‘Empty words and promises'

The ongoing education debate has revealed several flip-flopping deputies and a disregard for the views of experts, says Richard Graham

ESC president Andrea Dudley-Owen arriving at the Royal Court for last week's States meeting. (Picture by Cassidy Jones, 29783204)
ESC president Andrea Dudley-Owen arriving at the Royal Court for last week's States meeting. (Picture by Cassidy Jones, 29783204)

THOSE of a certain age will know who Senator Joseph McCarthy was.

He was the US senator who gave rise to the ‘McCarthyism’ phenomenon which dominated American politics for much of the 1950s. McCarthyism seized upon America’s genuine concern about the threats to the global order from communism and elevated it to the level of national paranoia. The belief took hold that there were reds under beds everywhere. The government even issued the public with a guide titled How To Spot A Communist. Anyone who showed less than warm admiration for the US government was labelled a communist, was accused of seeking to destroy all that was good and safe about life in America and was treated with the 1950s version of exclusion and no-platforming.

I was prompted to remember McCarthyism by some of the contributions to last week’s debate about the fate of Deputy Le Tissier. Signs of paranoia were definitely in the Assembly air.

Listening to some of the States members who were sympathetic towards the suspended deputy – as it was their right to be – it became clear that a significant number of them genuinely believed that it was all part of a left-wing plot. Even I, your humble sketch writer, who hadn’t written or spoken a single word about the Le Tissier affair, was implicated, apparently being so left-wing that I reminded our chief minister of the odious John Bercow, the previous House of Commons speaker. A dubious and curious likeness, methinks. Mr Bercow is a Brexit-hating, rotund, 5ft person, whereas I am a Brexit-loving, 6ft 4ins beanpole.

I always think that typecasting people as either right-wing or left-wing is a lazy and meaningless way to consider and assess what they may be writing or saying. As for me being left-wing, I had better dust off the speech I drafted but never delivered in the last States term – you know, the ‘bring back flogging and hanging’ one.

Someone independent of the States needs to comment on how our deputies perform in the Assembly and if I don’t do it, someone else ought to. Someone needs to hold States members to account by contrasting what some of them promised in order to get themselves elected just a few months ago with what they’ve been saying and doing once they planted their posteriors on the Assembly’s red leather seats.

Which leads me to the ongoing debate about the reform of secondary and post-16 education, which so far has provided fertile ground for those looking for deputies who promised this and that and then did the exact opposite.

I won’t dwell long on the conclusion of the debate about abortion law reform. I have previous form on that issue, having strongly opposed the new law for going too far. I accept that the issue has now been settled politically, but one characteristic of the debate left a bad taste in my mouth. We heard the same chilling narrative heard in last year’s debate – namely, ‘don’t mention the foetus, or if you do, dehumanise it to the point that it should even be denied pain relief before its life is terminated as late as eight or nine months’. I simply put that on record in view of my new reputation as a rabid left-winger.

I also have previous form on secondary education. I suppose once again it was the Corbynesque left-winger in me that prompted me to help lead the campaign to save and reform selection at age 11. Having lost that debate, I advocated the retention of 11-18 schools in the State sector, to complement our successful, left-wing private colleges.

With that in mind, I won’t comment further on the merits or otherwise of the various proposed models and amendments – instead, I will focus on how the debate in the Assembly is being conducted so far.

It was shocking (in the sense of alarming rather than disgraceful) to realise that not a single one of our 39 representatives deciding our future model of comprehensive education has ever seen the inside of an outstanding example of comprehensive secondary schools. It’s not their fault, but not one of them knows what outstanding comprehensive secondary education looks like. Rarely have so many ultracrepidarians* been gathered in one place to make such a crucial decision.

Many members were quick to explain that they were not educational experts and would listen to those who were. The problem with that is that none of the ESC members are educational experts either. In fact, as far as their knowledge level is concerned, ESC members seem to be stuck on Janet And John Book 2.

So who are the experts on secondary education in Guernsey? Not our five secondary school head teachers, according to the ESC president. Some deputies asked her what the secondary heads think of the ESC model and she replied that their views were irrelevant to our politicians because ‘none of them have whole education systems leadership experience’. They must feel pleased to be so highly valued!

Instead, the ESC president consistently referred to her professional education advisers. I am not sure who these shadowy persons are. Certainly the officers inherited by the current ESC 10 months ago would not be recommending the ESC model.

Don’t take my word for it – Deputy Cameron has confirmed that the ESC model was pre-determined by the ESC members and the education advisers have merely provided the committee members with what has been asked of them. That’s what civil servants do.

This leaves a problem for all of us – who exactly rates the ESC model as the best way forward? Not the secondary head teachers, not the education advisers at Frossard House, not 87% of secondary teachers.

It appears only the ESC members do, Deputy Cameron excepted.

The contributions made by four States members captured the nature of last week’s debate.

First was Deputy Cameron’s. I quote from his election manifesto.

‘I would support a school system with three 11 to 16 colleges and a separate sixth form centre. I believe this to be the most efficient and cost-effective choice.’

And yet there he was last week, as an ESC member, leading on an amendment that sought to exclude that very same model. And his explanation? He had listened to the secondary school teachers, among whom only one in 10 supported the proposed ESC model. Along with other ESC members, he had met the secondary school head teachers three times and was absolutely clear that they too are opposed to the ESC plans. And he had listened to the educationalists employed by ESC and noted that the ESC model was not their preferred model either. In fact, he hadn’t found anyone with experience or knowledge of outstanding comprehensive schools who supports the ESC model.

In short, the overwhelming evidence had changed his mind. Fair enough.

Not so for the ESC president. Blow all this inconvenient evidence. Speaking in the States Assembly as ESC vice-president in the previous political term, she proposed to lay an amendment on behalf of the ESC that would offer a pragmatic solution to the problem of finding the best way ahead. And her solution? None other than a model of two 11-16 schools and one 11-18 school. It’s there in Hansard. And yet there she was last week demonising Deputy Cameron for proposing the identical model, claiming it would ruin secondary education in Guernsey. She couldn’t think of a single good thing to say about the model she had recommended last term and offered no explanation for this volte face.

That wasn’t her only complete U-turn. During the election campaign she made great play of the absolute necessity for any model to have the support of secondary teachers. Now that the ESC model plainly does not have that support, her message has changed to one of insisting that it is not for teachers to have a decisive role in determining the model.

The third flip-flopping deputy was Deputy Mahoney. I quote from his election manifesto on the subject of secondary education models. ‘When the vast majority of the island teaching professionals believe that it won’t work – I’m inclined to listen.’ It now seems that this deputy is no longer inclined to listen when the vast majority of our teaching professionals are telling him the ESC model won’t work – in debate last week he was one of its most enthusiastic supporters.

Deputy Dyke has also been changing his stance as often as a chameleon changes its colour. In his election manifesto he demanded that governance of schools should be devolved from the centre, yet a few months later he voted against requiring ESC to do it. In the same manifesto he warned that ‘Squeezing hundreds of extra pupils into Beaucamps… will produce overcrowding.’ Blow me down, but there he was last week voting to send up to 250 extra students to Les Beaucamps without building so much as one extra inch of space there.

I wonder what all those teachers are thinking now, 10 months after voting for candidates on the strength of empty words and promises about education.

I end with a thought about the mad world we live in. At the general election, Deputies Dyke, Helyar, Le Tissier and Vermeulen announced their intention to introduce States-funded scholarships for students to attend our private colleges. This means that having promoted the ESC model as Guernsey’s best possible secondary education system, they will next propose using taxpayers’ money to help some parents avoid using that same system for their children. Kafkaesque.

*Ultracrepidarians. Early 19th century term for those who hold forth on subjects on which they have no expertise whatsoever.

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