The right tightens grip on education: John Patten is taking the 'anti-trendy' revolution in our schools even farther than his predecessor. Judith Judd and Ngaio Crequer report

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SOON AFTER he became Secretary of State for Education, Kenneth Clarke poked fun at the education world's love of acronyms - 'SEAC, what's that? The South-East Asia Consortium?'.

It is in fact the School Examinations and Assessment Council, set up by statute in 1988 to advise on how children should be tested and examined.

Before he changed jobs nearly two years later, Mr Clarke's jovial mockery had become serious. The rout of the education establishment had begun - in came policy advisers who opposed 'trendy' education theories. A takeover of the education service by politicians, without parallel since the British government first became involved in schooling more than a century ago, was well under way.

Last week's education White Paper showed that John Patten, successor to Kenneth Clarke, wants to go even further. He wants a new national body to oversee schools that opt out, gradually taking education responsibilities away from local education authorities.

The new Funding Agency will respond to his direction and he will choose who sits on it. The National Curriculum Council (NCC) and Seac, the exams council, will be merged to form one single bureaucracy.

The Secretary of State will have new powers to replace recalcitrant governors, intervene in disputes over admissions and reduce surplus places.

Mr Clarke's appointment of Lord Griffiths as the head of Seac was the clearest sign that education was to be taken out of the hands of educationists.

As head of Margaret Thatcher's Downing Street policy unit, Lord Griffiths had been the invisible overlord of education policy. A lay preacher, he is described as a man with a mission who had watched in dismay as the old establishment subverted the Government's reforms.

He was also behind Margaret Thatcher's letter to Kenneth Baker in 1988 saying that the proposed national curriculum tests were too elaborate.

Appointments to Seac and the NCC, which decides what children should be taught, are in the hands of the Secretary of State. The councils are being packed with members of the right-wing establishment. One analogy would be a Labour government appointing Militant Tendency supporters to run the curriculum and tests.

Mr Patten recently confirmed that he intended to continue the work that Mr Clarke began by appointing John Marks, a member of a right-wing think tank, to the NCC.

Dr Marks, an Open University tutor, who was made a member of Seac two years ago, is the bogyman of the education world. He supports a return to selective schools, streaming by ability and traditional teaching methods.

His Whose Schools? A Radical Manifesto, written with Baroness Cox in 1986, contained many ideas that have since become Government policy. He wanted an external review of Her Majesty's Inspectorate, which he described as 'the dog that didn't bark'.

He joins a body that has already moved significantly to the right since it was established four years ago. So much so, according to critics, that it is in danger of failing to perform its statutory duty of giving the Secretary of State advice as he wants it and as it sees fit.

Peter Dines, former secretary of the NCC, who retired last August, says the present regime 'is very close to being against the law. To fulfil its statutory functions it must be independent'.

The issue of whom the Government listens to came spectacularly to centre stage last month. Eric Bolton, who retired last year as the senior chief inspector of schools and is now professor of teacher education at London University's Institute of Education, told a conference of local education authorities that the Government was listening only to fashionable voices on the right, and that the influence of right- wing think tanks on education appears stronger under John Major than it was under Mrs Thatcher.

It was not listening to heads, teachers, vice-chancellors, teacher trainers, exam boards or the HMI, he said. But it was listening to Dr Marks, the Centre for Policy Studies, and Dr Sheila Lawlor, the centre's deputy director.

'There is no crime in listening to your political friends,' Professor Bolton said. 'But a wise government listens more widely than that, and especially to those with no political axe to grind. It is not auspicious that the formal channels of advice about education to the Government appear either to be being muzzled (e g, HMI), or packed with people likely to say whatever the Government wants to hear (the NCC and Seac).'

It clearly touched a Government nerve. The following day, Baroness Blatch, education minister of state, said she had to answer Professor Bolton's 'extraordinary' charges. 'The idea that we do not listen to people like HMIs, teachers, heads, or LEAs is simply blatant nonsense.'

Then she rounded on the educational professionals who, she said, had advised that the curriculum was best left to them, and had given us education without structure and education without grammar and spelling.

On the day Professor Bolton made his remarks, John Marenbon, a Cambridge don who is married to Dr Sheila Lawlor, was appointed to Seac.

The influence of the Centre for Policy Studies is marked. Lord Griffiths chairs it, Dr Marks is secretary of its education study group, which also includes John McIntosh, headmaster of the opted-out London Oratory School and a member of the NCC.

The Educational Research Trust, whose aim is to promote research into education 'with particular reference to philosophical and religious principles', is also influential. Dr Marks is its director, and advisers include Lord Griffiths, Mr McIntosh, and David Regan, professor of local government at Nottingham University and a member of the NCC.

The school curriculum and exams are being decided in the minutest detail from the centre by ministers and their political supporters. Decisions have been taken to:

Cut the proportion of coursework in the GCSE exam from 70 per cent to between 20 and 30 per cent.

Give all 14-year-olds tests on Shakespeare and grammar.

Include a study of the British Empire and more facts and dates in history.

Allocate 5 per cent of marks in the GCSE exam to spelling.

Do long division by a pencil- and-paper method.

Order the Northern Examining Association to take references to Coronation Street and Neighbours out of its syllabus.

The break with the past is remarkable. Only 10 years ago Britain was the only country in Europe that did not have a national curriculum and in which nothing was decided from the centre. The education establishment of teachers, lecturers and advisers may have had some control over the culture of education but its influence was limited and indirect. Power lay not with local education authorities or even heads, but with the individual classroom teachers.

The passing of the Education Reform Act in 1988 brought the teachers' freedom to an end. The Act gave the Secretary of State more than 400 new powers.

At first, it appeared that little would change. The first exam and curriculum councils drew their members from the dons, teachers and exam board officials who had staffed educational quangos in the past. The establishment was still in control.

With the arrival of the pugnacious Mr Clarke at the Department of Education in 1990, the position changed. Mr Clarke, fresh from duels with doctors at the Department of Health, turned on the teachers. He pushed through a series of changes to strengthen Whitehall's control of the curriculum and exams.

Mr Dines said: 'There has been a blatant shift to the right. Of course you need checks and balances to stop the professionals going barmy, but the Government wouldn't think of trying to run the oil business with civil servants and politicians.'

If the advisory bodies refused to do Mr Clarke's bidding, despite the injection of right-minded members, they were ignored. Decisions were taken hastily by small groups of Government supporters who aimed to replace the dogma of the left with that of the right.

While Lord Griffiths replaced Philip Halsey, a former civil servant of impeccable neutrality, at Seac, David Pascall, a BP executive and also a former Downing Street adviser, took over from Duncan Graham, a former chief executive of Humberside County Council and county education officer in Suffolk, at the NCC. Both had educational credentials but the appointments were clearly political.

According to insiders, the arrival of Lord Griffiths transformed the atmosphere at Newcombe House in west London, Seac's headquarters. 'To say that a climate of fear exists in Newcombe House would not be an exaggeration,' said one.

Mr Dines says: 'Mr Clarke appointed him so that he would get the answers he wanted to hear. With Lord Griffiths as chairman the council is not in a position to make independent decisions.' The three main policy committees were abolished and details of the coursework changes were worked out at a private dinner attended by chosen members of the councils and hosted by Lord Griffiths.

Trusted members of the curriculum council travelled to London to meet ministers without the knowledge of its senior officials.

Lord Griffiths is a powerful chairman. One of his first decisions was to make it clear to the Department of Education and Science and HMI assessors that their presence was no longer required at meetings. He runs Seac much as a company director would run his board. There are no votes.

According to the Government's critics, the Education Reform Act alone would not have led to ministerial interventions in the curriculum and testing if the Government had not placed its own supporters in powerful positions on the advisory bodies. But the extent of its patronage should not be exaggerated. Some independent-minded council members remain and argue their corner. According to one Seac member, this has led to more arguments than ever before since August.

Mr Dines says: 'A lot of the important decisions, such as who gets the contracts for testing, are taken in between council meetings. The Government has set up the council as a watchdog, has first pulled out its teeth one by one, and then cut its head off. It is now a complete waste of money.'

By the end of the year the two bodies will have spent more than pounds 111m between them.

Who is deciding the content of the national curriculum tests that all children will have to take at seven, 11 and 14? Though independent groups are developing them, they are tightly controlled from the centre. One group working on English tests for 14-year- olds was told by an official that a question involving a passage from The Sun would have to go because 'ministers would not like anything involving pop stars'.

The Sun article reported a survey of children's fan letters, finding that more wrote to political figures and civil rights leaders they admired than to Jason Donovan and Kylie Minogue. For the test, pupils were asked to write a letter to someone they admired.

(Photograph omitted)