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Chalking up changes!

Francis Beckett admires Richard Garner’s plain-speaking guide to the education system

12 December, 2016 — By Francis Beckett

FOR more than 30 years, journalist Richard Garner, after training on the old Camden Journal patrolled the perimeter of education policy, regularly reporting back to readers of the Times Educational Supplement, the Daily Mirror and latterly The Independent, and every so often firing a broadside at the castle within.

The longest-serving and most respected of the national newspaper education correspondents, he has known every education secretary since Sir Keith Joseph in 1981, and has had a front row seat for every one of the dozens of bitter battles that have been fought over the way our children are educated.

And out of it all comes this invaluable, accessible little book, The Thirty Years War, written with all the clarity and simplicity that characterised his journalism, which takes us through the controversies of those years and places them in some sort of historical context. It’s written with a journalist’s eye for colour.

I did not know that John Cleese based his headmaster character in Clockwise on the head teacher-turned-general secretary of the Professional Association of Teachers, Peter Dawson; but having worked for one term in the school headed by Mr Dawson, I can now see that it must have been so.

Nor did I know that in order to abolish the cane, Labour threatened a three line whip, but of course, they would have done, wouldn’t they?

I did know that Garner was a contemporary of future education secretary Charles Clarke at Highgate School, which he discloses here. Some of Garner’s recollections from the past make one sigh for dear, dead, innocent days. Solihull’s council abandoned the idea of a return to grammar schools after parents rejected it in a consultation, the council leader remarking: “There’s no point in consulting if you pay no attention to what parents say.”

That was before New Labour changed the meaning of consultation, with Melanie McDonagh MP sending out a two-choice questionnaire.

Parents could tick either:

• Yes, I am in favour of raising standards at Mitcham Vale and Tamworth Manor High School by getting academy status.

• No, I am against these changes… designed to improve examination results.

All the decisions that mattered in education for more than 30 years are charted here: academies, free schools, selection, university tuition fees. And what struck me more forcibly than ever is how the same debates come round and round.

“I would like to see less zeal from politicians for reforming the system just to look as though they are being active,” he writes in his conclusion, adding that this always involves politicians going to enormous lengths to show how wretchedly bad our schools were until they rode to the rescue, and in the process damaging morale in education.

Former Holborn and St Pancras MP Frank Dobson once put the thinking to me succinctly: “Something must be done. This is something. Therefore this must be done.”

I have known Richard Garner, on and off, for most of these 30 years. He has probably mellowed more than I have, but he has not lost his passion for education. Though he insists that he is an observer, not part of the education world, this is obviously the work of a man who cares deeply about the subject which he has spent his career covering.

Anyone remotely interested in how our education system got where it is, or in understanding the debates that currently engage politicians and educators, will benefit from this admirably clear and thoughtful book.

• The Thirty Years War: My Life Reporting on Education. By Richard Gardner, John Catt, £13
• Francis Beckett’s latest book is Fascist in the Family, Routledge.

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