AFTER THE FALL
The drawn-out death agonies of the present Conservative government bring to mind, for students of the humanities, the last days of the Roman Empire. Political instability and assassinations, (the year of the three Caesars). The mounting chaos, incompetence and greed and the feeling that everything is broken and nothing works any more. An obsession with invasion from across the borders and increasingly extreme statements and policy to distract the population. The disenchantment of most of the population with their political institutions and the departure of members of the political elite from the centre of power to their home estates to ‘spend more time with their money’. All this and government political appointments which bear a similarity to Caligula’s appointment of his horse to the Senate of Rome.
As we wait, enforced witnesses to one of the e longest death-bed scenes in history, our thoughts naturally turn to the moment when we wake up and find that 13 years of Tory rule are over and we are in a different political period. As we wait, it’s natural to speculate about what a new government may mean for education and for the humanities. At present the answer to this does not exactly conjure up the sound of trumpets welcoming the triumphant entry of a new age to the crumbling ruins of education in the UK. At the moment the Labour Party’s education programme includes:
ending private school’s charitable status, (it might be a shock to some of us who can’t recall people on street corners rattling collecting cans for Eton that they were charities);
reforming Ofsted by giving it a school improvement role (some may have thought that improving schools was always the purpose of Ofsted);
replacing Ofsted’s grading system with a report card (which presumably may say, for example, requires improvement in a different way);
making the National Curriculum compulsory in all schools (most teach the National Curriculum whatever their status anyway);
practical life skills in the National Curriculum, (sounds a little like a version of the 70s life skill of calculating your unemployment benefit, but could include useful skills like estimating how many pizzas you would need to deliver to pay off your student loan;
a visit to the seaside for all children by the age of 10 (should hopefully only take place after the sewage has been cleaned up);
and the right to learn to play a musical instrument (should make it clear that schools will be able to finance instruments other than the ocarina).
Of course, many of Labour’s proposals will be welcomed, such as free breakfast clubs, a right for teachers to have professional development, the establishment of a teacher recruitment fund with retention payments, and in-school counselling for pupils will be welcomed. However, this is not the stuff to engender wild enthusiasm and to bring hope to a demoralised profession working in often substandard accommodation, picking up the pieces of a system traumatised by Covid. We need a policy agenda which will take education forward, repair the damage done to the curriculum, return teachers’ creativity and professionalism, and make all educational staff feel valued and appropriately rewarded.
The fall of a corrupt and incompetent Roman Empire was followed by the ‘Dark Ages’. A Labour victory will certainly not usher in a new Dark Age but it will probably create a ‘dimly lit age’ of a mediocre education experience to be haunted forever by the ghosts of missed opportunities.