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.’

The belief that ‘more has meant worse’ became an article of faith among Conservative politicians, with the result that the university cuts of the early Eighties were far more savage than they ought to have been, and many campuses were rife with rumours of imminent closure. I remember my own Member of Parliament, then a junior minister, pronouncing with an air of irrefutable fact that the universities were full of students who ought not to be there; the academics lobbying him were too stunned even to protest. We do not hear much of this episode in Conservative thinking nowadays, since a few years later the same party became a passionate convert to the notion of expanding student numbers on the cheap. But by then unemployment had risen steeply, and the young had been exposed to the Thatcherite doctrine-that the main purpose of a university education was to make it easier to get a job when you left.

The new policy of university expansion coincided, more or less, with the introduction of the National Curriculum in schools. Whether or not it was in the Government’s mind that the mass of students who had followed a centrally-approved curriculum in state schools could safely be allowed into the universities of the future, both measures had substantial all-party support. Above all, they seemed designed to make our education system more directly competitive with those of our European Community partners. The wide backing for the new curriculum was reflected in the composition of the original working groups, including the English Committee, although Brian Cox as chairman was seen as a sale choice intended to bring the progressives into line. Two decades of ideological battles within English-teaching had led to the emergence of a broad compromise over the issues of the teaching of Standard English and the literary canon, but this liberal compromise, faithfully echoed in the Cox Report, was not acceptable to right-wing ideologues or to the Tory tabloids. Cox described his proposals as ‘enabling rather than restricting, a starting-point for teachers in their discussions, not a straitjacket’, but a straitjacket of traditional grammar and prescribed classic texts was what the Right wanted. To everyone’s surprise, however, the then minister, Kenneth Baker, hid his distaste for the Cox Report, and even Mrs Thatcher demanded only minor amendments. It was left to their successors to overturn it.

The first sign of trouble to come was over the GCSE, the examination which is taken by all 16-year-olds. The GCSE had superseded the old split-level system of Ordinary Levels (for the more academically talented) and the Certificate of Secondary Education (for the rest) some years earlier. Candidates for Ordinary Level frequently attained passes in both English language and English literature, and with the inception of GCSE the number of entrants for English literature soon reached record levels: it is currently the third most popular subject after English language and mathematics. Syllabuses with a very large course-work element, in which the same units of work could be assessed for both the language and literature criteria, contributed greatly to this popularity. The Government, however, has severely cut the weighting of course-work (to not more than 20 per cent of the final assessment), and it has also redefined English literature as an additional subject requiring extra work outside the National Curriculum. State schools are being forced to enter a much lower proportion of their pupils for the examination, and this is likely to produce a corresponding decline in the numbers taking the subject at Advanced Level, and possibly at university as well. Meanwhile, the teaching time available for English is being squeezed by the needs of the other statutory subjects – notably science and technology – in the National Curriculum. The loss of accreditation and curriculum time has made the Cox proposals look unrealistic, and has led to widespread anxieties within the profession about the threat to literature teaching. Now the Government is exploiting these anxieties to promote its own agendas for literature and literacy.

In the rush to welcome the idea of a National Curriculum a few years ago, not many people seem to have remarked on the oddity of its timing. Here was a new public institution which we had done without quite happily during the decades when the national ideology had been social-democratic and corporatist. It was introduced hurriedly by a government noted mainly for its determination to break up other public institutions, including the utility services, the coal mines, the railways and the Post Office. Under John Major, the Government has continued its war against local authorities by encouraging schools to opt out of the control of local education committees. Their vision of the state school system is of a network of financially independent semi-privatised units intellectually tied to the National Curriculum which they are legally bound to teach and examine. Since the pay-off for privatising the schools is a form of ideological nationalisation, it is not surprising that its most contentious subjects are English and history.

It may be said that there is nothing new in the existence of a national ideology to which most English schools subscribe – only that in the past this was largely hidden. In American schools prayers are forbidden, but all pupils have to repeat loyalty oaths and salute the flag. In English schools compulsory religious instruction has always provided a good deal of social cement. Most schools will have supplemented Christianity with pride in the Armed Forces, the Monarchy, British industry and so on. (One of my daughters, just beginning at a state primary school, was taught of the existence of two major foreign capitals, Washington and Bahrain, because Concorde flew to them.) But now not only do we have a multicultural school population but the Monarchy and the Established Church are crumbling, the Armed Forces are dwindling, and much British industry has been subjected to terminal decay. The national obsession with sporting events is still, no doubt, an advantage to the school system, though one wonders how many opted-out playing fields will survive the next property boom. But, with the eclipse of Oxford v. Cambridge as a national fixture, sport no longer has much relevance to the social and educational hierarchy. All this gives some idea of the gulf which the teaching of Standard English and the literary heritage are now being called upon to fill. The fragmentation of English culture will be healed, our educational masters believe, if all pupils can be taught and examined on the same literary texts, the same events from British history and the same rules of grammar. The fact that such a reactionary pedagogy is likely to undermine the popularity of English as a school and university subject is no objection, since English-teaching (like sociology in the Sixties) is believed to have been taken over by the left.

The debate over the literary canon is familiar to most LRB readers. There is a good deal of fundamentalism and intolerance on each side, and one group of fundamentalists is now seeking to control the school curriculum, with the intention of making not only Shakespeare but Milton and Chaucer compulsory for Advanced Level English literature. The decay of Bible-reading at school seems to have led to an attempt to present literature as the new Bible – but for this purpose the canon must be narrowed, and the Apocrypha excluded. The Cox Report on English for ages five to 16 says merely that Shakespeare and some other pre 20th-century literature ought to be studied with its talk of extending the canon to embrace the ‘richness of cultural diversity’, this is the broad-church attitude now under attack.

Traditionally it was the responsibility of university rather than school syllabuses to deliver a representative portion of the English literary heritage. A recent survey of English degree courses in the former polytechnics, however, notes that they focus almost entirely on the 19th and 20th centuries. Shakespeare is usually available, but often not compulsory. Medieval literature is scarcely taught, and Milton and the major 18th-century writers are ‘sadly but inevitably’ beginning to disappear. Similar trends may be observed in the older universities, and they are exacerbated everywhere by the market orientation imposed by the Government. Students are increasingly regarded as consumers to be given the maximum degree of choice, while institutions cannot afford to recruit new teachers to cover any but the most popular courses. The underlying causes of the drift toward the contemporary in literary studies are harder to identify. Within any discipline the distribution of intellectual energies necessarily changes from time to time. One not wholly negligible factor among the many which might be mentioned is the influence of Brian Cox and Critical Quarterly.

At Hull in the Fifties, Cox found that most of his colleagues had little interest in or knowledge of contemporary English writing. Critical Quarterly set out to remedy this, promoting such new arrivals on the literary scene as William Golding, Thom Gunn, Ted Hughes, Philip Larkin and Sylvia Plath, all of whom soon became effectively canonised by their presence on school syllabuses. Critical Quarterly was committed to the centrality of poetry, fiction and drama to the living language, and to a conception of literary study as a form of self-development rather than a means to acquire objective knowledge. (Where the journal was comparatively weak, or saw no need to compete with the academic establishment, was in the historical understanding of literature.) As time went on and Golding and his contemporaries turned into official and unofficial laureates, Critical Quarterly had to reckon with the perception that ours is a diminished age so far as literature produced by English-born writers is concerned: the richness today is not in the national literary culture but in the international literature that makes use of the language. Brian Cox took part in the formation of a second magazine, PN Review, dedicated to an attempt to reconstruct the national literary culture. What neither magazine could countenance was a ‘heritage’ view of the subject – returning to the past to disguise the poverty of the present. This would condemn the medium of Shakespeare, Milton and Wordsworth to the status of a dead language.

The compulsory canon of literary monuments now being championed by right-wing educationalists is, it goes without saying, an English-language canon. At a time when our politics are dominated by European integration, the conception of the literary heritage that underlies the review of the English Order is profoundly anti-European. (It has been alleged that right-wingers have agreed to play down their opposition to Maastricht in return for being allowed to take control of education.) Matthew Arnold famously spoke of Europe as being ‘for intellectual and spiritual purposes, one great confederation’, and all the major English theorists of the literary heritage see it as a European, not a narrowly English entity. In this classical conception it is Milton, Wordsworth and above all Shakespeare – not their foreign competitors – who have to beg for admission. Behind Arnold and his successors such as Pater and T.S. Eliot is the achievement of Greek and Latin literature. The highest standards are set not by the English poets but by Homer, Virgil and Dante.

If anything deserves to be part of the school curriculum merely because of its contribution to our cultural heritage it is Latin, which until recently was a requirement for university entrance. The intellectual shallowness of the contemporary Right can be seen from the fact that they harp on about compulsory Shakespeare and Milton, but keep quiet about Latin. A discussion about why the teaching of a genuinely dead language could not form part of the National Curriculum today – leaving aside purely practical considerations such as the wrecking of university Classics departments by government cuts in the Eighties – would be instructive. Instead, schoolchildren will be confined to a short list of English texts which, as Brian Cox remarks, will soon become (if it is not already) a reflection of outdated social and literary opinions. On this list, according to a leaked report in the Sunday Times, H.E. Bates nestles side by side with Jonathan Swift, and Ted Hughes with Chaucer. A generation ago, Charles Lamb’s Essays of Elia would probably have been selected; nowadays hardly anybody reads Lambs essays, although teachers nervous of starting on Shakespeare with 14-year-olds are urged to ease them in with the dreary Tales from Shakespeare. If one had to choose one of Lamb’s works to introduce young people to a true conception of the literary heritage it would surely be The Adventures of Ulysses.

The reason canons are always debatable and cannot be fixed is that they are a repository of social values. The current arbiters of the National Curriculum are not mistaken about this. There is a real question about the extent to which the canon embodied in the school syllabus should still be literary – some partisans of media studies, for example, would rather it was televisual – but it is wrong to think or pretend to think, as some people on the Left do, that the choice of books on a syllabus could ever be a matter of indifference. The choice is a declaration of values. The philosophical problems of literary value do not differ in principle from those of any other sort of value, and the idea that declaring literary value to be relativistic will solve these problems is a form of contemporary self-deception.

The argument over English language teaching has also been presented as a clash between linguistic relativism and the notion of a rigidly prescribed correct standard. The Cox Report gingerly steered a middle course, declaring that Standard English should be a compulsory part of the curriculum but also defining it as simply a dialect like any other. Standard English was to be taught not on the grounds of its intrinsic correctness but for the more pragmatic reason that individuals need to be able to master it in order to enjoy democratic participation and equal opportunities. A recent document from the NCC begins the retreat from this position, defining Standard English as ‘the grammatically correct language used in formal communication throughout the world’.

The Cox Report, following the earlier report of the Kingman Committee, combined sensitivity to the issues of class and ethnic identity with a dispassionate treatment of linguistic diversity drawing strongly on contemporary linguistic science. Cox believed that non-standard speakers would learn Standard English as an additional dialect, not as a replacement for their home dialect or language. Both the home dialect and Standard English, together with a comparative ‘knowledge about language’ enabling the pupil to juxtapose the two, would have a place in English lessons. But the idea that Standard English can be taught without in some way denigrating the pupils’ own dialects may be little more than a pious hope. The fact that many middle-class pupils are able to undergo a rather less painful process of acquiring knowledge about language will not be lost on schoolchildren.

Conservatives believe that the enforcement of Standard English is part of the function of a National Curriculum and necessary to its authority. David Pascall, the current NCC chairman, has even suggested that it should be enforced in the playground. He is equally unhappy with the role assigned to ‘knowledge about language’: knowledge about language is related to formal grammar as comparative religion is related to theology. According to Cox, traditional grammar teaching is unsuitable because the Latinate model of the structure of English has long been abandoned by linguists; nor can it mean as much to pupils who no longer have to learn Latin. (It is not yet clear that we have a viable classroom model to put in the place of Latinate grammar, though the Kingman Committee laboured to produce one.) Cox also regards grammatical correctness as a myth since what is acceptable in Standard English depends partly on custom and habit, and other dialects differ from it without sacrificing system and logic. No language – least of all English – is fixed in perpetuity. I suspect that this debate will lead to an impasse so long as it concentrates on ‘correct’ English rather than good English. Good English, whether or not it is strictly based on today’s Standard, is the aim; and teachers should correct their pupils’ English in order to help them express themselves better. To judge by their cliché-littered pronouncements, many proponents of Standard English have a very limited understanding of good English.

The political manipulation and deformation of Standard English is an everyday fact. At least two of the texts that we are told will be prescribed for 16-year-olds, Gulliver’s Travels and Nineteen Eighty-Four, are concerned with it. Orwell’s Newspeak is a nightmare vision of a future Standard English, and his hero comes to believe that, if there is any hope, it must lie in the proles who have not been forced to use the standard language. Good English depends upon a knowledge of linguistic diversity and a willingness to draw on its resources. Foremost among these resources are literary texts which give us direct access to the language used in the past in different parts of our linguistic community. Huckleberry Finn, another text on the prescribed list, is certainly an aid to good English. The difficulty is that good English cannot be nationalised; Standard English apparently can.

The bitterness of the arguments over English reflects the fact that some degree of cultural nationalisation is explicit in the imposition of a National Curriculum. Such a curriculum must necessarily prescribe, and at best we can redirect and mitigate its prescriptions. A wholly non-authoritarian National Curriculum is a contradiction in terms, and nobody in the present debate has yet gone on record as saying that some obligation to study Shakespeare is wrong in principle. The bureaucratic mechanisms certainly matter. The French educational system functions perfectly well with a more centralised choice of set books than we have been used to in Britain, but at least in France the texts are chosen by academic experts and not dictated by ministers. Moreover, good teaching is possible only if teachers are allowed some variety and some space for their own professional judgment about what is to be taught (and how and when) to their own pupils. Without commitment and enthusiasm on the part of the teachers, we all know that set books are killed stone dead. These may seem very obvious truths, but in order to state them openly Brian Cox has had to lose his former reputation as an ogre of the Right, and to submit to being labelled in the Tory press as a woolly liberal.