- 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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Vol. 15 No. 4 · 25 February 1993
Thanks for Patrick Parrinder’s valuable contextualising of the education debate (LRB, 28 January). May I attempt one crucial re-focusing? The Government hopes to gain support by pretending that the issue is whether or not school students will gain a worthwhile appreciation of Shakespeare. We all know – don’t we? – that most students will fail to attain that. And they will be seen as failing, and will experience themselves as failing. That is what tests are for.
If the prospect was everyone learning to write like John Bunyan, then the destruction of class, regional and ethnic differences might be a price worth considering. But that is not what will happen, any more than it did when school students learnt bits of Shakespeare by heart before. It is the same with the enforcement of ‘Standard English’. When that used to be attempted, the outcome was not that everyone spoke proper, but that those whose home and neighbourhood cultures made them less successful at it were discriminated against, within and beyond the school.
‘Progressive’ teaching modes have at their heart the goal of convincing every child that he or she is a valuable person. They have developed, I believe, in a profoundly humane attempt to counter the experience of very many people in our kind of society, especially during an economic slump: the experience that they are insignificant, disposable. Unfortunately, you can’t put the system into reverse by being a good teacher. Persuading students of their individual worth makes them reluctant to take work that is humiliating in its pay and conditions. Some of them would rather sleep out in cardboard boxes, upsetting the tourists. What the Government wants is the re-creation of a prole class: people who will do as they are told because they know they are no good; because they didn’t understand Shakespeare when they were 14 and can’t speak posh.
It is the teachers who know how to use imaginative writing (some of it, perhaps, even from the dreaded soap operas) to develop their students’ creative potential. Literature-lovers should be enraged at the Government’s abuse of their culture. They’ll be trying to make us all right-handed next.
Patrick Parrinder states (rightly in my opinion) that it is little more than a pious hope to think of teaching Standard English without denigrating the pupils’ own dialects. Let me suggest means by which hope might become more realistic. The first point is obvious: the prestige and power of the ‘Standard’ dialect is so great that pupils and parents see little advantage in learning about these denigrated dialects – which are often their own dialects. The second point is less obvious and is rarely stated. Most English grammar books have titles which purport to cover the whole language; the definitive grammar book of our time, for example, is titled: A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language (Quirk, Greenbaum, Leech and Svartvik, 1985). But in fact, neither this book nor any other is comprehensive. There are holes in the way they cover the grammar of the English language. These holes are systematic and invisible because they agree closely with public prejudice about non-Standard dialects: they have no grammar when they differ from Standard grammar. In truth, these grammar books ‘of the English language’ are grammars only of the Standard dialect.
Grammarians should include in their books what all linguists know: namely, that grammar is everywhere, neither better nor worse in one dialect than in another. Regional dialects will then acquire one ground for prestige that the Standard dialed has long had: a comprehensively and officially recorded grammar. And teachers will have one tool they need for undermining a linguistic prejudice that divides the nation, supports right-wing power and denigrates the English that most people use.
I second Patrick Parrinder’s acquiescence in the Cox Report’s view that Standard English is a dialect. I teach modern languages in a Brooklyn high school; was exposed to Standard English in bilingual education in Cuba and in my years of early adolescence in New York City. What would those who are opposed to the teaching of Standard English propose we do, for example, about a person from a minority community who has aspirations to become a television anchorperson? I think we would serve that person’s wish by teaching him or her Standard English, so that that dream has a chance to be brought to fruition. To be sensitive to all students we could tell them that their learning common English is the most economic (this word being used in its strictest sense) way to achieve communication by all and for all in the world community.
Walter de las Casas
Brooklyn, New York
Vol. 15 No. 5 · 11 March 1993
Your correspondents in the last issue overlook Patrick Parrinder’s valuable insight that good English, ‘whether or not it is strictly based on today’s Standard’, should be the aim (Letters, 25 February). The most useful English, assessing it as a medium of communication (and what else is it for?), has the richest and widest vocabulary and the clearest and most logical rules of grammar. Richness is enhanced by allusions that require knowledge to catch. (This may be knowledge of Caesar’s Gallic Wars or an early instalment of Neighbours, but the former is likely to be more interesting.) On regional dialects, we need to distinguish bad from neutral features. The Cockney’s ‘he ain’t done nothing to nobody’ is bad because the literal contradicts the intended meaning. The Lancastrian’s short ‘a’ is neutral in relation to the RP speaker’s long ‘a,’ or perhaps superior (my Liverpudlian father used to jeer: ‘there’s no “r” in bath’).
Spelling became fixed in the 18th century to aid communication. The OED records 31 different spelling of ‘merry’ from the ninth century onwards; only two are permitted now (one of these only in certain combinations). Misspelling is objectionable because it checks the flow of communication. A friction-causing consequence of standardisation has been what The Oxford Companion to the English Language calls ‘spelling pronunciation’. Old pronunciations are lost because they differ from a recently-adopted standard spelling. Oxford’s River Charwell is pronounced ‘Charwell’ by knowledgeable dons and very old Oxfordshire countryfolk, but most people follow the current spelling. My 18th-century map by Isaac Taylor spells it ‘Charwell’.
One can deploy the Tower of Babel argument to defend use of Standard English. It is not many years since most people encountered throughout life only people speaking in the dialect they spoke themselves. Now, via radio and television, we are expected daily to comprehend dozens of different dialects. Standard English gives relief from this. De Quincey complained in 1823: ‘On this Babel of an earth … there are said to be about three thousand languages and jargons.’ If within each language there are dozens of dialects then human sanity cries out for standardisation.
Vol. 15 No. 7 · 8 April 1993
Francis Bennion (Letters, 11 March) is quite wrong on a number of counts. That Standard English may from time to time aid communication between speakers of different varieties of English is undeniable. This does not mean, however, that all other English dialects should be replaced by Standard English, rather than living alongside it as equally respected varieties of the language. This is not necessary; witness the Swiss Germans who have achieved one of the best standards of living and one of the highest educational levels in the world while still all speaking dialect. At a time when, apparently, the Minister of Education wants us all to speak the same dialect – his own, no doubt – those of us who delight in the English language in all its manifestations should resist such government-inspired drives to uniformity.
University of Lausanne,