Mark Steel: No room for Byron in the Blair world curriculum

New Labour's attitude to education is that its purpose is to ensure wealth
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The Independent Online

What an imaginative idea they've come up with, to change all the school lessons. For example, with languages, instead of not bothering to learn French or German, kids can not bother to learn Mandarin or Urdu. If this works, rather than approaching strangers in Paris and shouting: "Where's the post off-ice?", we'll learn to do it in Beijing instead.

This suggestion, along with proposals for lessons about climate change and the slave trade, have sent the predictable types predictably nutty. The Daily Mail describes the new subjects as "politically fashionable". That's climate change, this week's fad. Proper teachers will ignore it, and even in 50 years will be saying: "Take no notice of that tempest, Jenkins. Concentrate on the square root of 117. And where are you going, Simpkins? The tidal-wave siren is a signal for me; it is not a signal for you."

Because proper teaching is about learning lists - of dates, prime ministers, verbs - it doesn't matter as long as it's a list. The ideal teacher would announce: "Right, class, let's see if we've remembered the categories in the business section of the Canterbury Yellow Pages. Accountants, Acoustic Engineers, Actuaries, Acupuncturists - hang on. Who said "Acrylic nail products"? Don't you know the only store in Canterbury was merged and is now categorised as "Manicurist", boy? Now hand me the class whisk and drop your trousers."

Bernard Ingham, Thatcher's old Alastair Campbell, said of the proposals: "This nonsense about slavery should be dropped. I'm not against students being taught it, but they should be taught that we abolished it." So the first we knew about it was when we stopped doing it. We should take the same approach with the Empire. Lessons should start: "What the British did with India is we gave it back. Because the Indians had lost it. They're absent-minded fellows, comes with so many of them being vegetarians, I suppose. Now, let's move on to how we sorted out Iraq."

But the new proposals should not alarm Bernard too much. Firstly, you can't see them actually taking place. For example, the head of the Curriculum Authority described one way in which different subjects could be covered in one lesson, by building a bird hide, which would involve "design and technology, maths, science and geography all in one project". Then, if you cooked a couple, you could include home economics, and if you hacked them to pieces you could cover current affairs as well.

In theory, the suggestion that certain lessons are combined, and jointly taken by teachers of both subjects, such as PE fusing with biology, seems practical. Then, when the PE teacher elbows you in the stomach for dropping the rugby ball, while you're gasping in agony, the biology teacher can explain: "This choking and vomiting we see here illustrates the role performed by the solar plexis."

But however the lessons are rejigged, the New Labour attitude to education is that its purpose is to ensure wealth and status. In his book, Robin Cook recalled a conversation in which Tony Blair justified sending his son to a selective school, saying he didn't want his kids to end up like those of Harold Wilson. It was pointed out that Wilson's sons went to a comprehensive school, and one became a headmaster, the other a professor. To which Blair said: "Well, I certainly hope my children do better than that."

And, in Blair's world, "better" doesn't mean curing a disease, or making a brilliant album, or learning Mandarin and Urdu, as that's a brilliant fun thing to do, it means going on holiday with people who are really rich.

For example, one of the proposals is to drop Byron from the curriculum. Twenty-five years ago, the leader of the Labour Party wrote a book about Byron, whereas Blair would be utterly bemused as to why anyone would write: "She walks in beauty like the night of cloudless climes and starless skies. And all that's best in dark and bright meets in her aspect and her eyes." He'd probably contract it to an advertising think-tank, who would announce: "We've retained the poem's core values but reset them in a modern setting, and now it goes: "She walks in Tesco every night for boneless hinds the kids will scoff, and all that's best to keep clothes white and tuna chunks at six pence off."

Reshaping lessons is a classic New Labour trick "modern" enough to irritate the Bernard Ingham types, but you can be certain the priority is to suit big business. And these proposals will truly bear the stamp of New Labour when there's an addition to the curriculum, in which all students are to be taught about the virtues of charity. In which teachers will instruct their class how to make a 10-minute speech for a charity and charge 25 grand for the appearance.

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