Thursday, 19 February 2009

Conspiracy or cock-up?

What is going on with the HE review? Is there a master plan dreamed up by a secret cabal somewhere, or are we just being caught in the crossfire of conflicting demands and pressures? Are the millions who work for local councils powerless drones, unknowingly doing the bidding of their faceless masters, or people with the best of intentions trying to make sure the next tragedy or scandal doesn’t happen on their watch? Are “they” trying to bludgeon us into submission with repeated consultations until they get the answer they want, or does the left hand not really know what the right hand is doing?

I think, strangely enough, that the truth is a complex blend of all these things.

The ECM agenda is a powerful idea, which is being strongly pushed by central government, but which has also taken on a life of its own. Anyone who works in any children’s service must by now have the five outcomes virtually tattooed on the inside of their eyelids.

This kind of thing is always happening in local government – new jargon, new buzzwords. One year, it’s all about positive images of minority communities, and a few years later the important thing is mainstreaming equalities initiatives. People who want to get on in the system soon learn to pick up this year’s key phrases and repeat them with conviction. People who’ve been around the block a few times soon learn how to take it all with a pinch of salt, and get on with doing the actual work.

People who don’t fit in with the prevailing orthodoxy are always a problem. It’s unfortunate for home educators that the prevailing orthodoxy of the moment has a lot to do with tracking, counting, checking, and meeting targets (all with reference to the outcomes, of course). I imagine that the people who have been tasked with doing all this counting find the existence of some people who are legitimately not on any list, really rather irritating. How are you supposed to identify the children who are *not* receiving an education if you can’t be sure you know about everyone who *is* receiving one. You’re never going to get your books to balance, and it’s all a bit untidy.

I’ve no doubt that *somebody* is determined to iron out some of these annoying wrinkles, and is hoping the review will enable that to happen. Maybe a group of LAs with the ear of a civil servant at the DCSF. But I’d be extremely surprised if the aims underlying the Enjoy and Achieve outcome were drafted in order to pressurise HE children into schools. It seems clear to me that they were drafted by people who weren’t thinking about HE at all.

Why has ECM pervaded children’s services so thoroughly? Is it because it has been decreed from above? Yes, partly. But also because people who work hard, providing things that families do need and want – like outpatient clinics for children with cystic fibrosis, toddler groups on estates with no other community spaces, or after school clubs for kids whose parents need to go to work – want to be able to offer those families some semblance of a co-ordinated *service*, rather than a disorganised hotch-potch where you have to explain your story over and over again to each new person you meet.

I don’t think those people are interested in persecuting home educators. I’m sure they’d rather the funding for the review was being spent on some more staff. I think they’ve been sold ContactPoint as the answer to their problems and I’m sure most of them know it will be nothing of the kind. I think they’ve been sold ECM as a way to get everybody pulling together for some evidently worthy aims, and they have more urgent things to do than to wonder whether some awkward oddballs are not convinced by the whole concept of ‘outcomes’.

In some ways, this is an ideological attack on us, and we do need to continue to make clear our objections to the ECM orthodoxy. But it’s not really possible to win or lose this kind of ideological struggle in a straightforward way. I cut my campaigning teeth on Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988, which said:

“A local authority shall not:
a) Intentionally promote homosexuality
b) Intentionally promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship.”

It was entirely ideological, and made its way onto the statute books as part of some complicated horse trading within the Conservative Party, I think.

At the height of the campaign against this, people were genuinely fearful that books by gay authors would be removed from public libraries, gay teachers would be sacked, and lesbian mothers would lose custody of their children. But what happened in the end was that the law had no real teeth, partly just because our time had come. Putting this hate speech in the Local Government Act was horrible, but in the end, it wasn’t enough to stop the change that was coming anyway.

I think the review is partly an attempt to slow down the rapid increase in home education. I suspect that the recommendations, when they eventually come, will include compulsory registration, prior consent for deregistration, and annual visits with a right of access to HE children. All of these are the opportunities already taken by unfriendly Local Authority staff to dissuade, intimidate or harass families they think should not be home educating.

While we certainly need to continue to state our objections to the ECM orthodoxy, I think we also need to give some thought to ways in which we as a community can effectively resist and subvert this attempt to keep HE confined to those of us with backgrounds deemed acceptable by the educational establishment.

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