Late in July, well into the schools’ summer holidays, two copies of a consultation document entitled ‘The National Curriculum 5-16’ were delivered at the offices of the education department in a London borough large enough to sport three MPs. Slack and irresponsible as ever, the borough’s three thousand or so teachers were, in some cases, actually away. No doubt some of the borough’s parents (currently the nation’s darlings – provided, of course, that they are not teachers themselves, or black or unemployed) were away too. Schools have been back since the first week of September. By the last week of the month the consultation proceedings had been completed, and a national curriculum is making its way through the legislative machinery in some haste. ‘As soon as possible,’ the document insists.
A national curriculum has been welcomed even by those who are worried about schools and perhaps boroughs ‘opting out’ and the advent of privately-funded City Technical Colleges. Many of us remember that something we once saw as expansively egalitarian in its potential, and referred to as a ‘common’ curriculum, was later absorbed into the more exiguous notion of a ‘core’ curriculum not long after the Callaghan speech which launched the great debate in 1976 and the first openly advocated moves towards reducing the education service. Quite simply, a national curriculum seemed a good idea in happier days because it proposed increasing and broadening provision for all children. Now the purpose is to offer less to most children.
The Right has taken the initiative in these matters and been applauded for it. All over the country there are people – some of whom have never themselves used either the education service or the health service – who know that standards are intolerably low and getting lower. A policy of controlled vandalism is working well. Starving schools and hospitals of resources and privatising essential services like cleaning is paying off handsomely. Many a ‘right-thinking’ newspaper columnist may now write comfortably of those low standards to explain why her children are at independent schools and the family buoyant on its BUPA insurance. Those of us who work with teachers and children and go into schools have been astonishingly foolish. We thought that others listening to Kenneth Baker’s pronouncements as they tumbled out before, during and after the election would be bound to doubt his wisdom and good faith. We thought that other people would laugh, too, at his picture of all those classrooms in ‘loony left’ boroughs where peace studies were alternating with injunctions to indulge in homosexual practices before puberty set in. We thought that other people knew as we did that when Her Majesty’s Inspectors enter the classrooms of the nation and report on them, they write not of wild innovation but of dullness, of rote learning, of teaching dominated by the demands of an antiquated examination system. They sometimes write as well of schools which could do with improving their internal human relations, with becoming more sensitive to the modern world and to the lives of the families and the communities they serve. HMI also tell us about good things and new work going on in schools, especially in primary schools. Far from lagging behind other countries, the inspectorate, teachers, researchers, in-service and teaching-training institutions, local authorities and their support services, are inundated with requests from those who run education in other countries, who want to know why some of our schools are so good. There are a great many parents (not the ones who get signed up by Fleet Street) who talk of how exciting and enjoyable their children find school and how different things are from their own schooldays. Every teacher I know would want to make all schools as good as the best are now. The danger is, I believe, that a surprising number of people actually believe that that is what Kenneth Baker and the Conservative Government want.
The first thing that has to be said about Mr Baker’s consultation document is that the curriculum it proposes looks at first blush like every curriculum you’ve ever heard of. There are no secondary schools that I know of which do not allot more time to English, Maths and Science collectively than to other subjects; nor, as far as I know, are there schools where these subjects are optional. But wait a moment. The national curriculum is intended only for maintained schools in England and Wales. Perhaps you can drop maths much earlier in independent schools or leave out science. That can’t be right, though, because surely Mr Baker wants to make maintained schools as good as independent schools of the kind to which he and his colleagues prefer to send their children. So what else does his planned curriculum offer apart from all that English and Maths and Science? Well, it suggests an hour and a half of physical education, and there are, after all, some schools which are less than three-quarters of an hour away by bus from their playing-fields. His proposal to offer a half-day combined course in art, music, drama and design for all children may present some staffing problems, but I expect Mr Baker has an inside track on the skills which lie untapped in the dole queue.
Mr Baker’s week for 14 and 15-year-olds looks familiar because it is familiar. This is, as Mrs Thatcher has put it, ‘a real, orthodox curriculum’. Two days’ worth of the week will be occupied by English, Maths and Science. A half-day will go to technology, there will be half a day for learning a foreign language, half a day for history and geography, half a day for becoming a Renaissance person and half an afternoon on the bus to and from the playing-fields. So far so good. And we are still left with three-quarters of a day for compulsory religious education and some Home Economics, Business Studies, Classics and another foreign language. There is no mention of Social Studies or Community Work and no special time allowed for computing, but I daresay that would be the same for children in independent schools too. So what will the difference be between the national curriculum and the curriculum followed by schools to which Tory cabinet ministers might be prepared to send their children?
The first answer to that is that there will be considerably less choice and virtually no specialisation before 16 in maintained schools. This will be regretted by many, but is not in itself indefensible unless you consider the context in which this consistent and reduced diet is to be offered. The document only mentions Higher Education once. There are many more mentions of Further Education, of vocational training and of all those acronyms within it like CPVE and TVEI. It is with these initiatives that this spanking new undifferentiated curriculum is meant to dovetail. Wished-for outcomes of the new curriculum include developing ‘the potential of all pupils’, ‘citizenship’, adaptability to employment, keeping up economically with other countries, the production of ‘thinking and informed people’, ‘self-reliance’, ‘self-discipline’. Not surprisingly, there is no mention of that ‘academic excellence’ we used to hear so much about.
What is actually taught and achieved in maintained schools will be decided by subject panels set up by a government-appointed committee on curriculum. Their brief will be to define targets ‘sufficiently specific for pupils, teachers, parents and others to have a clear idea of what is expected, and to provide a sound basis for assessment’. The novelty of this curriculum lies not, then, in its disposition of time, its definition of subject areas or content, its approaches to pedagogy. Decisions about which forms of knowledge or skill or understanding are to be included will be taken in terms of whether they can be described succinctly enough to be generalisable across the country and whether they are susceptible to simple measurement. A week off school could blight your life if the nation’s children are required to move in lock step from the disruptions of Wat Tyler to the glories of the Falklands War. It would become harder to console the ten-year-old girl I once knew who wept to discover that her friend, a whole year younger, had ‘already done’ Rasputin at his private school. Professional testers rather than teachers will be responsible for developing ‘instruments’ of assessment, and all children in maintained schools will be expected to reach GCSE level in seven or eight subjects (a sufficiently unrealistic expectation to ensure an exploitable amount of failure) and, as well, will be tested at the ages of seven, 11 and 14 on their performance in all aspects of the curriculum. The results of all this testing will be available to the public. Many parents, I suspect, will readily opt out of schools which are obliged to put their pupils through that. I would myself. But then that is precisely what the Government wants us to do. If this curriculum is to save the Government money, it will be necessary for a considerable number of parents to recoil from those schools in which it will be mandatory.
In a recent interview with Peter Jenkins in the Independent, Mrs Thatcher outlined the place and purpose of such a curriculum with her usual candour and with what has been taken to be an even greater commitment than Baker’s to the wholesale dismantling of state education.
You are going to have three systems. First there will be those who wish to stay with the local authority, but even then, do not forget that the schools under local authorities are going to have a core curriculum and they are going to have it because some schools have failed with children. So you are going to have local authority schools and you are going to have direct-grant schools. Do not forget we had direct-grant schools before. They are slightly different, these. And then you are going to have a private sector with assisted places. That is variety.
It is within these plans for ‘variety’ that proposals for a national curriculum have to be understood. These plans start from the premise that Britain can no longer afford a comprehensive system of education for everybody. Even Mrs Thatcher knows, however, that ‘selection’ is a hard pill to swallow and that ‘selection according to ability’ was not always popular with Tory voters. Self-selection is another matter and is compatible with variety, choice, parent-power. And those who can’t pay will have a national curriculum, tests to show whose fault it all is and a smooth transition into the network of pre-vocational schemes offered to young people from the age of 14 onwards as alternatives to continuing and higher education, training or employment.
The word ‘curriculum’ has come to mean many things, from the use of space in a school’s vestibule to links with local employers. In Mr Baker’s document ‘curriculum’ means power. Twenty of its forty pages deal with proposals for a massive shift of power and control from local authorities to central government. The decoy is that parents may opt out and complain directly to the DES. However, no structures are envisaged for parents’ more positive contribution to educational debate.
The document is characterised, above all, by a determination to put teachers in their place. ‘There must be space to accommodate the enterprise of teachers’ is the least guarded reference to them. There is no sense that the delivery of the curriculum might depend on teachers. A teacher may serve on a subject advisory panel, but it would be in response to a personal invitation, not as the representative of a professional association or union. Teachers will be expected to teach a syllabus they have had no hand in creating to children who will be assessed against norms and with instruments developed by professional assessors. Neither they, nor heads, nor governing bodies, will be allowed ‘to modify the national curriculum’, though they will be expected to take the blame for its failure.
Finally, there is to be no more money. Money currently spent by local authorities on curriculum development and in-service work with teachers will be diverted back to central government. Institutions of the kind where I work, the University of London Institute of Education, will be expected to adjust their initial training and in-service work with teachers in order to prepare teachers for their new reduced role. It remains to be seen whether people of the same extraordinary calibre as those I have seen going into teaching over the last eleven years or so will consent to such a fate. Mrs Thatcher believes that talented teachers will opt into the more privileged parts of the system. Some will. My bet is that the majority will not. If I am wrong, we will return to a system of education which openly and enthusiastically works for a divided society.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.