David Blunkett is Secretary of State for Education and the author of a crushingly boring autobiography (On A Clear Day). Unless, of course, you like long, trivial stories about his dog upsetting the dignity of some eminent person (“We all enjoyed a good laugh . . .”). Or dollops of self-admiration garnished in mock modesty (“I believe that, at the time, Neil Kinnock thought I had let him down . . . whereas, as he later generously ackowledged . . .”). And the poetry—too embarrassing to repeat in a journal meant for a placid socialist readership. Any teacher who addressed their class as Blunkett does his readers would very soon lose control of the kids.
This is not to say that Blunkett does not sometimes let slip some arousing comment. A recent example was his statement that poverty is not an excuse for a school failing to meet the GCSE pass targets set by the government. “Cynics out there” was how he described anyone who accepts what seem to many people a self-evident fact, namely that “. . . school performance is all about socio-economics and the areas that these schools are located in”. That is another way of saying that only cynics would question whether a school in, say, a run-down part of Hackney should be expected to produce the same level of achievement as Eton or Harrow. It is another way of saying that if a school does fail to meet its targets that must be due to the teachers, who in Hackney are lazy and stodgy while at Eton and Harrow they are industrious and charismatic.
We have heard this kind of criticism of workers before. We hear it when companies go broke, or when governments are swamped by an economic crisis. Then we are told that all the problems are due to greedy, short-sighted workers. When the crime statistics are published we are informed that offending is not the blindly despairing act of people who are trapped in the dirt and decay of inner cities or rural slumdom but the behaviour of people who are intrinsically anti-social. When pensioners die of hypothermia they are chided because they have not learned how to keep warm in an unheated home.
Blunkett should have a word with his fellow minister Jack Straw, who was once Labour’s Shadow for Education. In those days Straw did not seem to have any doubts about the cause of struggling schools. At the 1987 Labour conference he told the delegates that ” . . . there is only one culprit responsible for falling standards (in education)—the government which has been in power since 1979″. Two years later he returned to the theme, denouncing “a government that blames teachers for the ills of Thatcherite society” and promising that, far from harrassing them, Labour would “…train teachers better, support them better and, yes, reward teachers better”.
Of course in those days it was safe to make that kind of a speech. Like Straw’s 1987 complaint that “. . . the weakness of the Cabinet’s commitment to public education is shown by the fact that all its ministers have sent their children to private schools” and that as a result of the Tory government’s cuts in spending on education “the morale of the teaching profession has been destroyed”. Well this government’s persistent attacks on teachers have not exactly resuscitated their morale and one reason is that so many Labour leaders, like the Tories before them, have placed their children in private schools.
For his part, Blunkett has never been been among the wilder animals in the swamps of left-wingery. In July 1987, for example, in an article in the Independent, he claimed that the Thatcher government were stealing Labour policies when they declared war on the “dependency culture”—which did not mean the system which allows the ruling class to live off the exploitation of the workers but the few people whose means were so reduced they relied on state hand outs to survive. The repressive attitudes implied in that article have been all too evident in Blunkett since he was put in charge of the schools, for he has been pre-occupied with the results culture, the obsession with exam results which has millions of neurotic parents scanning the league tables to see how their childrens’ school has done—knowing that head master Blunkett will wreak a terrible revenge if the results are not good enough. There have been other Blunkett policies which have given offence—for example his sturdy championing of the odious Chris Woodhead, the boss of the dreaded OFSTED, when it was revealed that Woodhead’s, er, private life did not live up to the standards his inspectors demand of teachers and pupils.
So it is hardly surprising that Blunkett should feel the need to attack the notion that bad social conditions have an effect on schools just as they do on health, crime, families . . . His evidence for saying that poverty is not an excuse for a failing school is, not surprisingly, supplied by his own Department, who say that schools with low exam results exist in areas other than run down inner cities. So what? The results may be due to a number of factors which are conveniently left unilluminated but Blunkett, in an exercise in logic which would be unacceptable coming from a ten year old pupil, chooses to draw the conclusion which suits his already formed opinion—that teachers are to blame and must be punished, sacked, driven out in revenge.
Watch My Lips . . .
In any case nobody, least of all the teachers, would argue that the skill and sensitivity with which a subject is taught does not make a difference. The skills of teachers vary, just like the skills of people in other jobs—for example politicians, who can be very clever in the lies they tell and the manner in which they cover up their failures. And then again they can be embarrassingly clumsy. As was Blunkett, when he was on the spot about his policy on schools selection, which is now in such sharp contrast to the statement he made to the Labour Party conference in 1995: “Watch my lips, no selection, either by examination or interview, under a Labour government”. When he was faced with this, Blunkett chose to defend himself with the feeble protest that his 1995 statement was a joke. This may have been more convincing if, as he was receiving the delegates’ rapturous applause, he had said something like “Well wait a second. You know me, always ready for a laugh. That was a joke. When I get into office there will be selection because we’ll be a government which is too scared of the Daily Mail to do otherwise”. This shabby episode brings up the question of what sort of a role model Blunkett is to the teachers he so persistently harasses about their professional standards.
The evidence that conditions outside the schools have a more powerful, eventually decisive, influence is overwhelming. The Guardian of 6 March described a school in Brighton where 45 percent of the pupils conform to the generally accepted measurement of poverty—they have free school meals. Many of them come from families struggling to survive under the stress of long term unemployment, on an estate where life has always been that bit harder. What kind of material do the teachers there have to work with? Unsurprisingly, some of the pupils are on drugs—the police suspect they are working for a drugs syndicate from Scotland. One boy was a male prostitute on the sea-front. A former pupil, 17 years old, was murdered on a rubbish tip next to the school. A pupil was accused of helping in the murder of another pupil’s brother.
The Real World
Of course exceptionally brave, talented teachers might hope to have some effect in that kind of situation. What actually happened , as is to be expected in the real world away from Blunkett’s cruel fantasies, was that the teachers simply collapsed under the strain—like politicians often do, when their failure to control capitalism becomes too obvious. One teacher died, it was thought through a stress related illness; another disappeared. Several developed serious illnesses including two cancers. Others had nervous breakdowns. Because that is how poverty deals with people who are trying to make sense of this society—in their homes, their jobs, their schools. Peter Mortimore, director of London University Institute of Education, put it that “All the work of school improvement professionals shows that schools can make a difference, but they cannot completely overcome the effects of disadvantage.”
And what if we applied the standards which Blunkett imposes on the teachers to people like him—to the political leaders? What if they were to be judged on their failures, their impotence and the deceptions they use to conceal this reality? Should we punish them? Or wouldn’t it be better to close down their organs of power and make them redundant?