Monday 24 December 2007

Daemons, gobblers and education policy

I went to see The Golden Compass last night. Perhaps I had low expectations, since I kindof think Northern Lights is a work of genius, but it was really rather brilliant. The target was, predictably, less obviously organised religion, but some of Philip Pullman’s other meanings were made clearer, and that heightened the whole experience for me. It also made me think about the politics of education.

Because the film and the book include a very urgent message. There are, after all, such things as Gobblers. There is, in fact, an all-powerful branch of the established power that is experimenting with cutting the daemons out of children. As a former teacher, Pullman knows that all too well.

His choice of the word was specific: ‘daemon’ in Latin is ‘genius’, and we are talking here about the heart, imagination, creativity and divine spark in us all. Of course there are forces out there now who are intent on removing that aspect from children, to make them more amenable, more employable, more receptive to consumer culture.

It so happened this week that someone close to me (I’ve promised not to identify her) left her job as a primary school teaching assistant, partly because this painful process of daemon removal is now so obvious. To those who believe education can be fixed by more money, or any more of the usual technocratic tweaking, I would say this:

Think about the poor seven-year-olds who are never allowed outside in the natural world, or encouraged to paint or make music, but are lectured for an hour about how to put glitter onto glue (or who have to draw from miserable photocopies rather than from life, or who have bits of stories for comprehension rather than the whole things).

Or the nursery teachers with their clipboards in the playground, ticking off the various stages of play development set by DfES (but never actually help them play, heaven forfend).

Or the eight-year-olds who are not allowed to learn aspects of reading or writing, which the rest of the class is learning, because they have been ‘graded’ at a lower scale (just because the 11+ has gone, it doesn’t mean we’ve got rid of selection).

So is New Labour’s utilitarian education policy really the target of The Golden Compass? Not precisely, but that’s what I thought about as I watched the scenes of daemon-removal. I’m sure that’s what Pullman thought about when he wrote it: the people at the heart of British education who are so concerned to divide learning up into measurable parts that they can’t put the heart of education back together again.

And for Lib Dems like me who yearn for an education policy capable of confronting this widespread, pernicious caricature that passes for schooling – not for everybody, but often for the poorest – then let’s spend 2008 developing a language with which to talk about it, to name the evil and to tackle it head on.

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