Magazine article The Spectator

Blunkett Egalite

Magazine article The Spectator

Blunkett Egalite

Article excerpt

The romantic comedy Shakespeare in Love, amid much hugging and tears, scooped seven Oscars at this week's awards ceremony. No doubt even Harold Bloom, the chief vestal virgin at the temple of Shakespeare, can derive satisfaction from the world's greatest playwright, though recast in Hollywood colours, still having such a powerful grip on the Western imagination.

But this popularity makes it even more confounding that the works of Shakespeare are considered in many state schools to be suitable only for walk-on parts in the education of children. His plays retain honorific pride of place on the country's syllabuses, but rather than being the staple of English literature -- along with the other big guns of the Western canon - it has been demoted to being a supplement to more `relevant texts' (read less challenging).

The hollowing out of state education has not been confined to literature alone, but across all subjects, age-groups and boards. The government has given the impression of taking note and action to ameliorate this decline. David Blunkett, Secretary of State for Education, this week announced new measures to tackle the terrible record of under-achievement in inner-city comprehensives and, in particular, to aid the brightest 5-10 per cent in these areas.

Mr Blunkett said to the Commons, 'inner cities are characterised by a culture of under-achievement. For too many years, we have tolerated low standards. We must transform this culture of fatalism.'

If his description was alpha-plus, his solutions were wanting. Much like the hormones of the teenagers he is trying to help, his proposals were a swirling, erratic mess.

`I,earning mentors', `World-class tests', the 'twinning' of failing schools with successful ones, `learning units' for disruptive pupils all have the ring of activity; but will amount to nought. The 30 `learning centres' that are to be set up to provide afterhours tuition sound tough - but will simply providing more hours of sub-standard, unchallenging work improve matters? Its unpoetic title invites the question, what are schools if not learning centres? Perhaps the cynics are right: comprehensives are merely buildings to contain children from the ages of 11 to 16, and are a cheaper option than idle young hands creating devilry.

Why such scepticism? The proposals, despite ill-judged mutterings about backdoor selection, failed to challenge the central failing of comprehensive education: its egalitarian purpose. Mr Blunkett appeared horrified at the S-word accusation.

But the first step to improving the chances of children must be to lead the mangy sacred cow - equality - to the abattoir. …

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