Keep It Simple, Stupid by Professor Maurice Holt

KISS is of course well-known management advice, urging restraint rather than complexity. And it chimes well with the doctrine of slow: taking time to read the runes and identify the real issues always beats rushing ahead with elaborate plans. So how do English education ministers measure up to this advice? Since 1944, I can think of only three ministers of education who avoided doing harm and even did some good. They realised the limitations of power, and the need to encourage rather than dictate. The first was George Tomlinson, in the Attlee government: when asked if he would change the curriculum, he replied: “Minister knows nowt about t’curriculum.” He realised it was the central issue of schooling, best left to the professionals. Next, I’d applaud the admirable Sir Edward Boyle in the Macmillan government, who acknowledged that a student’s intelligence was not a fixed, innate capability, but could be extended and enhanced by good schooling. Boyle also helped establish the Schools Council in 1964. Soon after, Antony Crosland became an advocate for comprehensive schools and set about promoting them in a civilised way: instead of commanding their immediate introduction, he simply invited local education authorities to submit plans. All three of these ministers recognised that a prescriptive approach to curriculum could be counter-productive, that discussion should precede action. and little can be achieved without the support of teachers and schools.

So much for the three heroes of this piece. What of the others? First up is Shirley Williams, of whom much was hoped: but although the need to merge CSE and GCE into a single examination at 16-plus (GCSE) was staring her in the face in 1978, she ducked it. Thereafter, it’s a story of steady decline, beginning with Sir Keith Joseph, who arrived in office totally committed to right-wing neoliberal theories. Eventually he self-destructed, but not before clearing the way for his successor, the hyperactive Kenneth Baker, who so proudly introduced the disastrous 1988 Education Act. Yet it was passed with Labour support: how did this happen? Well, some on the political left thought that national agreement on the school curriculum made sense: after all, the French have made one work for a very long time. And others thought that student tests, if sensibly constructed, might improve teaching and even reduce the emphasis on exams. How wrong they were! The “national curriculum” finally emerged as an unworkable aggregate of subject-based content, while the age-related tests – instead of being used to sample the pupil population nationally, as expected – were applied to every single student in the country. The cost of using properly crafted tests by the million would have been enormous: so primitive multiple-choice tests became government policy. And in addition, hordes of inspectors were to descend regularly on schools to ensure the word of Parliament was carried out to the letter, which in effect destroyed the old concept of the HMI as an experienced professional. The result is the expensive creation known as Ofsted – and no other developed country has anything remotely like it.

Most seriously, the 1988 Act gave supreme power to the minister, and once the local education authorities were rendered impotent by New Labour in 1997, there were no countervailing forces to moderate the will of the appointee. Even so, hopes soared that sense would prevail, and that teaching would be given back to the teachers. But with the fervent support of Mr Blair, David Blunkett soon made sure that schools would be driven not by educational aspiration but by the terror resulting from “league tables” of exam performance. So, in a curious way, the wheel has come full circle: one could say of Blunkett and all his successors, “Minister knows nowt about t’curriculum.” Such is progress. But as slow education extends its appeal, there is hope: more of it, indeed, than for many a moon. And as another school year begins, we can savour the tonic effects of the slow approach on this website.

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