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Is primary education threatened by authoritarianism?

Mark Easton | 14:48 UK time, Friday, 16 October 2009

"Schools are not in danger of subversion by 1970s ideologues," asserts today's review of primary education in England. The real risk, we are warned, comes from an "authoritarian mindset" which may threaten our very democracy.

The Cambridge Primary Review final report front cover: 'Children, their World, their Education'This is a report written by educationalists and academics who clearly want to wrestle control of our children's schooling back from what they call "top-down control and edict".

"The principle that it is not for government or government agencies to tell teachers how to teach, abandoned in 1997, should be reinstated," the report panel argues. In short, politicians should butt out of the classroom.

The review regards national tests, national teaching strategies, inspection, centrally-determined teacher training and ring-fenced finance as "suspect", creating, it is argued, a "state theory of learning".

Instead, the authors want "professional empowerment, mutual accountability and proper respect for research and experience".

Today's report is really calling for a shift in power: away from the centre to the local, from Whitehall to the white board. "[F]or the responsibilities... to be re-balanced," as the panel puts it.

Throughout the 1980s and 90s, government voices railed against "leftie" teachers and their "trendy" methods, which, it was argued, were partly responsible for the lack of discipline among young people. Schools became an ideological battleground with influential right-wing academics convincing key policy makers that dangerous Marxist extremists had occupied the staff room. Central government increasingly took control.

Today's report, with its stark warnings of "authoritarian mindset", "the disenfranchising of local voice" and "the rise of unelected and unaccountable groups taking key decisions behind closed doors" hints at a totalitarian ideology now at work in primary education.

When it comes to policy in our schools, "education appears to mirror the wider problems recorded by those who see British democracy in retreat," it suggests. Warming to its theme, the report accuses government of stifling free debate with "the use of myth and derision to... discredit alternative views".

Crikey! No surprise perhaps that government ministers have effectively responded to the review with a "thanks but no thanks". It is not just that they are being painted as latter-day Stalins, crushing any opposition. They are the ones who get it in the neck when children leave primary school unable to read or add up. They are the ones who have to justify the huge increases in spending on primary education.

The problem for central government - and this is going to be even more acutely felt if the Conservatives win the next election - is that, if you are the minister, whether or not you believe in both localism and light-touch regulation, it is you that can be horribly exposed when things go wrong.

No education secretary can stand up in the House of Commons and say: "Yes, I did read in the newspapers about that school where none of Year 6 could count up to twenty. Nothing to do with me. It's down to local teachers and, without the inspectors, I couldn't know about it anyway."

That's not to say that centralised authority backed up with tough accountability is the answer. Innovation and expertise may not flourish under the dead weight of "top-down control and edict".

Perhaps the most telling phrase in today's review reads: "The report unequivocally supports both public accountability and the raising of standards, but..." The education debate really begins with whatever follows that "but".


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