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February 13, 2003
The Omnicompetent Group delusion

The Political World seems to indulge in a regular pattern of focussing in on a particular category of people who between them will Sort Out The Mess in whatever situation is now a mess, Get A Grip, Take A Lead, until such time as this group of people are likewise revealed as being only human and just as incapable of doing the impossible as any other group of people.

But instead of recognising that no one is omnipotent or omniscient, and accepting the necessity of a free society in which no one is even pretending to be omnipotent or omniscient because that would be too humiliating, and would involve admitting that too many disreputable people had been right all along and too many respectable people had been wrong all along the answer to each crisis of failed omnicompetence is "solved" simply by appointing another category of persons who this time, this time, will work the miracle. These people, unlike all previous clay-footed gods, are so wondrously clever that if we give them unlimited powers, all will be well.

The most common manifestations of this delusion are the occasional outbursts of euphoria, such as gripped Political Britain in 1997 when our present government first swept to power, to the effect that the voters have at last identified an Omnicompetent Group of Politicians. Britain's voters have now just about got it clear in their heads that these particular politicians are not omnicompetent either, but, having now lost faith in the whole idea of omnicompetence (good) don't know what to do about it except be miserable (bad).

In the world of British education, the Omnicompetent Group is now called Ofsted, which stands for the Office of what? "st"andards in "ed"ucation? Something along those lines. Here's a story from the invaluable education.guardian.co.uk which shows the power that Ofsted now has.

A headteacher whose disappearance caused a police search ran away to the Lake District under the strain of an upcoming Ofsted inspection, it emerged yesterday.

Michael Ironmonger, 46, failed to arrive at his school, Nortonthorpe Hall in Scissett, West Yorkshire, on Monday. His wife Lesley, 43, raised the alarm and officers from three police forces spent almost two days searching the Pennines for his car.

Fears that he had been involved in an accident were dispelled when he telephoned home from Ambleside, Cumbria.

Mr Ironmonger was resting yesterday after returning to his home in Ashton-under-Lyne, Greater Manchester.

His wife said: "It's a relief to have him home. We were worried out of our minds. We didn't realise Mick was under such pressure. He was due to receive a letter from Ofsted any minute telling him when they were going to visit the school for inspection.

"It just goes to show the effect these Ofsted inspections can have. I don't think people realise how much pressure they can put teachers under."

It's actually becoming quite hard to persuade anyone to be a head teacher in Britain these days.

A few years ago, the idea was that the Head Teachers themselves were the Omnicompetent Group. That turned out not to be true, and Ofsted has now replaced them as the focus of the educational version of the Omnicompetent Group Delusion, and stories like the above will serve to reinforce the idea that Ofsted are It, and Head Teachers are not.

But what happens when Ofsted itself is likewise revealed, as it will be, as having clay feet? Give it a few years, and they too will find themselves under that special form of intense public scrutiny more like the bitter row between lovers falling out of love than a serious policy debate that happens when yet again, education nirvana has proved elusive and yet another Omnicompetent Group is dethroned. After all giving Head Teachers nervous breakdowns is not quite the same as making education any better, now is it?

There is a real danger that Home-Educating Parents will, eventually, any decade now, be identified in Britain as education's latest Omnicompetent Group. This is certainly the thrust of quite a lot of Home-Ed propaganda I've read.

The people who now choose to do Home-Ed, in defiance of the conventions of their time, are mostly doing amazingly well. This is not at all surprising, given the kind of people that they are. But this doesn't mean that if all parents were suddenly badgered into doing Home-Ed against their present inclinations or desires, that the results would be nearly so nirvanic. It is vitally important that Home-Ed be pushed not as the latest Omnicompetence Delusion, but merely as one version of freedom in action, with all the least-worst type disappointments that freedom involves.

If Home-Ed parents do get installed as an Omnicompetent Group, and then revealed as being unworthy of such status and dethroned, and then subject to the kind of bureaucratic oversight that's now piled upon Head Teachers, then education.guadian.co.uk will in due course be running Home-Ed disaster stories similar to the story of the wretched Mr Ironmonger.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:51 PM
Category: Home educationPolitics

My father is a retired Head Teacher. The one thing I learned from this was that I would never become a Head Teacher under any circumstances.

Comment by: Michael Jennings on February 13, 2003 08:48 PM
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