Richard Garner, 30+ years of education reporting, reflects on the meddling of politicians, the end of corporal punishment and the devastating effect of restoring grammar schools
Easter this year was a strange time for me. I watched cricket in the freezing cold, went to a movie and took a friend out to dinner – hardly surprising activities for any normal person.
But for the past 38 years, I had been at teachers’ union conferences reporting on the cut and thrust of debate over the future direction of education. Yet here I was just listening to details of the conferences on the radio as I came to in the morning.
When I started as an education correspondent in 1978 (for the mathematicians amongst you, yes, I did have one year off for good behaviour – reverting to general news reporting), there was no national curriculum, school inspection reports weren’t made public, there was no national curriculum, SATs had not even been dreamed of and children were regularly beaten with the cane. True, it was in the early years of my spell reporting education, that a Conservative researcher came up with the idea of taking schools out of local authority – but it was a long time before this thought chrysalised into the academies and free school movement we have today.
One thing hasn’t changed, though – there was still an ongoing debate about selection with then Education Secretary Shirley Williams contemplating forcing the remaining grammar schools to go comprehensive. When I retired from full-time education reporting just over a year ago, I could reflect we had survived various right-wing politicians – Margaret Thatcher and Michael Gove come to mind – without reverting to a return to operating a selective system throughout the country. I reckoned I could be forgiven for breathing a sigh of relief and thinking we had escaped that one. Then along came Theresa May, the vicar’s daughter who resented her grammar school being turned into a comprehensive whilst she was a pupil – or, more accurately, her right-hand man and adviser, Nicholas Timothy.
‘Abolition of corporal punishment had the most beneficial effect on education’
It does not take any great genius to come to the conclusion that schools have been subjected to more than their fair share of meddling by politicians during my 38 years reporting on the subject. Some changes have obviously been for the good. I think the policy change that had the most beneficial effect on education during that time was the abolition of corporal punishment.
Yet it happened in spite of politicians – who were reluctant to bring forward the measure fearing the impact it might have in right-wing heartlands where people went to sleep at night savouring the prospect of children other than theirs being soundly beaten for their sins – than because of them. It came about because of a European Court ruling that parents had the right to declare that their children should not be beaten at school – and enough Conservative MPs rebelled against their Government’s line that this should be strictly implemented with the result that you could get a situation where – if two pupils were guilty of the same offence – you could beat one of them but not the other. Instead, they backed abolition.
The other major achievement this time through politicians was a rise in literacy and numeracy standards amongst primary school pupils whioch was most marked during David Blunkett’s reign as Education Secretary. We still have headlines about the scandal of illiteracy but the fact is that Blunkett’s reforms – introducing a literacy hour and a daily maths lesson – foreshadowed the first rise in literacy standards since the Second World War, according to the respected National Foundation for Education Research.
‘Disadvantage no excuse for failure’
If I had to pick out the two best Education Secretaries to serve during my time, I would opt for David Blunkett and Kenneth (now Lord) Baker. Blunkett helped to instil a thought throughout the system that disadvantage was no excuse for failure – a clarion call later adopted by Michael Gove. Kenneth Baker gave us that national curriculum, a more pupil friendly SATs system than the one we have now and local management of schools – allowing heads to run their own budgets rather than rely upon their local authority. All of these were changes for the better.
So what was for the worse? Constant budget cuts under Conservative administrations, the plan put forward under the Coalition government that all new schools should be free schools, thus refusing to allow local authorities to plan for a rise in the birth rate by opening new schools, Tony Blair’s summary rejection of the proposals by the Tomlinson inquiry for putting academic and vocational education on an equal footing by introducing an overarching diploma embracing the two strands – as a result of which we are nowhere near producing people with the skills necessary to run a vibrant economy – and the decision to scrap compulsory language lessons for 14 to 16-year-olds (also taken under the Blair regime when education, education and education were supposed to be the Government’s top three priorities).
However, if I had to choose one proposal which would have the most devastating effect on the education sysatem, it is Theresa May’s plan to restore selection and create new grammar schools. Why doesn’t she have the decency to admit that what follows if you create more grammar schools is the creation of more secondary modern schools and nobody but nobody would campaign for that? Thankfully Parliamentary arithmetic and the demise of her senior adviser Nick Timothy – who was the main architect of the proposal – mean that it is now likely to be put on the back burner.
Richard Garner is the author of a new book, The Thirty Years War: My Life Reporting on education which is available from www.johncattbookshop.com/the-thirty-years-war-my-life-reporting-on-education Price £14