This book provides new and welcome insights into the workings of Blair’s and Brown’s governments. It is thoroughly researched, and based on interviews with key individuals.
Above all, it demonstrates convincingly that the top-down and authoritarian policy formation and implementation were no accident. Perhaps the most memorable quotation is from Blair’s first education minister, David Blunkett: “We had a crap teaching profession. We haven’t any more.”
This denigration underpinned their whole way of operating, which, according to a leading civil servant, “lost teachers’ trust in the first 12 to 18 months”. The government paid no regard to the self-esteem, agency or morale of teachers.
It is no wonder that, by undermining the professionalism of teachers, the government came to rely more and more on an inflated view of management and leadership.
There are clear lessons for England’s teachers now, under a new government: to resist while they still can. As one local government director explains, the passivity of primary school teachers with regard to the literacy strategy gave government an “insatiable appetite” to impose more and more top-down initiatives. Even policies which were more positive such as Every Child Matters were undermined by the ruthlessness of the standards agency, the constant distraction of “Cover my back” paperwork at every level, a distorted understanding of child poverty and its impact on school achievement, and a failure to draw on successful “community school” models.
Labour sought to control teaching methods and not just what was taught. They attempted to standardise teaching across England round the banal uniformity of the “three-part lesson”. As an example, the authors include the following lesson advice from the inspection agency Ofsted: “Today I want you to paint a picture of a rainbow. Here is a chart showing the colours, a piece of white paper, a brush and some watercolours. Paint your rainbow as beautifully as you can. You are painting the rainbow to practise using your brush to blend colours. This is an important skill in art. Write this learning objective next to your title.”
Advice like this makes learning artificial, alienates it from real-life experience and stimulation, and instrumentalises education into the accomplishment of predetermined skills.
The book is not without shortcomings. For such a political book, there is a virtual silence about the wider political context of neoliberal globalisation. There is no attempt to explain New Labour’s perpetuation of a quasi-market system, the introduction of private governance (the academies, commercially managed education authorities, etc), the overwhelming emphasis on the economic functions of education, and so on.
Nevertheless, this book is essential reading for anyone interested in the English experience of neoliberal school reform and struggling to resist it.
Reinventing Schools, Reforming Teaching is published by Routledge, £24.99
A new book by Paul O’Brien