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NO CHEERS FOR ACADEMIA – Naught out of ten!

March 28th, 2011

Professor Ralph Wedgwood, professor of philosophy at Merton College Oxford, and Christine Taylor, its Development Officer, came to Death of a Nightingale at the New End Theatre, Hampstead last week.

Here is my email to them:

What made the whole thing more poignant for me was to meet up with a member of the Wedgwood family. You would see, more than most, the bulldozing of Brighouse School as a metaphor for the destruction of valued possessions and the erosion of excellence in our society. When I was living in Sunderland I saw the demise of another great company with even older provenance, Hartley Wood making stained glass for cathedrals, stained glass having come to the North East at the time of Adam Bede.

There has to be something very badly wrong with this country to allow the destruction of its manufacturing base, as against other European countries that have managed to protect theirs. The fine brains in Oxford really should have directed their thoughts to understand the reason.

For me I now go back, as I said, to the lectures by the eminent Herbert Hart, the one bit of academic learning I truly value from my Merton days. I sense that you can trace the problem to the words people use and the way they use them. They condition their thoughts; in today’s world ‘programme’ them.

Hence in the posts in my Blog, I look at words like Equality and Rights and see how they are used and abused, and I look the word Equity/fair play and seeing how it is undervalued. In particular I see the legal rights that don’t carry benefits you can sometimes better be without, and Equality, so far from being fair as lawyers assert, sometimes monstrously unfair and unwise.

I argue at the outset of these posts, the UK needs a detox, and that this is where you should begin.

These are philosophical thoughts, surely, and I would welcome an opportunity to discuss them further with you.

There are constitutional thoughts as well. How Inclusion became Law, starting with an amendment to the Education Bill in 1976 in a debate on school milk in the House of Lords. How the checks and balances that I always thought were in place to combat the abuse of power have, one by one, been disabled; Helena Kennedy’s Power Inquiry in 2004 disabled before it was even enabled!

The other thing I am sure that you will have picked up from your visit is my criticism of my own time at Oxford. While I enjoyed and benefited from the experience, in retrospect the subjects I covered in jurisprudence were a preparation for life as a legal ‘termite’, preserving an archaic system more interested in perpetuating itself than serving the interests of justice for the general public.

A study of other contemporary legal systems would have been much more useful than Roman Law and International Law. Apart from anything else – and there would have been much else – that would have shown me and others that you do not need to divide lawyers between the barristers and solicitors. This serves to keep the meter ticking longer, puts up the cost of justice and favours the powerful against the weak and state patronage.

I could have benefited from some pro bono work in tribunals where rules and regulations, law and precedent place unrepresented claimants at a huge disadvantage. I know this personally because my wife with her law degree represented claimants on behalf of Sunderland CAB until the Local Authority closed it down for the sake of a £50k saving.

Also, I would have benefited from some psychology in my studies. It was only later that I realised that the world was not the rational place that academics and lawyers behaved as though it were.

You will also have picked up the reference to professors criticising the ‘individualised approach’ to teaching. The line in the play that Tom Scott, its director, didn’t like and edited out, is the comment that “these professors go on to teach their students the error of their ways, and their students have to repeat them to pass their exams. UGH” He preferred more simply “And they go on to teach this nonsense to their students.”

The full quote belongs to Professor Alan Dyson of Manchester University.

‘We need, for many children at least, to abandon the individualised approach that has become the shibboleth of special needs education. Children with difficulties do not come into schools in ones – they come in 10s, scores, even hundreds. Instead of a case-by-case approach, we need robust organisational and teaching strategies, which schools can routinely use on whole groups of learners.

We should acknowledge that the difficulties experienced by many children arise not from their individual characteristics but from their social and family circumstances. The problems they face are compounded by structures of schooling, which marginalise their interests. Therefore, we should seek structural responses. Some of these must address broad social and economic issues. Some will have to look again at the underlying structures of the education system – such as competition between schools, and the impact of target-setting.’

Of course, the worst-case scenario is where academics become the consultants to Government, feeding back what it wants to hear. I am pretty sure that Prof. Dyson was one of the people writing the report entitled Costs and Outcomes for pupils with moderate learning difficulties in Special and Mainstream Schools 1999. ‘It is important to be clear, therefore, that an analysis of costs and outcomes cannot properly be used to determine questions of rights.’ Do you endorse that?

This report, when you look at the detail, should have been referred back relying as it did on a 9% response from145 LEAs who ‘sent information or undertaking studies’. It was the blind leading the blind. And no doubt Alan Dyson’s students were themselves blindfolded, and had to go along with this way of thinking or fail their exams.

Prof. Dyson is just one of a cohort of academics subscribing to the dogma of Inclusion,– the archetypal termite – stigmatising special schools in the process. They all delete my emails without reading them. Well, Death of a Nightingale is my response. I dare say they’d like to bin that too. In the closing words of Tracy, “I’m not going to blow away in the wind.” Then if Brighouse School is a metaphor for all those good things destroyed by vandals, SEN is a metaphor for the West’s whole approach to a lot of other things, almost everything that can be labeled a cock-up from Enron and the Credit Crunch right down to the closing of that CAB in Sunderland.


I am still awaiting that dialogue with my old college.

Jan Woolf was a special  needs teacher in London for many years. She has also been an events producer, cultural activist  and film censor.  She is now a writer, holding the first Harold Pinter writer's residency at the Hackney Empire in 2010, where her play Porn Crackers was produced. Fugues on a Funny Bone - her collection of short stories (inspired by some of the children she used to teach) has just been published.