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Classroom battle

02 May 2014

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"MY CAT has done more for the war effort than you," Churchill is reported to have declared to Rab Butler when the coalition's Education Secretary presented him with his game-changing Bill in 1944. It took a while for Churchill to embrace the idea of education's being a cornerstone of post-war reconstruction; and even then he had clear notions of what constituted proper education: "Tell the children that Wolff won Quebec," he insisted.

The story of government policy on education since 1944 is one which sees these tensions - around school governance, and the curriculum - played out time and again, as was evident in Teachers vs Government: 70 years of education policy (Radio 4, Tuesday of last week).

Presented by the director of the National Education Trust, Roy Blatchford, this was an even-handed account of the conflicts that continue to belabour the national education debate. Indeed, the barracking of education ministers by the teaching unions has become one of those seasonal regulars.

In fact, the first 20 years were ones of relative calm and consensus; teachers and government apparently working together towards common goals. That all changed in 1965 with Circular 10/65, which was the beginning of the end of grammar schools, and of the autonomy of local government to decide its own education policies. There has been toing and froing ever since.

There were many moments in this interesting documentary to provide a nostalgic flutter; not least archive recordings of politicians with clipped accents, and the strains of a school recorder-ensemble playing passably in tune. Both have disappeared into the irretrievable past.

Still, as Epictetus is said to have said: "It's not events that make us sad, but how we think of them." Something of a truism, one might think; but not for whole schoolsof 20th-century psychiatrists, whose reputations were built on theefficacy of behavioural versus psycho-analytical approaches to therapies of the mind.

In Search of Ourselves: A history of psychology and the mind (Radio 4, weekdays) is giving us a tour of therapies that range from lying down on a couch and talking, to electric shocks. Our able guideis Martin Sixsmith, the one-time BBC reporter who retrained as a psychologist. The three weeks are divided between the different branches of "psyche"-based study; and week one was given over to Freud, Jung, and the rest.

What is always surprising when looking back at the history of psychotherapy is how recent are the concepts which are now so firmly embedded in our discourse. We are all amateur shrinks now, and incorporate disparate elements of behaviourism, CBT, and dynamic psychotherapy into our daily social interactions - indeed, in a way that would horrify the original proponents of these methods, which were intended as exclusive and comprehensive.

Most parents, for instance, employ behavioural methods when setting routines for children; but would not go so far as the pioneer behavioural psychologist B. F. Skinner, and elect to use an operant conditioning chamber as a crib. In fact, we would suggest Skinner himself go and get some therapy.

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