David Cameron has not sought to seek personal or political capital from the Olympics, for which he deserves much credit. It doesn’t take much to imagine how Gordon Brown would have behaved had he been in power. But this is politics, Cameron is under pressure to establish an “Olympic Legacy” so he will today announce two hours of competitive sport every week in schools. In so doing, he highlights the contradiction in his education policy.
On one hand, he wants to devolve power to schools and get politicians out of the education process. But like his predecessors, he also can’t resist pulling the levers of power and telling head teachers what to do. Not so long ago, the idea of a politician telling teachers what to teach would have seemed bizarre: what does an MP know about how children should be taught? Even the 1945 Labour government considered this an intrusion: George Tomlinson, the Education Secretary, famously declared that ‘the minister knows nowt about curriculum’. It was a Conservative minister, David Eccles, who started to tweak the curriculum. Conservatives believed (not without reason) that the education establishment didn’t pay enough attention to the three Rs and a curriculum set in Whitehall was the answer.
The Cameron paradox is that a party preaching freedom one day will then go all control freaky the next, starting to (for example) tell English teachers to use synthetic phonics. The implication being that the minister, with zero education experience, knows more than the teacher in the classroom. The other danger of political control over the curriculum is that it is moulded according to the fashions of the time. In 1977 the so-called Great Debate about the curriculum complained that pupils were not taught about industry, and the importance of manufacturing to British life. Today, competitive sport is in vogue.
The Gove era is about giving schools freedom to teach what they want, making it easier for new schools to open up thereby giving parents greater choice – and schools can compete on the type of curriculum they offer. To me, this is the way of addressing the undoubted lefty bias in the system. I sympathise with Cameron’s point about school sports slots being used to teach Indian dancing, but it ought not to be about what either of us thinks. The solution is to create a system where parents who dislike Indian dancing in schools can take their kids elsewhere.
Replacing one set of top-down instructions with another is not the conservative way. Rather than try to speak for parents, a government should arrange education so power is put back where it belongs: not with the state, or the teachers unions, but the parents. Needless to say, many parents may want their kids to learn Indian dancing. Many English girls will have a dream of making it big in Bollywood, and this is every bit as legitimate an ambition as winning Gold in taekwondo.
If I were Cameron, I would stick to the message of freedom: placing faith in the teachers. As he will know, if schools could be improved by using the levers of state control, we would not be in the mess we are now.
PS: Therese Coffey, a Tory MP, tweets that dance is not sport so my point is not valid. I can do no better than refer her to ‘Tomorrow’s Farewell’, an episode of the Kids from Fame (a 1982 TV series). Government inspectors want to force the school to build a sports hall to comply with government regulations of an hour’s sport per day. The dance teacher, Lydia Johnson, sets out to prove to the inspectors that her dance class is strenuous enough to serve as a substitute for a hour of conventional PE. And how? she puts the American football jocks through one of her intense dance sessions. They are exhausted. The inspectors are sent away, defeated. Watching it again, I wonder if the PM should be invited to join an Indian dance session and see how he gets on at the end of it. Dance is bloody exhausting, and ought not to be sneered at. (For the uninitiated, the Fame song ‘I Can Do Anything Better Than You’ is on video here.)Tags: David Cameron, Education, Michael Gove, Olympics, Sport