New Times,
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  1. Long reads
29 November 1999

Next: the Hard Peas Action Zone?

Focus on education - Ted Wraggexplains the Piccadilly Circus theory of educational change:

By Ted Wragg

Whatever happened to social priority schools? Where did O-levels go? Is the Schools Council still a radical force for curriculum change? Anyone want an out-of-date nursery voucher for the nostalgia album?

Every year, sometimes every week, a new idea is produced in education which, its begetter insists, will solve all our problems. It might be in the form of a structure, such as the Schools Council (which used to be the supreme national body responsible for the curriculum and examinations) or it could be a curriculum package in a particular subject.

Most miracle cures expire almost immediately. Some surge ahead, then falter and finally lurch to their grave. Others, such as O-levels, enjoy 30 years, before becoming an “overseas only” option. Many wheezes lapse but then re-emerge, like daffodil bulbs at the first signs of spring.

The educational priority areas of the 1960s and 1970s were set up to combat deprivation in cities such as Liverpool. It was then argued that whole areas are not necessarily deprived, but individual schools might be, so priority areas begat social priority schools. Their teachers got higher salaries and more money for books and equipment. “Compensatory education”, the trendy label of the day, was eventually deemed to be politically incorrect, so this type of affirmative action was killed off by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, only to be rediscovered exultantly today as education action zones. This proves the Piccadilly Circus view of educational development: wait long enough and all your old friends will come by again. They may look older, or be wearing a wig, have had a face-lift, or even a heart and lung transplant, but they are recognisable.

The metaphor may be circular, like the merry-go-round, or a linear zigzag, like Hegel’s notion of thesis, antithesis and synthesis. It may even be a spiral. Optimists believe that educational developments spiral upwards, each new circuit fractionally better than before. Pessimists support the opposite view: that we are spiralling downwards into an abyss of mediocrity, which can only be arrested by the reintroduction of caning, the Higher School Certificate, hard peas for school dinners and cold showers.

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Some wheezes have a very short half-life. John Major’s scheme for a “mums’ army” of infant school teachers was strangled at birth. The suggestion was that ordinary parents could, after a very brief induction, teach in infant schools, on the grounds that these children were only little, so it would hardly matter if their teachers were relatively clueless. The idea was rejected by mums themselves, who took a dim view of someone else’s untrained mum teaching their Marmaduke.

Nursery vouchers came and went within two years. Every parent of a four-year-old child was given a voucher to “spend” on any approved school, public or private. Tory right-wingers saw it as a test-bed for introducing vouchers for all schools. But Lord Moneybags gleefully used his voucher to defray the £10,000-a-year fees at the Mayfair Private Nursery Academy for Young Gents. The experiment led to the closure of hundreds of playgroups, as infant schools cheerfully joined the dogfight and collected as many vouchers as they could. So much for the market widening choice. A bright idea that had a longer life was the Schools Council, which Thatcher and her ministers hated because it was dominated by the teachers’ unions.

Most of its members were sensible, but one or two were silly, so it was shut down and reconstituted as the School Curriculum and Development Council. There followed 15 years of administrative mayhem. First of all, it was reformed again into two separate councils: one for curriculum, which was sent up to York, the other for examinations, which stayed in London.

Within no time, this was thought to be a stupid division, so the York curriculum branch was biked back to London and the two fused once more, this time as the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, which was then reorganised yet again as the present Qualifications and Curriculum Authority. Some of its employees have worked for more clubs than Ron Atkinson. The process of travelling up to York and back at great expense to somebody’s purse, in this case the public’s, is known as the Dick Turpin strategy of educational reform.

Public or political attitudes of the day can be very influential on these roller-coaster switches in attitude or practice. No better example of this exists than sex education. The nation divides on this topic between those who think schools should teach sex education, and those who believe that, if a subject is on the curriculum, children will rush out to put into practice what they have learnt, something that never seems to have happened in the case of modern languages. Sex education is the one subject where discovery methods are never used. Governments sometimes lean towards those members of the House of Lords who want it banned. Other times – when Aids became an issue, for example – they strongly support it.

As someone who belongs to the beetroot-faced generation of educators, I have to declare an interest here, or rather a lack of it. We of the “thingies” and “whatsits” era cannot adjust to the upfront approach. There are certain things I will do for Britain, but slipping a condom on to a banana in front of the grinning acne brigade is not one of them. Coy teachers put on a video and leave the room (the withdrawal method), dose themselves on Prozac (the pill method), play a ghettoblaster at top volume so no one can hear (the rhythm method) or stand with a bag over their head (the sheath method).

One of the biggest hazards with ideas that come and go is the proliferation of jargon and acronyms. The Schools Council story described above turned SC into SCDC, then into NCC and SEAC, next into SCAA, and now into QCA. Get your alphabet soup wrong and you are labelled out-of-date.

Remember TVEI, the Technical and Vocational Education Initiative? Launched in 1982, it gave pupils aged 14 to 18 a taster of various forms of possible future employment. It led to some exciting and innovative teaching.

TVEI neatly illustrates the life cycle of ideas of this kind. It began in lavishly funded form. Schools in the first wave of programmes, like city technology colleges ten years later, were dripping with computers, extra staff, new workshops, the lot. Back itching? Scratch it with a computer. Later manifestations were much more modestly funded. By 1987, when the newly elected Conservative government launched its post-election programme, TVEI earned about a one-sentence mention in a consultation paper about the proposed new national curriculum. From hero to zero inside a decade.

Yet the wondrous jargon that such vocational courses generated has survived, like genetic material in a glacier-encased corpse. Nowadays the curriculum is “delivered”, which is fine for milk and the morning mail, but not perhaps for English, maths and music. In national vocational qualifications, we have “range statements”, “underpinning knowledge/understanding”, “performance criteria” and many more. “Excreta of the male bovine organism”, you could call it.

The sensible thing to do, if you work in education, is to try to maintain some stability by seizing the best of what is enduring, while incorporating judiciously what is novel but effective. Education action zones can be better than educational priority areas if we recall and recast the best ideas from the latter. Eric Midwinter, who directed the Liverpool EPA, skilfully won the support of the whole community and some of the high-profile figures in it, such as the comedian Ken Dodd.

The alternative is to stay ahead of the fashion game, ignore past and present ideas and pretend you are permanently in front of the trend. Find a current fad and publish a piece that demolishes it using trigger title words such as “beyond”. For example, write a book called “Post- faddism: beyond the millennium”. Remember always to be “post” whatever is in vogue at the time: postmodern, post- millennial, post-constructivist or, if you’re “delivering” the curriculum, Postman Pat.

The writer is professor of education at Exeter University

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