Haunted by Shirley Williams and her truckload of dead albatrosses
It is a sad feature of public speaking, which I have often remarked, that audi- ences listen only to what they expect to hear. If ever a speaker is unwise enough to say something which he was not expected to say, the audience may switch off and think about something else, but it is more likely to decide that he is, in fact, saying what he was expected to say, but saying it rather badly. In either case, he will be treated at the end of the day as if he had made the speech which everyone was prepared to hear, and congratulated or reviled accordingly.
This is rather what seems to have hap- pened to the Department of Education's report on Brent schools. As soon as we learned that Mr Baker was sending inspec- tors into the borough after its harassment of Miss Maureen McGoldrick, the infant school headmistress, we rubbed our hands and licked our lips. Now we were going to read all about the insane 'anti-racist' edicts of a hard left council which, we would be told, insisted on filling all appointments on racial grounds and forced Caribbean stu- dies with Marxist indoctrination on all pupils at the expense of ordinary lessons.
In the event, the inspectors' report says nothing of the sort. Very little of the blame for what is wrong with education in Brent attaches to the left-wing council. Its trou- bles are more long-standing than that; until last year, Brent was run by a Conservative- Liberal coalition. Nor do the inspectors take the opposite view, saying that what is wrong with education in Brent is the latent racialism of the system, or insufficient funds, or both. Instead of either of these stock political responses, we have a fasci- nating and thorough Report (Educational Provision in the Outer London Borough of Brent, available from DoE, Honeypot Lane, Stanmore, Middlesex) which might well serve as a model for the entire tendency of primary and secondary state education in Britain. Obviously there are some local authorities which hold out against the same pressures. There are some schools which still set a very high standard, even some which have actually improved in recent years, following a change of head- master or a fall in numbers. But the tendency, I would maintain, is discernible throughout Britain, however valiantly it may be resisted here and there. Brent is merely the vanguard.
Let us examine its special characteristics. In the first place, the inspectors reveal that far from having too few teachers, or insufficient money to spend on equipment or books, Brent's secondary schools have the best teacher/pupil ratio in the country, and the amount it spends per pupil £1,800 a year — is nearly the highest in the • country. Schools were in many cases half- empty and over-staffed, with teachers spending less than half their time in the class-room. Despite the over-staffing, teaching posts were often left vacant for long periods of time and supply teachers unnecessarily employed. Unmarked work, poor discipline, poor exam results and a failure to write school reports were all resented by parents. 'Schools are in a poor state of repair and decoration,' said the inspectors, adding somewhat lamely: `These problems and weaknesses do not arise from a lack of money for education. Brent is a higher spender by comparison with other local education authorities. It is difficult to conclude that money has been spent advisedly.'
Other, more exciting conclusions might be available — that the more money spent, the more teachers employed, the worse the results, for instance. But I do not think that a graph of local authorities' expenditure on education against results would bear out any necessary connection between the two. Four of the 18 secondary schools in Brent have fairly respectable exam results. It could well be the case, however, that where there are bad teachers having more of them makes things worse rather than better. Brent council education chairman, Mr Ron Anderson, meets criticisms in the Report by saying that the council will make 'determined efforts' to recruit more teachers with an advertising campaign. And so we go on.
But of course other explanations are possible. My fellow-expert on state secon- dary education, Mr Peregrine Worsthorne, who wrote on the subject this Sunday, does not blame the teachers at all: Good teachers abound in the state system. Right-wing propaganda to the effect that they arc all a lot of lefty trendies is ludicrous- ly wide of the mark; as wide of the mark as all the stuff about British workers being idle lay-abouts. The root of the trouble . . is excessive trade union power.
We none of us believe all that stuff about British workers, of course, and I have no doubt that good teachers abound. Trade union power, as Mr Worsthorne points out, has endless deleterious effects. But the problem is not the abounding good teachers so much as the even greater abundance of bad teachers. Has Mr Wors- thorne ever examined the curriculum at a teachers' training college, or studied the dreadful, wet products of these softening- down establishments? Let us examine some of the inspectors' other findings.
Discipline throughout was poor. In class- rooms 'disaffected pupils were hindering others' progress'. In half the schools, be- haviour in the corridors was rowdy and sometimes interfered with lessons. Chil- dren of all races and sexes were under- achieving:
Many low attainers were being left without an adequate grasp of basic skills and the potentially more able pupils did not realise or even recognise their potential. . . . A persistent problem — not uncommon in the country at large — is the failure to match work to pupils' different needs and abilities, particularly in mixed ability classes.
The key phrase in this passage, which might have been used as the title of H.M. Inspectors' entire report, is surely: not uncommon in the country at large. Brent, with its insalubrious, dingy neighbour- hoods and its rootless, 'socio-economic' inhabitants is undoubtedly an advanced case.
But whoever supposed that these 'mixed ability classes' — the polite way to describe unstreamed comprehensives — were a good idea in the first place? They were a by-product of all the silly, bossy ideas about education which Mrs Shirley Wil- liams took under her wing as young chicks in 1967. Grown to ugly ducklings by 1976, when she returned to the DoE, they have now grown into Brent geese.
As the inspectors point out, Brent has worse problems than the loss of education- al books which have been banned for alleged racist material. So do we all have worse problems while the spirit of Shirley Williams goes marching on. In time, her Brent geese will hang round the nation's neck like a truckload of dead albatrosses. But the real problem, almost unique to Britain according to the testimony of those who have taught abroad, is that British children no longer wish to learn.