Education: Paradigms and the Black Papers

History has its own myths and the facts do not always get told properly. More tellingly, what happens is not always logical, since dominant ideas come to dictate what happens even when evidence shows it is not the right way to go. Education is a good example of how developments unfold. While most historians know the system of Grammar, Technical, Secondary Modern schools came in after the Second World War, most think it was the Butler Education Act of 1944 that did this. IN fact in creating the triparte system evidence shows that it was the Labour government under Attlee that brought in the 11 plus when raising the school leaving age to 15. The lesson is more than historical. Politicians have always followed, never led, the dominant paradigm of the day. The question is whether the current paradigm is tipping towards its own destruction.

There have been three paradigms since the 1944 Education Act. The first, from 1945- to roughly 1960, saw the selective paradigm dominant. This was undermined not by politicians, but by extra parliamentary campaign- ers who destroyed the intellectual base of the eleven plus and then established the dominance of the comprehensive school. From 1962, when Tory Education Secretary Edward Boyle embraced comprehensives through Margaret Thatcher the Tories too followed the dominant paradigm. Thatcher as Minister for Education destroyed more grammar schools than any other minister before or since. It is a fact of political life.

All politicians follow the dominant paradigm. It is the unavoidable rule of politics.

Alas the comprehensive paradigm, like the selective paradigm, was undermined from outside. The Black Paper reactionaries from the late sixties issued pamph-lets which effectively captured public opinion by rubbishing state education with three dogmas. These remain in place today asserting 3 crude positions, ie

*All state education is rubbish

*All education opinion is misguided

*A strong political leadership must impose control.

The attack was effective and by 1976 Labour leader James Callaghan felt defence was impossible. In his Ruskin speech he began a retreat from progressive education which continues to dominate Labour politics to this day. All serious writers, including Kenneth Baker who created the Education Reform Act of 1988, see the Ruskin speech as the turning point. It is not  accidental that the Black Papers ceased publication in 1976.


The political positions were not as simple as three dogmas alone, and the Black Ppers picked up on many faults in the second paradigm, notably the lack of accountability. The Secret Garden, allowing schools to work behind closed doors, had been tolerated in the 1960s, but after 1976 accountability became a key theme of government. The wider context – international economic competition and the need to skill up the work force – reinforced the message. With the OECD surveys becoming critical in a globalised world, change affected education world wide. However Britain, following the USA and other English speaking country, adopted a boot culture rooted in the KIPP philosophy in the USA and a production line view of schools/colleges as exam factories. The Black Papers alone could not have set the themes and are unknown in the USA. But in England – not in the other three countries of the UK – the negative agenda of government took on a character Black Paper in essence.

The long run tendency of politicians to send their children private was reinforced by the new paradigm. Once a grammar school route had been possible for ambitious politicians, or even a climb up the greasy pole by a trade union or a local government route. But for politicians once the grammar school was largely gone, private in some form was essential. Blair notoriously drove his son past half a dozen Catholic comprehensives to get to the Oratory School. Fifteen years later, Nick Clegg did exactly the same to give his children the same route. Access to elite institutions is now critical, and the 2010 Labour leadership elections featured 5 Oxbridge candidates. It went unquestioned. For the British political class, state education is established as if not rubbish, certainly second best. Anyone not going through the independent school route has to have an Oxbridge degree.


As the hold of the Black Paper mind set intensified, all opinion not within the camp became “The Education Establishment” and dismissed. As Mary Boucher of ATL has said, “it is difficult for evidence based educatinal policy to have any traction in this country where the education debate is so toxic and so polarised”. This is a clear result of the Black Papers setting the agenda. The extent to which expert opinion is dismissed was brought home forcibly in June 2011. Gove had attacked exams as ‘discredited’, provoking fury across the board including many who are sceptical of modern exams, including the private sector. Gove had broken one of the unwritten rules of education, that no one criticises exams during the exam season. It is simple common sense. To do so risks demotivating students at the precise moment they have to put maximum effort into their studies.

Gove was interviewed by Andrew Marr. Was he critical? Far from it. Chortling, Marr described Gove as ‘bold’ implying he had challenged an indefensible taboo. The Secretary of State was telling it like it is. The effect on students and their teachers, who are judged by exam results, made no impression on Marr at all. Like the vast majority of journalists, education opinion clearly sucks. It follows logically that boss politics are essential.

And Boss/Boot camp politics we certainly have, as Michael Wilshaw seems determined to prove. But he is backed by Gove. How did we get to a state where the minister has dictatorial powers over education and its professionals? And why is this totally unquestioned? The three dogmas, now taken for granted and their origin long forgotten, have become the accepted mould of politicial opinion for all major parties and most politicians in England – but not in other parts of the UK.


 While the dominant paradigm in England is recognisably rooted in the Black Papers, it could not have survived for the 36 years since the Ruskin speech just by resting on the polemics of people like Rhodes Boyson who have been long forgotten. It is buttressed by international economic pressures in a globalised world economy. As Warwick Mansell points out, the OECD PISA surveys dominate, resembling the Five Year plans of  Joe Stalin. However while the paradigm is to a large extent international, the form it takes in different countries depends on the local culture. Finland and Alberta do not treat teachers as performing animals. England and those parts of the USA where the writ of market and control dogmas rule has total force. The KIPP philosophy does not simply apply to the youth of the ghetto, spreading to schools well outside the ghetto. Obama’s secretary of state visited England in December 2010, fresh from Chicago, to give Gove a ringing endorsement.

Paradigms in the Kuhnian sense are not dogmas, and can take different forms in different cultures while remaining part of a family. But in England they have become dogmas, and the current paradigm is buttressed by more than dogma and has massive elements of control freakery, despite the rhetoric of school autonomy

The current system of hyper targetting and Stakhanovite control has eerie parrallels with the Soviet Union’s command economy. Such systems do not survive. Gove may be pushing the English education system to the brink of burn out and collapse even while he creates quasi autonomous units outside community control.

The Gove revolution is starting to hit problems – in forcible academisation, in the belated recognition by the Public Accounts Committee that the DFE is losing track of billions of pounds, in the growing sense that the work force is being pushed beyond endurance. The reckless pace of change has led the RSA with Pearson plc and other forces to have set up a Commission to assess how a fully academised system controlled from the ministry could work. They have Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun. They claim there  is no alternative to total academisation. The only option is to find out how to make it work.

The Soviet Union becomes more relevant as the current paradigm works out its logic. A command and control system can only survive for so long. That lesson of history is hard to relate to the current English experience, but sensible people can recognise the point at which as Stalin himself once said, they are “Dizzy with success”. Paradigms decline when they no longer fit reality. History is not just one thing after another. Whether a tipping point caused by a paradigm reaching the end of its logical life leads to a new paradigm or merely a fall into chaos remains to be seen.

Trevor Fisher                                                  6th June 2012


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