Standard swindles

March 23, 2001

The quality debate is hollow. We need a renewed understanding of education, argues Duke Maskell.

Whenever the word "standards" crops up in connection with education, it is time to reach for the off switch. Only two things are likely to be said: that standards need to be raised and that such-and-such is the way to do it.

The trouble is that the standard of public discussion is now so abysmally low that "standards" have become widely unintelligible. The word has come to mean quality control and audits.

Standards, as now understood, are things to be specified "objectively" and measured and raised by choice. All governments must do is will the end and provide the means -without it mattering what the character is either of the government that offers to perform the miracle or of the people who are to benefit from it. But the best educated government cannot achieve more than the general level of culture permits, and the worst cannot escape the limitations of its own character.

The absurdity of governments undertaking to raise standards in religion, love or virtue is self-evident. Only a man who is truly religious could ever affect the religious nature of anyone else. Only a loving man could ever make anyone else more loving. Only a virtuous man could ever teach others virtue. And, no less true, only a government of educated people could ever make a difference to the state of education in this or any other country. And no one who was genuinely educated could ever talk as glibly about raising standards, delivering quality and all the rest of it, as our present politicians of all parties do.

Attempts by the half-educated, mis-educated and uneducated to raise educational standards betray just how cripplingly low those standards are - not among those with the lowest standards but among those who supposedly have the highest. Moreover, they serve only to lower them further. What has the massive expansion of university education done but make us massively worse educated than we were before?

Nobody who suspected what the nature of education really was would be capable of dreaming up either the research assessment exercise -which supposedly judges and rewards the quality of research in university departments but actually does nothing much beyond counting and rewarding the number of pages produced -or the Quality Assurance Agency -which gives marks indifferently to university departments that try to educate their students in foreign languages and those from which students graduate without any idea of what makes foreign languages worth knowing.

An educated people would have thought themselves blatantly swindled and ripped off by Ofsted's 1993 report on "standards and quality" in A-level examinations, which must have cost a fortune to produce but which says nothing -absolutely nothing -about the standards and quality of A-level examinations. No country whose standards were capable of being raised would ever have commissioned the Charter for Higher Education of 1993 or the Dearing report of 1997. Or, if they had, they would have burned them (and their authors with them) as soon as they saw the results.

Given the present state of things -not just of schools but of what passes for educated public opinion -the most important qualification for any educational reformer is pessimism. What we most need is a renewed, educated, understanding of education; and we will never get that from the Department for Education and Employment, the RAE, the QAA or Ofsted.

There is no need to hark back to Socrates's time for this. Our own classic literature can tell us all we need to know. Newman could tell us. Jane Austen could tell us even better. But imagine trying to convince education secretary David Blunkett or Universities UK of that. It would be a task more like religious conversion than educational reform.

Duke Maskell is a former English lecture and author, with Ian Robinson, of The New Idea of a University , published this week by Haven Books, price £18.50.

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