John White: 'We are facing the revival of the traditional Tory policy'

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The Independent Online

Conservative pronouncements on the school curriculum appear somewhat contradictory. A report from the centre-right think-tank the Centre for Policy Studies advocates the abolition of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, so that schools develop their own curricula. It says that quangos are not ideologically neutral and tend to assume the prejudices of the political classes of the time. Freeing up the schools will remove them from the grip of political ideology.

On the other hand, the CPS recommendation is founded on the principle that schools should be about education – that is, rigorous subject-based teaching – not agencies of government social policy. This is said to be ideologically neutral, but patently it is not.

Some people – mainly on the right – identify education with a subject-based curriculum. Others – mainly on the left – take a broader view, putting emphasis on educational aims and seeing subjects as only one vehicle of realising these.

Recent curriculum changes under this Labour government have shifted towards an aims-based curriculum, with schools being given more freedom to work to these aims using whatever vehicles they think appropriate. The CPS preference for "rigorous subject teaching" – a view shared by Conservative education spokesmen – would keep schools in the straitjacket they have been in since 1988 and from which many wish to extricate themselves.

The rhetoric of freeing up the schools is, therefore, not what it seems. This is underlined by the pronouncement from Michael Gove, the shadow education secretary, that more points in school league tables should be given for A levels in "hard" subjects such as mathematics and physics. He also wants vocational qualifications to be removed from league table rankings. These measures would pressure secondary schools to follow a traditional academic curriculum.

All this indicates a shift in Conservative education policy back to pre-Thatcher times. The Thatcher regime of detailed state control of the curriculum was, in a longer historical perspective, a deviation from the norm. In 1926, the Conservatives scrapped the state-imposed curriculum for the elementary school attended by 90 per cent of the population, but kept the same – non-academic – curriculum in place. A taste for indirect rather than direct curriculum control is also apparent in post-war Conservative support for the divided school system created by the 11+. After all, no one legally obliged grammar schools to teach a highly academic curriculum, or secondary modern schools not to do so; but everything connected with the 11+ pressed the schools this way.

At least the Thatcher policy of direct control was up front. Current Conservative preference for indirect rule is more insidious. It allows them to pose as the champions of freedom while keeping the reins tight.

Why are they chary of giving schools more genuine autonomy? The answer is the same as in the 1950s and 1920s. The academic curriculum of discrete, traditional subjects has been and still is the time-hallowed middle-class route to university and professional jobs. In earlier times, this was the curriculum of the grammar school, from which most of the population was excluded. The 1988 National Curriculum imposed it on all state school pupils, thus giving those from a middle-class background a head start on the road to higher education. In the light of this, the standstill in social mobility over the last two decades should surprise no one.

Labour moves towards personalised learning and an aims-based curriculum in which personal fulfilment win out over traditional learning are anathema to the right. As pointers towards a society in which all citizens work together to increase everyone's chances of leading a flourishing life, they threaten those whose policies favour a privileged section of the population. Hence Gove's determination to keep things traditional.

So, do recent Conservative pronouncements on the curriculum add up? It may look as if they do not – as if there is a radical incoherence between their alleged desire to free schools from Whitehall meddling and a grip kept on rigorous subject learning. But there is more consistency than it seems. We are facing the revival of the traditional Tory policy – originally inspired by administrative practices in the British Empire, when power was mediated via chiefs and nabobs – of indirect rule. The pronouncements add up all right. Only too well.

The writer is emeritus professor of philosophy of education at the Institute of Education, University of London

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