Removing the red tape is the easy part
The Lib-Cons’ war on the health-and-safety cult is welcome. But the problem runs deeper than they think.
‘I’m inclined to trust the common sense of the majority of mums and dads who recognise that their children want proper uniforms, strict discipline, academic subjects rigorously taught and not some of the wild and wacky theorems that have distracted some of our schools from delivering on the basics over the last 20 years.’
Listeners to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme last month were left in no doubt by education secretary Michael Gove’s strident, slightly nostalgia-flecked vision that the Lib-Con coalition would, when it comes to education, be offering up something very different to their New Labour predecessors.
This week’s Conservative Party conference in Birmingham has done nothing to dispel this impression. In place of the New Labourite obsession with empowering children – sitting them on schools councils, getting them to know their rights, making subjects relevant and the like – Gove seemed intent on turning things around. ‘[T]he Conservative Party is now the party of the teacher’, he announced.
Central to this commitment, it seems, is a desire to uncomplicate the teacher-pupil relationship, to give back to teachers, not just disciplinary powers, but a freedom to interact as a situation demands. So, while promising to shrink-wrap the turgid 1,000-page tomes on discipline and bullying currently dished out to teachers, Gove also focused on an issue that undoubtedly does inhibit teachers’ ability to teach: so-called ‘no touch’ policies.
‘Teachers worry that if they assert a degree of discipline, one determined maverick pupil will say “I know my rights” and so teachers become reticent about asserting themselves’, Gove told the Guardian. ‘There are a number of schools’, he continued, ‘that have “no touch” policies and we are going to make clear this rule does not apply’. And, in the process of addressing the innuendo-ridden, life-ruining quagmire of pupil allegations against teachers, he was adamant that should any pupil, boy or girl, be upset, no teacher, male or female, should have any qualms about comforting them. ‘The important thing is that teachers know they are in control, and this [education] department and the justice system will back them’, Gove concluded.
The Tories’ determination to free Britain in general from excessive state interference also drew that most clichéd of modern banes, health and safety, into their line of fire. Prime minster David Cameron even appointed Tory peer Lord Young to take up arms by writing a report on red tape. Citing a headteacher who told pupils not to walk under a conker tree without helmets, and a council that banned a pancake race because it was raining, Young’s findings led him to declare: ‘What I have seen everywhere is a complete lack of common sense. People have been living in an alternative universe.’ Calling for the state to dispense with the cotton wool, Young went for the Jackass jugular: ‘Frankly, if I want to do something stupid and break my leg or neck, that’s up to me. I don’t need a council to tell me not to be an idiot. I can be an idiot all by myself.’
In many ways, especially as it concerns education, the impulse articulated by Gove and Young is to be applauded. A notion, perhaps not fully formed, of re-empowering the teacher does appear to be driving Tory education policy. The Tories are attempting to claw back what seems to have been lost due to the policy trends of the past 13 years. So instead of the tendency cultivated during New Labour’s tenure to fiddle endlessly with the national curriculum, weighting it down with extra-subject imperatives, the Tories want to draw back, leaving a pared-down, subject-centred curriculum – one in which, as Gove himself announced, English involves the teaching of canonical English literature, from Dryden to Dickens. And to the silly but life-diminishing health-and-safety edifice, the Tories look set to leave schools and teachers to take up a bit of responsibility themselves.
It feels like a welcome purge, a bloody nonsense-letting. After which, the government no doubt hopes, the ideal of the teacher will re-emerge in all its school-masterly grandeur, armed with nothing but knowledge, a metaphorical cane and a willingness to let kids graze their knees.
There have been critics of course. Julian Glover at the Guardian says this is an eruption of nasty-spirited, minimalist-state Toryism. ‘At times the coalition’s intentions seem Tory: a broad suspicion of a controlling state blended with regret for the loss of a better past. The heart sank on Saturday to hear Michael Gove reduced to promising yet another new deal on discipline for teachers, just as it did to see Lord Young harrumphing away about the horrors of the health-and-safety culture.’
But there is more to Gove’s and Young’s proposals than nostalgia and harrumphing. They betray an awareness that our autonomy has been severely eroded, that our ability as adults to exercise authority over our own lives, and those of our children, is no longer something to be assumed as a right. This is a genuine problem. And it is a problem that New Labour exacerbated by allowing the state to fill the breach, taking responsibility for things that we as adults would once have taken spontaneous responsibility for ourselves. Naughty kids became the subject of Anti-Social Behaviour Orders rather than proverbial clips round the ear. Crying kids became the subject of CRB-checked official assistance rather than friendly shoulders.
Yet the roots of these problems run deeper than the Tories allow. That the state has in many ways become society, that the informal bonds that would have once maintained degrees of autonomy outside the state are now largely absent, is a profound problem. But it is not something that can be solved by a war on some of its most striking symptoms – health-and-safety madness or an inability to discipline our children. Taking this approach means that the historical trends that have seen this come to pass go unquestioned.
The health-and-safety culture and the reams of concomitant red tape, for instance, didn’t grow to their currently grotesque proportions because New Labour was besotted with the idea of having a really big, bureaucratic state edifice complete with loads of rules and regulations. Rather, the expansion of health and safety arose as a response to an increasing risk consciousness germinating in civil society. Hence managing risk, averting all possible dangers, became part of the state’s raison d’être, especially under New Labour.
And the collapse of discipline in schools, the wariness of teachers around pupils, was not the result of wild and wacky liberal theorems introduced by the wild and wacky New Labour apparatchiks. Rather, discipline in schools became problematic because adult authority had become problematic. The basis of discipline lies in an adult’s informal exercise of their authority, which in a pedagogical situation derives from their knowledge of their subject – and all of that has been thoroughly undermined. Hence New Labour both prostrated teachers before children and persistently grafted other learning imperatives on to the curriculum.
So while we can enjoy the Tories’ attempt to grapple with some of the dafter legacies of New Labour, it will take more than that to address the socio-historical reasons for the form that New Labour and its policies took.
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.