Almost three decades ago Dr. Jules produced a plan for the reformation of the public service. It was largely ignored at the time; actually, totally ignored would be more correct, which is a pity because although governments come and governments go, the “Service” continues along its meandering way as it convenes hundreds of meetings, takes or delays thousands of decisions, produces hundreds of thousands of documents and achieves very little, or nothing at all. From my perspective, the Ministries of Education and Health, possibly the largest of the ministries, illustrate better than any other the lumbering inefficiency of the public service.
Five years ago, I wrote an open letter to the Minister of Education pointing out a few ideas that I believed would bring some semblance of life to a moribund system. I was wrong. Basically nothing has changed but, being the eternal optimist, I have decided to put my fingers to keyboard and produce over the next few weeks yet another collection of ideas for the Minister to consider. You notice, Dear Minister, that I offer the ideas for Your Consideration, not the consideration of the Ministry. Frankly, those in power at the ministry have no interest in reform, seek security in the Maze of Procedure, shun new ideas, and flee from new thoughts. They seek redemption in words, not action.
You wonder perhaps at my use of the term ‘those in power’; rest assured Dear Minister: You have little or no power in the face of your Service ‘underlings’. Twenty years ago, Dr. Jules taught me that the Permanent Secretary was the power behind the minister’s throne, yet no P.S. could ever succeed unless he or she ran roughshod over those entrenched in the top echelons of the Service. Somehow you have to surf over the lip service, ignore the false promises, force the procrastinators to accept deadlines and enforce sanctions on failures to deliver agreed results on time. You have to Stamp your Authority on Your Ministry. The greatest threat of all is the kowtowing official who delays every tiny progressive step by insisting to others that he or she is waiting for the minister (that’s you) to give her approval or sign off on a decision. You see, Dear Minister, these officials decide what you see and what you don’t see: it is they who decide what goes forward and what rots in a drawer. Frankly, you don’t stand a chance, but I wish you well. I truly wish you every success. So let’s go . . .
For decades, perhaps from the beginning of its very existence, the Ministry of Education has wielded immense power. It has stood alone as the sole arbiter of the content, direction, dissemination and method of education. Agreed, in some cases the ministry has faced opposition from religious factions that have insisted that teachers belong to one particular faith in order to teach in their schools as if 2+2 for Catholics might result in a different result if taught by Protestants. But generally speaking, the ministry decided what should be taught, what materials should be used, which people should be teachers, how long the school day should be – yes, well, practically everything, even down to the number of rolls of toilet tissue a school should be issued with.
The Ministry’s role was prescriptive; the ministry prescribed how the business of education should be carried out. The ministry laid down the law, drew up lists of teaching materials, decided what had to be taught. Long before George Orwell’s book ‘1984’ saw the light of day, children were being brainwashed by learning what authorities deemed to be ‘correct and proper content’. American kids learned of a world viewed through capitalistic American eyes; Russian kids were fed communist fare; British children believed the world belonged to them and that ‘God was an Englishman’, and if he wasn’t, then he should have been.
You know what, Dear Minister, times have changed, and changed in ways more dramatic than any ministry official could ever have anticipated. I don’t blame them for not recognising this. The whole world has been taken by storm. The advent of the Internet, the relative affordability of Smartphones, the access to online content and courses has changed everything. Tragically, it is the failure of well-meaning authorities, eager to provide computers, notepads and whatever other forms of communication that pop up on a monthly basis, to realise one simple fact: knowledge can no longer be legislated. Free access to information, good, bad, reliable, biased, dangerous, what have you, can no longer be kept out of schools. Freedom is the next great challenge in education – in fact it’s already here.
And another thing: why do we need lists of expensive, rarely used, always changing books, when everything we need is there online? Much more of all of this in my A-Musings in the weeks to come.