Education is a most slippery concept to define, especially when it is used in conjunction with either a political or religious expectation. When politicians claim that education is their number one agenda item, we should ask, persistently, education for what? As in all bold statements the devil may too often be found only in the detail.
It was Harold Wilson’s clumsy attempt to woo middle-class voters in the 1970 election by claiming that “Comprehensive schools are grammar schools for everyone1” that so muddied the public’s perception of what schools could and couldn’t do. Margaret Thatcher was the first former Minister of Education to become Prime Minister, but with many other items pressing for her attention, she allowed the impetuous Baker a free hand as he replaced the steady Joseph, so plunging the country into what she saw (if not totally clearly) was a vastly over-blown concept of a national curriculum. All that is needed, Thatcher said with categoric firmness, are the six Rs; Reading, Writing, Arithmetic, Religious Education and Right and Wrong2.
Baker had more ambitious plans. He saw a very obvious solution to the composite problem of managing the teaching profession, dealing with a possible shortage of teachers, the content of the curriculum, the inflated power of unions and local education authorities, as well as the need to bolster the national economy. What England needed, and had never had, was a National Curriculum3, designed by committees of the leading experts in every subject, which would enable the Minister to dictate to every teacher what should be taught to every pupil at every stage of their schooling. To a man whose only previous ministerial experience had seen him in charge of information technology this was no more than the management of complicated sets of data exchange.
Philosophically Baker differed profoundly from his predecessor Keith Joseph, who believed that the state had absolutely no right, nor need, to micro-manage education. Here was ample demonstration of the differing opinions in Conservative thinking. Nevertheless Baker jumped right in and set out his case for ten foundation subjects to fill some 80% of the curriculum, three of them (English, Maths and Science) being defined as core subjects4. This was remarkably similar to the curriculum for new state grammar schools that Morant had set out nearly a hundred years before. To this Baker added the most intensive assessment programme ever seen anywhere in the world — every child would be publicly examined at the age of seven, eleven, fourteen and sixteen. All this completely ignored what the best modern schools had achieved in the previous thirty years in creating a more practical curriculum for the more hands-on child, and what the broadly based comprehensive school had striven to achieve5. Nearly ten years before The Sunday Times had noted, “Academic standards still have a virtual strangle-hold on English education… our secondary education is organised to select those few who will go to university… for their sake, all our children are being put through an over-blown, over-academic syllabus, in which the dominant experience, for the majority, is one of failure, not of achievement”. Baker in his hurry ignored all this thinking6.
To Baker, and the many who queued up to advise him, it seemed all so simple. But for one key thing. The rationale for the Act claimed that such a curriculum should promote the spiritual, moral, cultural, mental and physical development of all children, as well as preparing them for the opportunities, responsibilities and experiences of adult life. Here again was the age-old problem. How could a curriculum spelled out in terms of how many lessons in each subject should be taught, actually prepare a child for the breadth of what adult life would require? Teachers and politicians alike were to be thrown into chaos for years to come as they tried to find alternative grids on which they could show, in the most minute detail how, in theory, these two completely different sets of objectives could overlap each other7. tens of thousands of teachers and administrators are still trying to pick up the bits and pieces, still frustrated by the human reality that a child’s life is not simply defined by a school, and that only a three-dimensional grid that recognise the significance of the unquantifiable life of the child beyond the walls of the school, could possibly represent the human condition.
Baker effectively dissolved the forty-year partnership implied by “a national system, locally administered” as set out in 19448. The Act of 1988 was amazingly complex and wide-ranging in its power. Rushed through too quickly it was derided as being “a gothic monstrosity of legislation”9. Its philosophy exalted the moral value of free enterprise, the pursuit of profit, and a vision of civil society composed, almost exclusively, of economically rational individuals freely pursuing their own self-interest with minimum concern for their fellow citizens. “We now live in a society whose representative figure is the moneyed yob”, stated one national paper10. In a splendid piece of contradictory logic one Conservative think tank said, “The politicised local education authority must be deprived of their major source of power, and of their standing ability to corrupt the minds and the souls of the young”11. A much experienced educational inspector wrote, “We have the gravely flawed product of amateurs, a hasty, shallow, simplistic sketch of the curriculum, reductionist in one direction, marginalising in another, paying only dismissive lip-service to the professional enterprise and initiative on which all progress depends”12.
Then, in March 1997, the Labour Party was returned to power. I have only three priorities, said Tony Blair as he became Prime Minister, “education, education, education”13. What he meant soon became clear when a few months later, a senior LEA advisor of a Midlands’ LEA moaned, “First the Conservatives told us what to teach, and now Labour is telling us how to teach”.
Thesis 76: 25th August 2006