“At minimum there should usually be three or more simple statements of three words or more each statement.” A small quotation taken from the definition of a child reaching Level 1C in the national curriculum for literacy.
Over the recent half-term, in ubiquitous training rooms under fluorescent light, primary school teachers around the UK have been poring over such definitions, based on the idea that the key to success means encouraging children to use the words which count for high grades in the government’s all-important SATS tests.
The agony of this scene is that it tends to be interspersed by barrages of invective against SATS, and testing of primary school children in general. Those on the end of it know that SATS results arrive after decisions about placements in secondary school – they are of no use to the poor children – but because they mark the difference between a successful and a failing school, the children will be crammed for them nonetheless. But that’s the world they operate in – what can they do?
I have often written about how target culture forces honest people doing brilliant jobs into subterfuge and dishonesty. The voluntary sector manager forced to prove an impact that could never be proved. The successful lottery bidder forced to predict spurious racial breakdowns of beneficiaries for years ahead. Rival charities forced to fight over who caused the fundable ‘outputs’ when both were essential – targets compromise us all.
The misery of target culture in the public sector is just as intense, but it is probably at its saddest in education. Against all their professional instincts, teachers have to teach to this kind of technocratic regime, though it means deconstructing their lessons into ‘learning intentions’, concentrating on individual words rather than imagination, comprehension tests rather than whole stories.
And while they teach these elements of skills, encouraged by training manuals and DfES approved gurus – many of whom have serious doubts themselves – they know that this is not the drawing out of imagination and creativity that education is supposed to be, and which children need to operate in the modern world. No wonder teachers and pupils are both stressed and de-motivated.
Conventional political language has no way of describing this technocratic tragedy in our children’s lives, because it is captured by no official figures. Are the class sizes within official limits? Are the SATS results rising? Well, then, what’s the problem?
Except that this kind of ersatz education bores the most creative pupils most, sending some of them on the foothills of the slippery slops that begin with truancy.
But it’s worse than that. The novelist Lindsay Clarke has written about the urgent lesson for children of Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights: that there are people out there who want to cut off their daemons.
For me, this issue – and related issues about the prevailing technocracy that is corroding our lives – is the most important we face, which is why it is so relevant to the Liberal Democrat leadership contest. For two reasons.
First, the third party is the wedge that can drive new political ideas and language onto the mainstream. Without the Lib Dems, we would be seriously stuck.
Second, this issue provides a potential kernel of a new approach to public services – focussing on the human relationships that make them actually work – around which the Lib Dems can begin to grow a new liberal coalition which, if they handle it right, can deliver them the power to do something about it.
Chris Huhne has made a great contribution to the direction of the party, but we need a new direction, a new political language and a new agenda, and I think Nick Clegg is the one most likely to deliver it.
I’m not entirely unbiased: I know Nick and admire him enormously. I know him to be one of those few in the Lib Dems who recognise the power of new ideas in politics, who understand that the party desperately needs to have a renewed purpose. That’s why I’m going to vote for him to be leader.