Damian Hinds, the Education Secretary, appears to be of the opinion that if there are solutions to the problems education faces, they would have already been found by his predecessors. In relation to the byzantine bureaucracy that afflicts schools and imprisons teachers, he has told The Guardian:
If we could just find those forms or the pieces of bureaucracy to remove, then the people before me would have done it. It’s a much more complex issue than that.
Complex, complex, complex! Why is teaching children these days so bloody complex? It was not always so. In those less bureaucratic but much derided days of grammars, techs and secondary mods, the comparative performance of our schools, internationally, was much higher. There were many faults with that system but being less effective than today’s ‘bog-standard’ comprehensives was not one of them.
According to the OECD we are the only country in the developed world where, in terms of literacy and numeracy levels, grandchildren perform no better than their grandparents. In many cases they perform a lot worse. [OECD Skills Outlook 2013: First Results from the Survey of Adult Skills, p107]
This older generation was schooled in much less complex times: pre-national curriculum, pre-dumbed-down public exams, pre-national pupil database, pre-PC rectitude logging, pre-child-centred this and that and everything. In addition, spending on education was considerably less – nine times so in real terms between 1953 and 2009. [Crawford, Emerson and Tetlow, A survey of Public Spending in the UK, London, Institute for Fiscal Studies p22]
The Education Secretary, the teacher unions and, indeed, parents should be asking the forbidden questions: How was it possible for us to achieve comparatively so much more in terms of pupil attainment with so much less spending? How is it possible, today, for so many lower education-spending countries to achieve more, in some cases much more?
Hinds’s thinking is both lazy and dangerous. It is, also, quite daft! How can he sensibly believe that if solutions are to found, they would have been found by now? This is rather like the medieval Church telling Copernicus that if the solar system was heliocentric it would have been discovered before Copernicus came up with his theory. A third century BC heliocentric proposition had been long forgotten!
As a well-educated Catholic grammar school boy himself, of course, Hinds should be cheered by the fact that the medieval Catholic world view was not always out of touch with reality. It was given supreme poetic expression by Dante Alighieri in his Divine Comedy. The words the poet places over the gates into Hell could, equally, be hung over the entrance to the Department for Education:
Abandon hope all you who enter here
[Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch’entrate]
A very simple and uncomplicated message, Master Secretary of State for Education! Have it engraved over the front door of your department. In that sense, at least, you are correct in your reasoning about the impossibility of doing anything that has not failed before.