The more parents urge schools to concentrate on the development of their children’s academic ability, the more schools concentrate on intellectual skills and examinations at the expense of other valuable activities. When society itself is so deeply divided on issues of right and wrong it is virtually impossible to provide pupils with an effective moral as well as social education.
To talk about education is to question basic assumptions about life. Contradictions exist at every level. Parents wish their children to be happy, socially well-adjusted, and ultimately successful in a career, while increasingly since the mid 1980s government has sought young people equipped to bring about further economic prosperity — ideally we hope for youngsters who will also value democracy, and work to create lively, caring and responsible communities. Competition and collaboration have to partner each other at every level in life. There are no simple answers as to how to prepare children for both, and there never have been.
The consensus that launched the 1944 Education Act never expected schools to do it all, but the sense of partnership this implied between home, community and school had already weakened by the 1970s1. Not that well-meaning educationalists weren’t trying hard to work out the school bit in a multiplicity of different ways. The problem was that most of their thinking was in terms of ‘subjects’, for what seemed obvious was the fact that, as teachers were trained as subject specialists, the curriculum could only be described in terms of subjects, and that simply misses out on so many of the basic skills and attitudes that every adult needs to have2. In a subject-based curriculum life skills simply fall through the cracks. A valiant attempt was made by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate (HMI) in 1978 to describe a curriculum in terms of areas of experience, such as the aesthetic, the creative, the social, the political and the spiritual3. That was far too much for most secondary teachers to take on board; “So where do I now teach kids chemistry in that lot”, said the far-from-untypical science teacher, “Is it alongside an ethical discussion of nuclear energy, or what!”
The problem was compounded by the assumed right of each school to decide for itself the curriculum it would follow, and it was the older headteachers, still seen as being invested with something of the aura of Dr. Arnold, who saw in the growing concern of HMI to advise them on curriculum matters the shadow of potential political infiltration of their schools. These were the (largely) men who had taken such exception to prime minister Callaghan’s suggestion in 1976 that the general public should explore “The secret garden of the curriculum”4. Younger headteachers meanwhile were beginning to indulge in a practice graphically called “pupil pursuit”. A Head would simply follow an individual pupil for a whole day; into lessons, along the corridors as the bell called for a change of class, into the lunch queue, into the playground or games field, into the library for homework period, and eventually onto the school bus. “Just what can we expect most youngsters to make of all that?”, such exhausted headteachers would reflect dejectedly at the end of the day, “It’s chaos. The kids have every reason to believe that we teachers have no coherent view of what we’re doing!5” Which was all too true; for if teachers had no view of education bigger than the teaching of their subjects, no wonder very many children couldn’t understand what the value of the school was to their future careers.
Margaret Thatcher believed that Britain had to return to her traditional economic role of punching above her size. All forms of inefficiency, therefore, had to be removed, and technology had to be exploited for all it was worth. Which led to what now seems most curious thinking. In the early 1980s, when technology was seen essentially as information processing (and before this was directly linked with communication technology), Professor Charles Handy6, a highly popular writer and lecturer, published a fascinating book “The Future of Work”7. In this widely-read book Handy put forward what has now to be seen as the most extraordinary prediction — the English were fast running out of work to do.
When most work was industrial, Handy argued, the average worker put in 47 hours a week, for roughly 47 weeks in a year, and retired after 47 years — the 100,000-hour job. By 1980, however, most people were working no more than 40 hours in a week for little more than 40 weeks in a year, for 40 years — the 75,000-hour job. Boldly Handy predicted that so fast was the information revolution proceeding that by the year 2000 the average Englishman could be working a 35-hour week for 42 weeks and 35 years before retiring… the 50,000-hour job. We could each expect to have twice as much discretionary time to do what we wanted to do, without having to worry so much about earning money. Youngsters would, therefore, need to be prepared for a whole new way of thinking about work; what was needed was ‘a curriculum for leisure’8 that would help youngsters break away from the idea that life was simply about an economic grind, and see instead an opportunity to lead a fuller and more personally satisfying life.
While teachers were captivated by such thinking, and dreamt of creating out of the most recalcitrant pupils thousands of new ‘Renaissance men’, the Conservative government had a totally different vision. If Britain did not wake up commercially we would find ourselves not in the bliss of a surfeit of discretionary time, but an economic failure struggling to make ends meet. We would become a land of cheap, unskilled labour in a world that would rapidly leave us behind. Englishmen would have to work far harder said the politicians, and schools would have to become an intensive preparation for employment9. Thesis 72: 25th August 2006