Jane Miller writes about the axing of the Schools Council and the implications of this for educational research
Sir Keith Joseph has chosen a good moment to kill off the Schools Council. It seems that it is a good moment to kill off all sorts of things. While thousands of young men are exposed unnecessarily to violence, and to its infliction – supposedly on our behalf, more probably to satisfy the vanity of a few unjust men and women, who want to go on running this country for a bit – a whole generation of young people faces a future of unemployment. That other jingoism, which asserts that effort is rewarded and that you have only yourself to blame, will ring out as they slink off to collect their dole money. Lesser cynicisms will melt into larger ones. And besides, few people will be prepared unequivocally to defend the record of the Schools Council. It was set up in 1964, a gentler time, by Sir Edward Boyle, and its brief was then, and has, in a variety of manifestations, remained, the combining of examination reform with curriculum development. These were areas traditionally kept apart, for the soundest political reasons and with dire consequences for children and teachers and schools. That brief, it should be remembered, included neither the control and determination of curriculum content nor a consideration of what a common system of schooling might look like. The present dismantling of the Schools Council could be seen as the latest in a series of government moves since Callaghan’s ‘Great Debate’ of 1976, which have been intended to divert attention from the paring down of educational provision. Reductive talk about a ‘core’ curriculum, initiated by that debate, has served since then as a means of channelling limited expenditure away from the question of what curriculum into a particular set of pressing short-term concerns.
The Council has sometimes been unwieldy and has not always been good at applying pressure where and when it was needed, nor in working within and against the constraints of educational politics. There have been a few cumbersome research projects, and packs of classroom materials which have gathered dust because they did not speak to teachers of their own problems. Some would say that the principle of teacher representation within the committees and enterprises of the Council has been undermined by the domination of unions and professional organisations. Not a bad thing in principle, this may have worked, though, to narrow the teacher concerns the Council was prepared to address and to exclude those classroom teachers whose commitment to their work, or vulnerability to its pressures, make such public forums intimidating and unproductive. There are teachers, however, who have spent countless days in conclave under the Council’s auspices working to devise methods of assessment which might encourage rather than discourage good teaching and learning, and developing materials which supported teachers in such objectives. Several recent investigations of the Council’s activities have pointed to areas of waste, to failures to disseminate effectively, to follow through projected reforms. By killing off the Schools Council, the Government hopes to save itself a million pounds a year – enough, perhaps, to pay the carpenters who have been working round the clock recently to transform ballrooms on luxury liners into hospital wards for warships.