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Bishops and government education policy

09 August 2013


From the Revd Brian Williams

Sir, - Teacher accountability was an issue when I was a student teacher during the 1970s, and I recall writing assignments about it. It was expected that I would make professional judgements informed by the relevant disciplines and educational research, and I was trained accordingly.

This was underlined by an occasion several years after I began teaching, when I attended an in-service training course. One of Her Majesty's Inspectors attended one of the workshops. At a coffee break, he cornered me and tackled me about a remark that I had contributed earlier. During the next half-hour, the educational implications of what I had said were mercilessly dissected. By the time the next session began, my coffee was cold, and I was blancmange; but I became a better teacher for it.

Such discussions were made irrelevant by the 1988 Education Act, which spawned OFSTED, the National Curriculum, league tables, and the target-driven culture that persists to this day.

Dr Robin Richmond ( Letters, 12 July) rightly raises this question of accountability. The 1988 Act effectively shifted accountability from teachers to society in general to mere accountability to government policy. The role of Government shifted from promoting education to controlling it, and gave Secretaries of State unprecedented powers which none has so far showed any inclination to relinquish.

Since 1988, successive governments have defined how education should be understood, largely dictated what is taught and how, and defined what constitutes success - which assumes that Government can be trusted to get it right, which in a democracy ought to be deeply worrying.

Good practice is no longer required to be informed by philosophy, the relevant social sciences, and the experience of teachers, but is whatever the Chief Inspector and OFSTED say it is. To whom, then, are they accountable?

Hence the difficulty to which Dr Richmond refers. As things stand, the law allows Mr Gove and those who come after him to do more or less as they see fit, even if it has the intellectual rigour of something scrawled on a beer mat. They are not required to listen to bishops or any others who wish to speak for church schools in particular or schools in general, or to accept responsibility for whatever initiatives they introduce: by the time that the wisdom or otherwise of Mr Gove's decisions becomes apparent, he will have moved on.

As the next General Election approaches, perhaps the Bishops might like to consider campaigning for a new Education Act that takes accountability seriously. In my humble opinion, any prospective Secretary of State seeking to preserve the status quo deserves cold coffee, and to be blancmange.

The Vicarage, 20 Alexandra Road
Capel le Ferne
Folkestone CT18 7LD

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