In 1993, John Major, the British Prime Minister, stood up at the Conservative Party conference in Blackpool and announced his ‘back to basics’ campaign. It was meant to be a call for a return to ‘neighbourliness, decency and courtesy’ and a focus on education and the economy, but it became conflated in the media and popular imagination with social conservatism and family values.
Inevitably, there followed a string of tawdry sex scandals involving senior figures in the Conservative government before finally, long after Major’s political demise, we all unwillingly learnt about his own affair with Edwina Currie – an affair that had fizzled out long before he ever stepped onto that Blackpool stage.
Rank hypocrisy? I’m not sure. I’m of the old-fashioned opinion that what politicians do to improve public services is far more important than whether they have consensual affairs and I’m not certain Major ever launched the kind of moral campaign that justifies accusations of cant.
But phrases like this morph in meaning and cause trouble in the process.
Take ‘no excuses’ charter schools in the U.S. The term used to mean that educators would not use a child’s deprived background as an excuse for academic failure, but it has been shifted and misinterpreted into something quite different. Say ‘no excuses’ now and people think of a ‘zero tolerance’ behaviour policy. I think neither term – ‘no excuses’ or ‘zero tolerance’ – is an adequate or fair description of a complex school environment and so I’d now like to put them both in the bin, please.
And while we are on, let’s do the same with ‘back to basics’ when referring to Australian education. There are two reasons.
The first is personal and perhaps parochially British. The term makes me think of 1990s politicians getting their jollies and so reminds me of something I wish I never knew about in the first place. Think of the wincing, squirming discomfort that is causes me. Think of my embarrassment.
No? That’s not enough?
Alright then. How about this: There is nothing basic about good teaching.
Just take reading. English has a deep orthography that means that different phonemes can be represented by a number of different graphemes, with the same grapheme sometimes representing different phonemes. If you are taken through the planned learning sequence of a systematic synthetic programme such as Sounds Write, as I have been, then you will undoubtedly marvel at the structured way it introduces grapheme-phoneme-correspondences and how it cycles back to reinforce and embed that knowledge. It also becomes clear just how well-trained and knowledgeable the teachers need to be.
‘Back to basics’ is not just a trite three-word slogan, it is a falsehood that devalues the complex work of teachers.