‘Tis the season to be merry, but that’s not so easy given all the current financial cuts to public services and the DfE’s educational policies. Accordingly this year’s All Change Please! Longread Festive Post is an extract from Chancellor George ‘Ozzy’ Oswell’s little known dystopian novel Twenty Fifty One, which he wrote some 36 years ago in 2015 as an exploration of the impact of what he anticipated would be a never-ending period of austerity, hate and terror. In this fragment, recently recovered from a partly vapourised copy found near a memory hole, we learn about the work of MiniFed – the Ministry of Education – and its continuing attempts to obliterate the idea of progressive education from history.
Some have suggested that there might have been a deliberate connection with George Orwell’s classic novel Nineteen Eighty Four, by co-incidence also written 36 years earlier in 1948. In case there are those (like All Change Please!) who have not re-read 1984 since they were at school, here’s a very brief re-cap…
The plot of 1984 involves Winston Smith, who while carefully maintaining a facade as a loyal outer party member, suspects that his true allegiance lies with the discredited Brotherhood who used to meet at the Chestnut Tree Cafe. O’Brien, an Inner Party member, lends him a copy of the supposedly destroyed writings of the Brotherhood, but he is secretly a member of the Thought Police. Eventually Winston is sent for treatment in a correction centre, where he learns to fully appreciate the care of Big Brother.
Along the way we learn that:
- Room 101 is a torture chamber in which prisoners are made to confront their worst fears.
- The telescreen is a two-way TV screen in every room that includes a surveillance camera that watches what everyone is doing, hence the phrase ‘Big Brother Is Watching You’.
- The speakwrite is an automatic dictation device.
- There is a state of permanent war with Eurasia.
- The Party has three main slogans, which exemplify the idea of Doublethink: WAR IS PEACE, FREEDOM IS SLAVERY, IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH
- The developing minimalistic language Newspeak uses contracted forms of old english intended to remove all shades of meaning to make thinking more automatic and controllable.
Essentially, Winston lives in a world of perpetual war, omnipresent government surveillance and public manipulation of information, overseen by a small, privileged elite that persecutes individualism and independent thinking as thought crime. 1984 is not just a commentary on the emerging communist states, but of any totalitaritarian system in which a single party has excessive, unchallenged power.
But now, here’s the recovered extract from Oswell’s 2051:
Wisdom Smith paused, sitting back from his desk piled high with ink pencil-splattered exercise books and well-worn, brown paper covered, traditionally printed textbooks. Often he wondered why he bothered – just 2% of the children in his class would obtain the necessary grades to get in to a RussUni and become top ranking inner-party members, and only 13% would end up doing well enough in their EBacc exams to become middle party members like himself. The rest would have to make do with the worthless, low-status Pass-Level EBaccs (commonly known as PLEBs). Of course the officially- announced MiniFed figures stated that 90% of children were awarded the full High-level EBacc, and that each year the percentage rose as a result of an increase in Party control, but he knew that just couldn’t be true. In reality all MiniFed were doing was ensuring that the majority of the population remained uneducated, and that power would remain in the hands of the academic elite.
Wisdom decided he’d done enough marking for one evening. Somewhere in the back of his mind he still felt it hadn’t always been like this – once he had found teaching rewarding. Furthermore he had this notion that once long ago in the dark ages there used to be devices with the letters of the alphabet laid out in neat rows that you tapped on and the words somehow appeared on a screen in front of you and could be easily sent to someone else. He’d spent hours in the school library trying to find a reference to such magic, but without success and he had presumed it must just have been something he dreamt, along with the images of countless Unteachers, long since vaporised out of the profession. But if he squeezed his mind hard enough he thought he could vaguely remember some miraculous devices called – what were they? – smart-phones and iPads – long ago denounced as the disruptive work of The Blob and written out of history. Now there was just the Siri Speakwrite machine.
And then surely around this time of winter there had been a festive holiday called Christmas which he dimly recalled as having been a jolly celebration but was now universally called Black Friday, followed immediately after by Cyber Monday when the tradition was that everyone went madly shopping and spent all their savings on worthless junk, though no-one seemed to know quite why or how it had started.
Suddenly the telescreen blared out, reminding everyone it was nearly time for the daily Two Minute Hate. As usual it began with a short video sequence from one of The Party’s most reviled conspirators and leader of the Robinsonhood who had once published a wicked, blasphemous book called ‘Creative Schools: Revolutionizing Education from the Ground Up’, all copies of which had long since been vaporised. Just in case anyone was watching him, Wisdom dutifully shouted out the required number of Hates.
After the Two Minute Hate there was news item announcing the wonderful news that provision of ArtsEd in schools was to be doubled from one whole school former assembly time a week, to two (even though Wisdom knew that not so long ago it had been three sessions a week). This was followed by news about the great success of the latest bombing raids in Middle Eastonia. Finally, to calm the cheering masses down, a short nostalgic documentary followed, celebrating the very first Michaela School – now of course there were thousands of them spread all over the country.
Wisdom reflected again how the identical neat blue uniforms had obviously been the inspiration for the regulation blue overalls all party members now wore. And for perhaps the first time, Wisdom noticed the phrase KNOWLEDGE IS POWER on their school sign, which had become the first of the MiniFed’s own slogans, followed by BEHAVIOUR IS STRICT and EVERYTHING IS ACADEMIC.
As he gazed at the enormous poster on the classroom wall reminding everyone of the slogans, some alternative versions began to occur to him. He wondered if he dared write them down in his secret diary in case Big Ofsted was watching, as another large poster on the wall continually reminded him it was. The last thing he wanted was a visit from the Thought Police. Sometimes he wondered if Big Ofsted did actually exist, or if it was just another propaganda invention created by MiniFed and just there to perpetuate the culture of fear, obedience and hate.
Nervously, as a spy-drone hovered near the window, he wrote down his alternative versions:
ACTION IS POWER
LEARNING IS MESSY
EVERYTHING IS AWESOME
As well as teaching, Wisdom worked part-time re-writing education history, closely following the instructions he was given from above. It was indeed he who had drafted the now universally accepted text blaming the Robinsonhood for the disastrous and rapid decline in standards that children were exposed to in the late 20th and early 21st century as the result of widespread progressive education, and that as a result Robinsonism must be completely and finally eliminated. Indeed the history books and journals now recorded the successful rise and victory of Govism which was gratefully welcomed by the entire teaching profession who had been clamouring for such reforms for decades. Of course, few people realised that Gove himself had never actually existed, having been a clever invention of the MiniFed propaganda department.
Wisdom left the building to attend his compulsory weekly Hour of Code session. Everyone was required to spend this time in the attempt to try and learn trying to learn how to code in two different out-dated programming languages. There seemed no sensible reason for this as the vast majority did not possess the necessary aptitude, and there was hardly anyone able to teach it. However it had become an established tradition introduced in the Govian era even though no-one knew why or saw any purpose in it.
The MiniFed were of course experts in Doublethink propaganda. They continually repeated completely misleading statements that simply reversed the truth, such as:
- Thanks to the education reforms of the past 5 years, significant progress has been made in raising standards in England’s schools.
- Poor quality qualifications have been removed from performance tables so pupils are leaving school with those most valued by employers and universities
- New, gold-standard GCSEs and A Levels will equip young people with the knowledge and skills to succeed in the modern world
- The introduction of the EBacc has had no effect on Arts education
- There is no recruitment crisis
- There has never been a better time to be a teacher
Over the years Wisdom had come to understand that there was no point sitting around waiting for the Robinsonhood to rise up again – the Party was just too strong and clever to ever allow that to happen. The only thing he could do was to quietly break the rules as often as possible when no-one was looking. He now realised that while the Nationally-imposed Party Curriculum defined what must be taught and tested, it did not include a list of things that must not be taught and need not be tested.
Unfortunately the fragment of recovered text ends here, but there a few people still alive who remember reading Oswell’s novel, and have provided the following account of how it ended:
O’Glibbly was a smooth-talking member of the Inner Party who Wisdom believed was, like himself, an undercover member of the Robinsonhood. One day Wisdom foolishly decided to show him his forbidden diary with his alternative slogans, but O’Glibbly then revealed himself as a secret agent of the Thought Police. As a result Wisdom ended up in the OFSTED Re-education Centre Classroom 101, where he was forced to confront his greatest fears – supervising hours and hours of cover lessons with no work set, week-long mindless exam supervision sessions, writing endless lesson plans that would never be used, and compiling copious irrelevant data about his pupils. After being suitably brainwashed he was allowed to return to a compliant existence in the spreading Michaela Chestnut Tree Academy, for which he is now grateful.
So how well did Orwell and Oswell’s novels foresee the world as it is today, in 2051? As inventions and innovations of the 20th century showed, it’s relatively easy to predict the future – it’s working out the timescales involved that’s difficult. Although the projected dates of both Orwell and Oswell’s novel titles were intended to be notional rather than precise, it’s interesting to consider that while Orwell’s future took some 70 years to materialise, Oswell’s had become a reality by 2020.
In many ways their predictions were worryingly accurate, but there were several things Oswell missed, or perhaps chose to miss. First that it was not so much Big Ofsted that would be watching, but Big Data that came to define the learning experiences of most children, with each telescreen question delivered by the Pearsonalised Quick Smart Total Teach And Test system (known as TOTAT), finely adjusted to match the global levels of knowledge recall expected of a child born on that particular date.
And secondly that Ofsted had of course realised that informing teachers that they were being watched made them too careful about giving away any secret association with the Robinsonhood. Instead they decided to permit teachers to have access to networked computers (though smart phones and tablets are still considered to be far too disruptive for children to use), and promoted the Doublethink message that teachers would no longer be observed in the classroom – while in reality, every email they sent or received, every internet search they made and every blog post they read was closely and secretly monitored. As a result, many more teachers suddenly and inexplicably ‘left’ the profession, mysteriously to never be seen or heard of again, leading to the severe teacher shortages that dominated the latter half of the second decade of the century.
Which means of course that if you’ve read this far, you can probably expect a visit from the Thought Police in the very near future….
Until then, Merrymas and Hapyear one and all!
Image credit: Flickr: Tim Rich / Shepard Fairey / Tristram Shepard