Lovers of Gilbert and Sullivan will not need to be reminded that the second act of The Gondoliers is set in “Barataria,” a fictional land which is ruled by “a monarchy that’s tempered with republican equality.” The opera satirizes the inflexible social order of Victorian society by turning it on its head and mocking the no-less-absurd result. The plot, of course, is resolved by events as improbable as they are comic: Everyone is happy at the end.

Lovers of learning could be forgiven for thinking that, if W.S. Gilbert were alive today, he would surely write a story set in “Banausia,” a tyranny that’s tempered with—and mediated through—the illusion of educational equality. That, too, would be the story of a world turned upside-down, intellectually and culturally. It would be the story of contemporary English education. And Gilbert would have to strain his comic vision to its limit to come up with a happy ending.

Why “Banausia”? Because in an exact inversion of the values of ancient Athens, those who rule contemporary Britain have respect only for the practical outcomes of education. In fact, for all their use of the E-word—the prime minister’s scriptwriters have instructed him never to mention it without repeating it twice thereafter—few contemporary politicians of any influence show any sign of having the faintest idea what it means. When Mr. Blair says—again, and again, and again—that his priorities are “Education, Education, Education,” he is not speaking about education at all, but of training: of drudges, by drudges, for drudgery.

If anyone were ever to doubt this, he need only look at the brass plate on the front door of what used to be called the Ministry of Education. It is now styled the “Department for Education [as if, on the evidence, anyone might think it was agin’ it] and Employment.” The question “Why do we have education?” is both posed and answered on that plaque. Is it to liberate the mind, to hand on the cultural inheritance, and to pursue knowledge and understanding for its own sake? No: It is to prepare our children for work. That’s why double-minister David Blunkett is flogging a utilitarian two-horse chariot, and that is why the elegant, independent-spirited thoroughbred of Learning has been put out to whatever scant grass it can find.

But things are far worse than this. What has happened in England is not just the debasement of education. It has not merely been diminished; it has been perverted—skillfully, and for a political purpose. Education is no longer an independent field of human activity supported and encouraged by the government, but a tightly controlled medium through which that government exercises power—over the future, as well as the present. Alan Ryan, warden of New College, Oxford, puts it concisely: “It’s all about control, punishment, inspection, telling people how to do things.” There is still an educational elite, of course, though it is no longer made up of the learned, but of the powerful—those who control education from without. Learning has fallen victim to a kind of secular Erastianism in which the greater is subordinated to the lesser. Schools are no longer expected to be self-renewing fountains of learning, where educated teachers re-invest their knowledge and wisdom in society; they are to be anti-intellectual boot camps in which a state-scripted curriculum is delivered.

In every primary school in the land, an hour is now spent teaching “literacy”—what we used to call reading and writing—from a script so detailed that almost the only variation permitted is in the names of the children in the class. Starting next year, mathematics will be taught in the same way. Throughout the rest of primary and secondary schooling, the national curriculum dictates precisely what will be taught, and the omnipotent, inquisitorial malice of the inspectorate makes sure it is taught in precisely the way the government wants.

This passion for centralized uniformity is boundless. At one comic extreme, the government has commissioned a normative scheme of decoration and furnishing for staff rooms—even though teachers these days hardly have time to enter them except to clear their bulging pigeonholes of obscenely wasteful quantities of paperwork. At the other, more sinisterly, it has allocated one billion pounds to a computerization program (“one of the largest committed by any government in the world”) that will connect every school to what it calls a “National Grid for Learning,” so that teachers and pupils can access Whitehall-approved lesson plans and learning materials. Launching the scheme last November, ministers were anxious to point out that they were not trying to use this new technology to “seize control of information that could be used in the classrooms,” but the practical outcome, of course, will be precisely that. For despite its pitiful deference to the Mammon of market forces, New Labour is carefully nationalizing the one commodity the market cannot control: thought.

But the introduction of the National Grid for Learning marks more than the totalitarian reprogramming of the national machinery of education. This, the definitive system of teaching by numbers, also has the advantage of cutting out the middleman—the teacher. At least, it reduces him or her to the status of a mere classroom assistant, whose job is to wander round the room in which the children are latched on to their computers like so many piglets on the fat sow of the state, picking up and re-attaching those that drop off. This is a timely development. It will hardly surprise the reader to learn that secondary-teacher recruitment in England is on the very brink of collapse. Despite the government’s recent (and offensively facile) advertising campaign—”Nobody forgets a good teacher!”—almost nobody wants to be one anymore. There are massive shortfalls in most major subjects, with so few candidates offering themselves to be trained to teach mathematics or science that the government has been forced to offer a £5,000 bonus to those that do.

And yet, incredibly, the government recently reduced the target figure for this year’s recruitment of putative teachers, even though colleges failed wretchedly to meet the one that was set for 1998. The announcement of this cut (of 13 percent) was made under cover of the Christmas holiday, prompting those who spotted it to claim that the government was ashamed of having to make it. But a more cynical (and possibly more accurate) interpretation would be that the government is planning for a future without teachers—at least, without teachers in the traditional sense of the word. After all, the standard of those candidates who do come forward to be trained has been in free-fall for years. Trainee teachers now have the lowest grades at A level of any university students—an average of two D’s and an E. (Those preparing for a career caring for animals, by contrast, hold an average of three A’s.) To entrust the academic future—and, for that matter, present—of our children to such a declining body of dullards is clearly a non-starter.

You don’t have to be dumb to become a teacher in Blair’s Britain, of course, but you certainly have to be dumb to want to become one. Or blindly optimistic. The profession is about to be split into two lanes—fast and slow—so that the doctrine of performance-related pay can be accommodated. Some might be tempted to join the fast-track “officer class” that will emerge, better paid than the slow-track majority, who will be mere NCO’s—national curriculum operatives. But even the stupidest of those on the brink of tertiary education must have noticed the relentless vilification of teaching by the “knowledge economists” who now politically control it. For years now, teachers have been publicly picked over and scrutinized with all the dispassionate delicacy of the Ayatollah Kalkhali paddling through the entrails of that poor American pilot. The claim that teachers are inadequate has proved to be the ultimate self-fulfilling prophecy, and, ultimately, its self-fulfilling prophet is Her Majesty’s headline-grabbing chief inspector of schools, Chris Woodhead.

In 1995, at the end of a round of inspections by his Office for Standards in Education (known by its ugly acronym, “Ofsted”), Woodhead famously announced that he estimated there to be 15,000 incompetent teachers who ought to be sacked, and that “thousands more” were “on the borderline.” The claim was a statistical non sequitur. School inspections then did not even attempt to assess individual teachers. But the figure was printed in large type on the front pages of all the newspapers, and it stuck in the public consciousness. Four years later, the man who believes in performance-related pay for teachers reported again. Now, he tells us, there are—yes, 15,000 incompetent teachers who ought to be sacked. So much for his own performance.

But such claims have brought about the virtual beatification of Woodhead in the eyes of the unthinking right, who rejoice that a figure of such authority should offer them an identifiable minority upon which to pour legitimized contempt. Papers like the Daily Mail (a journal whose appeal embraces the conservatively stupid and the stupidly conservative in equal measure) have rarely printed his name unqualified by the words “the admirable.” For many, he is not just the embodiment of “standards”—a word that falls often from his lips—but the very standard itself, fluttering in the face of all those inadequate teachers. And last year, the government awarded him a second term in office with a headline-grabbing 40-percent pay increase. No wonder the Observer placed him 208th in its list of the 300 most influential people in Britain. Not many of the top 300, though, enjoy the apparently invincible security of tenure of Chris Woodhead. Proof of that occurred recently, when he survived a scandalous weekend in the papers which few others could have endured. The government is preparing legislation to criminalize sexual relationships between teachers and pupils aged 16-plus—hitherto an area covered by professional discipline. After a university lecture, Woodhead said that he believed that such relationships could sometimes be “educative” and “experiential.” His words were widely reported—along with the fact that Woodhead, who had once been a teacher himself, had lived for nine years with one of his own ex-pupils after leaving his wife and new baby in 1975. But far from resigning, he simply apologized, recanted, and carried on—with the public support of the education minister himself.

The virtual apotheosis of Dr. Woodhead might be good news for him, and comforting in the lounge bars and golf clubs where his health is drunk, but it is bad news for teacher recruitment. His unassailable standing is quite particularly responsible for the refusal of intelligent young people to offer themselves as teachers, for the rush to early retirement by those in mid-service, and for the nauseated ennui of those who just can’t get out. Yes, poor pay, long hours, wasteful bureaucracy, and the contempt of uncivilized children and adults alike play their part, but all of these are constantly fueled by the relentlessly self-righteous public utterances of a chief inspector whom it has suited two successive governments to endow with the status of a messiah. Nobody with any wit now seriously considers embarking upon a career which would have to be spent with that squat toad, Ofsted, on his back.

The delicious irony—for those who take pleasure in tastes of such bitterness —is that the demonic paradigm that Woodhead is pursuing is extinct. It is years since the witless ideals of the hubristic, Camaby-Street-clutter-brained 1960’s have polluted English education. Indeed, the last time that such creatures stalked the metal-casemented corridors of our box-like, brick-built state comprehensive schools was when—mirabile dictu—Christopher Woodhead was a teacher himself And what sort of teacher? Precisely the sort that he now vilifies. For Woodhead’s public crusade is in pursuit of the dragon of his own past— the definitive trendy. Considering that the man himself has claimed that anyone can walk into any school and size it up in an hour, at £150,000 a year.

Ofsted is some indulgence—even for a messiah. Ofsted inspections are stressful, invasive, and hideously expensive. More importantly, they are totally destructive of goodwill. The burden is upon the teacher to prove that he is doing his job to the satisfaction of the inspector; the presumption is that he is not. Teachers drown in paperwork, for they have to justify themselves by planning, recording, and analyzing their every action, as well as those of the pupils they teach. Why? Because nothing in teaching or learning is valued unless it is measurable and provable. While Britain’s contemporary masters sing of the “professionalism” they expect of teachers, the notion that the teacher is in any real sense a professional —that is, one whom society trusts, by virtue of his qualification or experience, as entitled to profess his art—is dead. Respect is conditional upon the approval of a machinery controlled (with enthusiasm) by one man. It is nonsense. It is also a fraud.

Figures are now beginning to emerge which show that the “scientific” methodology of Ofsted is not just destructive, but laughably inaccurate. Twenty-five percent of schools inspected last year reported that grades were awarded for lessons that had not even taken place. (Precisely this happened to a colleague of mine recently, who received grading for four lessons, though only two had been observed.) Analysis by the Times Educational Supplement, the professional journal of teachers, claims that one in six schools classified by Ofsted as failing (a cataclysmic condemnation) should not have been. According to a previous chief inspector, Professor Eric Bolton, the role of the chief inspector is now “out of control,” for he “can range where he will and justify his pronouncements by selecting as he pleases from the huge mass of inspection data that now exists.”

After last term’s week-long inspection of the inner-city school in which I have taught for the last five years, I know exactly what Professor Bolton means. Ofsted reports provide a statistical analysis of those lessons observed—but in our case, at least, the selection was neither random nor representative. Experienced teachers were visited a couple of times and left alone, but novices—and substitutes—were observed repeatedly. The language in which Ofsted’s judgments are expressed, though, suggests scientific objectivity, and a credulous public accepts it. After all, you can’t argue with science. Except that this is the science not of Galileo or Copernicus, but of the Inquisition which judged them.

My own experience of the inspection, though, was hardly of 17th-century Hispanic intensity. I did, mind you, have to suffer the indignity of being told by an inspector who was not an English graduate, and had not taught in the last decade, that my “knowledge of subject” was “good.” It seemed discourteous to point out to him that this judgment had been reached some 21 years earlier, thank you, by one of our more ancient universities, which awarded me an honors degree in it. But when he went on to tell me that my teaching style should have been “more pedestrian,” I could hold my tongue no longer. Had it been so, I countered, he would undoubtedly have told me that the lesson had not been lively enough. Warming to my theme, I questioned not just his judgment but the absurdity of the system that had sent him there to make it.

It was then he informed me that, at some stage during the literature lesson with my class of 18-year-olds, I had used the word “bloody.” Under no circumstances should I have done so. I was taken aback. Had he ever, I wondered, come across the works of George Bernard Shaw? And then I remembered where I was. In the kingdom of Banausia, of course, there could be only one possible answer; “Not bloody likely.”