IN HEAVEN, we are told, there is more rejoicing over one repentant sinner than over the ninety-nine just who are not in need of repentance or conversion. I have always thought that slightly hard on the just, and I also feel there was something in the objection of those who had toiled all the year long in the vineyard when they found the Prodigal Son preferred to them.
Still, these goings-on have the highest authority behind them and we must accept the lesson
they give, so three cheers, or at
any rate two, for the Prime Minister's statement on standards in education which has attracted so much attention.
I put aside the unworthy thought that I have been preaching this gospel for nearly three years as Opposition spokesman on education and been getting nothing but dusty answers from successive Ministers at the Education Department!
Of course standards are allimportant in schools, but long ago the Labour Party made a choice which has led directly to their fall. The party decided that social equality was more important than quality in education, and directed its educational policy towards that end.
Now you can argue that this was a right proposition or you can maintam that it was wrong and misguided, but it seems a little inconsistent (to say the least), having insisted that education is a form of social engineering and having shaped the schools system with that in mind, to turn round and reproach schools and teachers for not having achieved the highest quality as well.
The reason why the Labour Party has wanted to do away with the grammar schools is for the perfectly arguable reason that selection is a form of discrimination which perpetuates class divisions, You can, of course, argue against that and say that the grammar schools gave the bright workingclass child the chance of a first-class education which he cannot find in the system today: but the ultimate case for maintaining the grammar schools is different from that and is essentially an argument for quality. Those of us who have fought so hard for the retention of these schools did so and do so because we believe that they contribute towards high standardi within the maintained system. They provide centres of excellence which have effects far outside the minority who are now able to attend them.
Still, if politicians had to be consistent there would he very few of us at it, such are the vagaries of human affairs, and if the Prime Minister is attempting to take education out of politics then I certainly welcome it. Unhappily, it is rather difficult to try and do that while pushing ahead with a Bill to impose comprehensive schools everywhere — a Bill which has been designed to promote ideology not educational values.
Of course the Bill could still in theory be dropped, but while the log-jam of legislation in the Lords would provide a face-saver it hardly seems a practical proposition, which is why I suggest two concessions which might form the basis of an entente between Government and Opposition in the educational field,
If the Government could bring itself to make it clear that the present Education Bill would not be enforced against any local council which did not have adequate resources to build comprehensive schools. and at the same time agree that within a system which is mainly comprehensive there is room for a limited number of selective schools, we might well be in business.
"Jaw, jaw" really is better than "war, war", and nowhere more so than in education. However, I remain sceptical of this coining about such are the internal pressures within the Labour Party which has had to put up with so much that it finds unpalatable in the Government's economic policy, At least in education, ideologues have been allowed to have their way.
Yet if there could be a concordat along the lines I have suggested, we could get down, on a basis of dialogue, to seeking solutions for the very real problems that are besetting our schools.
am not a believer in a return to Victorian educational methods, but I do hold that the pendulum has swung too far in our schools in favour of permissiveness and selfexpression and we need to haul it back again towards the goals of disciplined and structured learning. An essential tool in this task is the re-establishment of national standards of literacy and numeracy which were done away with by Labour in 1966.
I am not advocating a return to an 11-plus type of examination but the establishment of a means of monitoring the system and the giving to teachers and pupils alike of targets and goals at which to aim, For this to be effective the schools inspectorate needs to be expanded and strengthened. This is a very different aim from that hinted at in the leaked Department of Education "Yellow Book", namely the establishment of a centrally directed and controlled curriculum. That would be altogether too rigid and would be wide open to the perils of political manipulation. Curriculum control should still be determined by a balance of forces — local authorities, teachers,. parents and ministers — with the relative importance of each shifting from time to time.
Scarcely less important is the need for an impartial inquiry into the whole working of the secondary schools system: a national inquest into comprehensive schools but into grammar and secondary modern schools as well.
This would give us the information we need to evaluate such vexed questions as to the right size of school and the merits and demerits of mixed ability teaching. The Prime Minister is the headmaster of the nation, and is there, among other things, to teach the nation. I welcome wholeheartedly the latest lesson on the importance of standards in the education of the young.
Norman St John-Stevas