Nationalising English

Patrick Parrinder

  • The Great Betrayal: Memoirs of a Life in Education by Brian Cox
    Chapmans, 386 pp, £17.99, September 1992, ISBN 1 85592 605 9

Last September, at the very moment when hundreds of thousands of teenagers began to follow the first GCSE courses under the National Curriculum, the Education Minister John Patten infuriated the teaching profession by announcing an immediate review of the Statutory Order for English. No sooner had the review been announced than Mr Patten and his fellow ministers did their best to pre-empt its outcome. They let it be known that their intention was to reinforce the teaching of spelling, traditional grammar and Standard English, and to insist on a compulsory canon of literary texts.

In September the Secretary of State also announced that 14-year-olds in England and Wales would be tested on one of three Shakespeare plays – Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Later it emerged that all that most pupils will face is a test based on extracts of verse and prose in a 45-page anthology which has just been published. Meanwhile Mr Patten, who has no powers to control university entrance, has urged vice-chancellors to stop admitting students whose spelling and grammar are not up to scratch. Lady Blatch, a junior education minister, has called on school examining boards to exclude television programmes from the assessment material for English courses. Behind Mr Patten and Lady Blatch is a powerful group of right-wing advisers who believe that, by overturning the present English order, they are storming one of the last bastions of progressive education. So runs the latest episode in what Brian Cox terms ‘the great betrayal’: the betrayal of teachers and their pupils over the last thirty years by government interference, false ideologies and starvation of resources.

The current cast of this depressing production seems to have wandered off the set of a soap opera. Everyone already knows everyone else, and most of them have worked with one another for years. The body charged with carrying out the review of English is the National Curriculum Council (NCC), which last July presented Patten with a closely argued document asking for the review to be undertaken in the first place. The NCC’s chairman, David Pascall, is a former member of Margaret Thatcher’s Downing Street Policy Unit. The former head of the Policy Unit, Lord Griffiths, now chairs the School Examinations and Assessment Council (SEAC) which will soon be merged with NCC. It just so happens that Lord Griffiths also chairs the right-wing Centre for Policy Studies. Two of his sub-chairmen at SEAC – John Marks, who chairs the Mathematics Committee, and John Marenbon who chairs the English Committee – are also closely identified with the Centre for Policy Studies. Dr Marks is secretary of its education study group, while Dr Marenbon is married to its deputy director. This tight little network of political appointees now controls the National Curriculum, while the professionals of the Department for Education, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate and the local education authorities – not to mention the teachers and their national associations – merely watch from the sidelines. It is rumoured that the educational agenda of the present government is being set at dinner parties in Finchley.

On the face of it, it is quite odd that Brian Cox (who chaired the working group responsible for the thinking behind the current English Order) is no longer persona grata in Finchley. His appointment was as political as those of his successors, and though he now figures in Mr Patten’s demonology as a dangerous liberal, he once had impeccable credentials as a right-wing Conservative. In The Great Betrayal he boasts of having helped to prepare the way for Mrs Thatcher’s first election victory. ‘I, also, regard myself as a “moderate”,’ the future prime minister wrote to him in 1970 when they first became acquainted. Brian Cox still regards himself as a moderate, and perhaps he really is one. As chairman of the English Working Group he strove honourably to achieve a compromise acceptable to both Left and Right in the teaching profession. His deservedly popular proposals are now being ditched by a Conservative government which remains Thactcherite in its education policy (if in little else), and which evidently regards the teaching profession as a conspiracy, not against the laity, but against the Government.

Brian Cox’s formative experiences were not unusual among English professors of his generation. A working-class grammar school boy from Grimsby, he did his National Service before taking up a scholarship place at Cambridge. His first lecturing post was at the University of Hull, across the river from his home town. There, supported by colleagues like Richard Hoggart and Philip Larkin, he founded Critical Quarterly, a journal which continues to appeal to a mixed audience of schoolteachers and professional academics. After a year at Berkeley, during which his classes were disrupted by the Free Speech Movement, Cox returned to a Britain which seemed to him to have learned nothing from the American experience of comprehensive mass education. He moved from Hull to a professorship at Manchester, put away his CND badge, and in 1969 Critical Quarterly published the first of a series of Black Papers attacking the Labour Government’s educational policies. Shepherded by Rhodes Boyson, Cox began to meet the future intellectual leaders of the Conservative Party, which he soon joined.

Brian Cox claims to have been endowed with ‘special insights’ into the educational controversies of the late Sixties, and on the evidence of The Great Betrayal he still holds many of the opinions expressed in the Black Papers. He thinks that the schools are to blame for the disastrous increase in ‘truancy, selfishness and vandalism’ among adolescents: ‘the abdication of authority by teachers has fundamentally damaged our society.’ (Nevertheless, he regrets the extent of the public reaction against teachers in the last two decades.) On the campus battles of the Sixties Professor Cox is equally forthright. Student militancy and the violent intimidation of speakers have ‘permanently damaged the reputation of universities’. When he reports Kingsley Amis’s blunt warnings in the first Black Paper that ‘more has meant worse’ and that far too many students were being allowed to go to university, his only comment is that ‘Amis put the issue more starkly than I might have wished.’

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