Monday, 18 January 2010

Elitism in British education and society

It's a clever move by Cameron, you have to give him that. In the days of tight budgets, the declaration that he is going to raise the entry profile for teachers above third-degree entrants in act of "Brazen Elitism" is smart because it's simple. It will cost nothing (a few quid on PGCE subsidy is a drop in the salary ocean); it will be divisive amongst teachers on subject and age lines; it appeals to the idea that you can raise the bar by setting high aspirations (without reference to actual teaching change); it delights the traditionalist right-wing press because it is tacitly blaming teachers for educational failure; it steals Ed Balls' every-teacher-should-do-an-MA-thunder without either (a) the cost or (b) the risk of educating a profession more fully. Most worryingly, it's a brilliant steal of stupid teachers' votes, because idiots in the profession will think it designed to enhance the prestige of their role. Witness the patronising flag-waving of the opening paragraphs of the Telegraph article on the news, guaranteed to fool some.

It's also nonsense as recruitment strategy. Raising the bar of a profession does nothing to fundamentally affect the status of a profession. Changing the conditions / rights / most of all, salaries of a profession does; Fiona Millar in the Guardian is much more on the ball here. What she doesn't notice, and what is surely in the sly calculations of Osborne et al is that, since Labour have returned teacher pay to a roughly decent level (despite the NUT's claims, to which I am not unsympathetic) and solved a recruitment crisis; and since the credit crunch has set in motion a managerial-dream decade of teacher oversupply from career-switchers, the next government of any colour has some degree of carte blanche about facing down teachers on pay and conditions. Cameron could have two terms treating the profession without absolute disinterest or hypocrisy and still not have to pay the price: it took a decade after Baker's introduction of National Curriculum 1 in 1988 for the vast numbers of the offended professionals to swell to crisis, and so it could be again.

This brings us to Labour's recruitment drive early in their government. Why did they work so hard on either side of the millenium to reinvigorate recruitment into teaching? I am not disposed to believe then-and-now Labour claims that they wanted to raise standards by paying teachers an attractive salary, nor the unspoken (they wouldn't dare say anything so old-Left) thought that maybe it was catch-up payback for all the years of sub-inflation Tory pay rises. Rather, their prompt was desperation - there was a staggering recruitment crisis about to happen and they (effectively, it must be conceded) averted it by high-volume recruiting, with increased salaries and a new route in. It worked. The profession is better off. Schools are better for it. Has it made a difference?

Well... we find ourselves through the looking glass here. The great sleight-of-hand tradition in which Cameron's latest policy stands is one in which the mainstream fail to break through because of the fault of some part of the mainstream. It is divide and conquer stuff. Average parents are told - by implication - that their children would do better if state school teachers were as good as private school ones (they are usually far better); average teachers, that they would be able to achieve more if average parents did a better job of instilling obedience in their offspring; we don't approve of Grammars but we understand some average aspirant parents want to open them; and so forth. Famously, 7% of children attend private schools but form 75% of the judiciary, have access to the same proportion nationally of cadet training opportunities (leading to forces officership) and half of the top civil service. Naturally, the Milburn report from which these figures are drawn drifted into quiet obscurity, mostly ignored by the government once it had the anti-Cameron headlines they afforded. Labour's gutlessness on meaningful social mobility is depressing. And can any credence really be lent to the woe-is-us-it's-all-so-unfair claims of the independent school brigade given these figures? Additionally, industries dependent on unpaid internship work - positive-potential, expanding and / or high-paid "new economy" sectors like finance, journalism, arts, management consultancy - become, apparently without any prejudice, the province yet again of those whose parents can fund this extended education, and / or have appropriate personal links to open doors.

The difference ultimately between Labour's teacher recruitment drive a decade ago and Cameron's glitz today is that, in a similarity to Fiona Millar's Guardian narrative (in which she herself back-references Francis Gilbert's same point): this would be a bar to many good teachers - and populate the profession with idiots, in some cases. I entered teaching in that early New Labour wave of recruitment through one of those new routes - and my students' results speak for themselves. Whatever the motivation, the access opportunities, rising salary, and desire to recruit well were important, rather than a narrowing of the field like Cameron proposes. And by contrast, one of the best teachers I have ever worked with, and the best manager I have ever worked for in education, got a third - and would not now be allowed to enter teaching. Blunt tools don't work. But will more people know, and think about, these comparisons from great teachers of our own experience, than are seduced by the glib Dave headline about raising standards? Haven't we learnt yet that those words almost always presage intrusive idiocy in educational policy?