Eng. Lit. and a lesson in political combat

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The Independent Online
THIS SPRING morning, in a private room in Notting Hill, 15 intellectuals, teachers and business executives meet for a confrontation about the teaching of English literature. It is a subject that unbolts the stable door for such frisky English hobby-horses as culture, class and the indolence of youth. More than that, though, the battle in the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority (SCAA) is a fascinating case study of the way politics is now being conducted.

The cast list is varied and colourful, but the story is straightforward. To my right, the Government is trying to cure the education system of trendiness. Kenneth Clarke and John Patten created a national curriculum, directing what should be taught, and how. The result was over-prescriptive and is being slimmed down. But for the teaching of English, it is likely to contain a compulsory list of approved authors.

To my left, the massed ranks of the English teachers have overwhelmingly rejected the idea of a prescriptive list. It has also been rejected by the working party that reports to today's meeting. But the SCAA is thought likely to reinstate it; and if it doesn't, Mr Patten probably will.

Why? Well, to caricature the arguments only slightly, the right suspects the English teachers of wanting to 'study' only Brookside, because it's easy and, like, politically correct, and anyway Shakespeare was a fascist; while the teachers suspect the right of wanting to force-feed young souls the duller bits of Tennyson as part of their evil and lunatic project to turn the nation into the mental equivalent of a Victorian theme park.

The reality (England will be relieved to learn) is a touch more complicated - the reading list proposed is actually quite long. Nor is it revolutionary - the previous curriculum, ditched by the Government, liked by the teachers, contained a similar, but advisory, list, allowing greater freedom to choose authors. But lampooning your enemy's case is part of politics, and this is a battle for power as fierce as any fought out on the hustings.

It is, however, a form of politics unrecognisable to anyone brought up on the gnarled verities of the parliamentary system. The SCAA itself is an unelected and pretty anonymous body that meets in private and which is working with extreme speed. The political parties themselves are only tangentially involved in the fight, which is being pursued between competing lobby groups, acting directly on the Department for Education.

The right-wing lobby comprises academics, peers and polemicists grouped round the Centre for Policy Studies and the Campaign for Real Education. They hardly comprise a mass movement, though they include such right-wing luminaries as Sheila Lawlor, Baroness Cox, John Marks and Anthony O'Hear. They have private access to Mr Patten and John Major, they are serious pamphlet junkies, and their views are spread via columns in the Spectator, the Telegraph and the Sunday Times (and, when they're lucky, the Independent).

The teachers' lobby could hardly be more different. It has much less access where decision-making power is concentrated, but can mobilise mass opposition in the schools, including the effective boycotting of tests. The two main pressure groups are the National Association for the Teaching of English and the London Association for the Teaching of English. They get their space in the Guardian (and when they're good, the Independent).

Both lobbies try to appeal to public opinion and proclaim democracy to be on their side. The right- wingers claim to be standing up for the commonsensical views of parents. They deride sophisticated teachers, passionately in love with literature, as unrepresentative 'Marxists'. The teachers, though, turn this round, portraying themselves as the commonsensical 'professionals' and accusing the right of being unrepresentative 'ideologues'. Because this is an English affair, each side accuses the other of being intellectuals, and in this case, both are right, and of being (frisson of horror) politically motivated. Again, both are right.

Who, though, is righter? Although a crusty traditionalist who reads Smollett and Surtees for fun, I am, in this case, on the side of the English teachers. Not because their professional status should be allowed to ride roughshod over every other consideration, but simply because it is essential that individual teachers are free to let their enthusiasms bubble. Variety, of style and form and period, is important, but enthusiasm is the spirit by which education lives or dies. Wonderful Defoe, dully taught, will put a child off reading for life. But even bone-dry T S Eliot, taught with passion, can turn a child into a lifelong consumer of poetry books. So teachers' enthusiasms must be protected before middleweight literary reputations; and were the right-wingers correct in believing teachers unworthy of this honour, then, frankly, the game would be up.

Well, those are my prejudices: but I have the luck to write a newspaper column. Many parents and others have just as strong feelings but are now left standing, bewildered or ignorant, outside this increasingly complex quarrel. Quango-secrecy, Byzantine routes of influence, the rhetorical clash of interested groups, and a thicket of acronyms put off all but the most public minded.

Yet it is not as if this were a subject of specialist interest only: it affects our common culture directly. And similar trends can be found where most domestic policy issues are being decided, whether it is the roads programme or the future of nuclear energy. Politics is also about the public interest, and the common good won't be defended by taking two irreconcilable lobbies and letting them fight to the death in private. If this is the future for politics, the future won't work.