There is a film called ‘Stepford Wives’, which gave me the inspiration for this essay. In that film all the wives in the Connecticut town of Stepford are replaced by replicant androids, who unlike the former wives are submissive and docile homemakers. These androids only have one desire and that is to please their husbands. The men in this town have created a race of women who fulfil a particular kind of male fantasy. In the England a similar process is being adopted in the teaching profession, whereby the Department of Education is trying to create android like teachers who behave in identical ways and who are responsive to the ever changing demands of the Education Minister. In the film the intent of the dominant men is to erase any trace of feminism and independent thinking in their wives. Education ministers wish to eradicate child centred education from schools and any independence of thought or action from the teaching profession. What they wish to do is to create their own ‘Stepford Teachers’.
Successive Education ministers have identified a series of qualities that they believe that make the ideal teacher. They have implemented training programmes to create teachers who possess those qualities. These new teachers have a limited range of teaching skills, which are those of the ministers imaginings. This imagining is informed by what are misremembered school days and are usually a range of rather mundane skills. Those skills must be quantifiable and measurable, otherwise how can these education ministers measure the success of their programme. Uwhat ever the skills they exclude those that are innovative and creative, as they are extremely difficult to measure.
Anybody with any experience of the classroom knows that the relationship between the learners and teacher is an extremely complex one that is not reducible to a simple range of skills. There is a degree of individuality to each distinct teaching session, in each the combination of circumstances that apply differ, even if it is the same teacher and class. Yet the education ministers believe that all teaching sessions can be reduced to a simple level of sameness which can be repeated over and over again, not only ‘Stepford Teachers’ but ‘Stepford students’. Sameness means dullness which will eventually produce a negative reaction in the students, as evidenced by one recent survey that found English students were some of the worst behaved in Europe.
There is one problem with creating a generation of ‘Stepford teachers’, they tend to be frozen in the time of their creation. They will as a profession be unresponsive to change, any change in the curriculum or teaching methods must be sanctioned from the top, only if the minister first can be persuaded of the need for change, will there be change. A story from the First World War illustrates the problem. A German plane dropped a bomb on some store house which immediately caught fire. The Australian troops rushed to the scene of the fire to put it out, unlike the British troops who assembled in parade ground formation waiting for instructions from the sergeant about what do about putting out the fire. Innovation and creativity will be lost from the English education system, a system which will have a tendency to repeat yesterday’s lessons rather than innovate.
Robert Merton’s manifest and latent functions can contribute the understanding the role ‘Stepford Teachers’ in the education system. The manifest or apparent function of The reforms are to improve state education, while the latent or real function of those reforms is increase the ministers control over the education system. Michael Gove is the latest in a sequence of education ministers who have behaved like latter day Ozymandias. What Shelley wrote about Ozymandias could be repeated about a succession of increasingly arrogant education ministers. On the plinth of the wrecked and disregarded statue of a once mighty Pharaoh are the words ‘King of Kings: Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’ The education ministers certainly try to impress themselves on the profession and country through a series of grandiose reforms.
Education ministers in their attempt to impose their wishes on a recalcitrant profession seem to have borrowed from the rulebook on governance used by Stalin. He understood that a combination of constant purges and revolution created an atmosphere of uncertainty which enabled him maintain control of the Soviet Union. Our education ministers purge schools of their staff and governing bodies by declaring them ‘failing schools’ . They then transfer power and control of these schools to their own favoured education providers who get rid of the old staff and replace them with new teachers. By constantly rewriting the rules by which schools are judged head teachers and staff can never be sure that their school will not be downgraded at the next inspection with dire consequences for them. Through exploiting such techniques which create uncertainty and fear the education ministers can ensure compliance with their dictates.
I am convinced that if one education minister decided the most effective teaching was done by teachers standing on their heads in front of the class not voice would be raised against such a proposal. Not only that but all teachers would be standing on their heads by the end of the week following the pronouncement.
What puzzles me is that these ministers are intelligent people who are usually parents themselves. In bringing up their own children they are too well aware of the difficulties of doing that successfully. One of the staples of discussion between any group parents is the disasters they experience in guiding their own children through the crises of childhood. These ministers must surely be the same as other parents. Yet these same people believe that despite their own limitations in educating their own children they are able to dictate to teachers how they should educate other people’s children. In the past ministers recognising their own fallibility would consult with educational experts and professionals before initiating changes in education. Now ministers believe that their own instincts and intuitions are a sufficient guide. Can there be a better demonstration of cognitive dissonance?
There is nothing unique to the changes that have occurred in the English education system, similar changes can be noted in all areas of the over managed English society. Usually the Neo-Liberal ideology is given as the cause of this unimaginative approach to organising society. Can I cite a different source the sense of self loathing and doubt that permeates the governing classes. This group in England is infected by a collective sense of failure. Their grandfathers were masters of the universe controlling the world’s largest land empire, their father’s fought a Great War then created the NHS and a new fairer England, whereas all the present governing class can do is manage England’s decline. Even the two last wars they participated in ended in defeat. All they can do is assuage their collective sense of failure in displays of conspicuous consumption. A group that is consumed with self loathing has a dismal view of humanity and cannot conceive of any positive or benign way of organising society, instead with such a gloomy world view all they can conceive of are authoritarian management systems that minimise the scope of individual deviancy. For them relying upon staff to be motivated by the public service ethos and to be allowed a degree of independence in deciding how best to provide that service is the height of folly. They know that the ‘stick’ is the best way to motivate them. This is why all our public services are increasing run on authoritarian lines.
This is why I fear for my future grandchildren’ education. All the reforms have the potential to make Dicken’s Dotheboys Hall seem to a chidren’s paradise with compared to the new schools peopled by ‘Stepford’ Teachers.