis taught in comprehensive schools for more than thirty years. He is an avid reader of books on education and a collector of press cuttings on the subject. He knows what he is talking about and clearly cares passionately about the education our children receive. There is a huge amount of information in this book. But there is more than that - there is critical analysis and informed opinion.
The Best Policy is compulsive reading (I read it in two afternoons) and will appeal to all those who, like Paul Francis, would like to see some honesty in education policy-making. I'd like to think it will be read - and its message taken to heart - by Estelle Morris, but having heard her dismissive attitude to the teacher unions' response to her proposal for American-style 'graduation ceremonies' on BBC Radio 4's Today programme this morning (26 June 2001), I'm not holding my breath ...