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Mark Ellse: The Blob is a convenient excuse for educational failure


‘Ah,  Sir Humphrey, I could do with a minute. Shut the door and have a seat.’

‘Yes, Minister. How can I help?’

‘It’s just that I’d like your advice, in confidence if I may. No, don’t look at me like that, I don’t mean that I want you to go out of here and tittle tattle to Bernard immediately. I mean really in confidence.’

‘Of course, Minister.’

‘I just want to run some private thoughts past you. You know that we keep saying that the government is making great strides forward with education policies and that there are tremendous improvements everywhere with exams getting harder and standards being raised all round and that, but for the ‘Blob’ – the teachers, the unions, the headteachers and all those other forces of inertia and reaction in the education system – every child would be leaving school able to read and write and there would be no shortage of skilled school leavers? Well, between you and me, I’m starting to have doubts.’

‘Doubts, Minister? You should have no doubts. On the contrary, you are completely correct. Government policies are indeed all window dressing. Education secretaries have been saying for years that schools are improving, despite the evidence that nothing much has changed. What on earth could make you think that your tenure might be any different? You may be more effective in pretending that you are improving education but I can assure you that your instincts are right. You are doing nothing significant. Why on earth should you expect things to be getting better?’

‘Stop that, Humphrey. That is not what I am talking about. I don’t doubt that our policies are the right way to go. What I doubt is the reason why we don’t make any more progress than our predecessors. Publicly we say that there is this big amorphous ‘Blob’ in the education system that oppose progress, but I can’t really see that there is a Blob at all. After all, we can’t condemn absolutely everyone in the education system. It would be like saying that the NHS is a mess because all the doctors and nurses are useless. And even if there were a ‘Blob’, how could it be holding us back?’

‘Really, Minister. What brought these ideas to mind?’

‘I suppose I was thinking about the comments made by the Chairman of Ofsted the other week. You know, the chap who said that the poor exam results on the Isle of Wight were due to it being an inbred ‘ghetto‘ that we’ve allowed to happen? He doesn’t seem to be a complete idiot. I was thinking, just suppose he’s right and that educational failure is the result of children’s poor ability and not caused by some invisible, all-powerful Blob.’

‘These are dangerous thoughts, Minister.’

‘Now don’t dismiss me like that, Humphrey, hear me out. I’m no great scientist but I’ve a smattering of understanding of evolution and I know full well that we insist on it being taught in schools and come down hard at those we regard as loons for teaching anything different. If we are going to believe that the reason humans are different from animals is evolution, then we have to believe that all these special skills we have, including intelligence, are inherited. And if intelligence is inherited, it stands to reason that the children of less intelligent parents will be, on average, the hardest to educate. We can’t blame the Blob at all, we have to face the truth. Of course we can try and do try extremely hard with these children, but there are intrinsic problems that we can probably never overcome.’

‘Minister, if I may on this occasion speak extremely frankly, I think that, worthy though these thoughts are, accurate though they may be both in broad concept and in detail, you must not mention a word of them outside this room.’

‘Really, Humphrey, whyever not?’

‘Because, Minister, you run the risk of completely destroying the whole Department for Education, were views such as yours to gain wide currency. Think of the consequences. If the Secretary of State for Education were so much as to hint that there were limits to how much one could improve the academic performance of a proportion of those in school, one could see no end to the ramifications. If the Chancellor got wind of it, how long do you think you would preserve your departmental budget? Imagine the Home Office even slightly suspecting that the money thrown at education could never produce enough Brits to keep us supplied with doctors, plumbers and (believe it or not) waiters, and that immigration must continue unabated. The Department for Work and Pensions would have it in for you, too, if you failed to preserve the illusion that education would somehow solve the welfare problem.

‘No, Minister. I think we’ll keep the ‘Blob’. At times the truth can be just a little too uncomfortable for any of us to bear. Much better to have a Blob to blame for any shortcomings in the Department for Education than the light be pointed too clearly in our direction.’

‘Yes, Humphrey. Wise advice. I understand just what you mean.’


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Mark Ellse
Mark Ellse
Mark Ellse is a physicist and author. He is a former headmaster, independent school inspector and A level chief examiner.

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