Educational statement or political gesture?
Historical perspectives and a review of selected literature

© 1995 - 2012 RICHARD STAINES. This essay was written in December 1995


  1. The National curriculum of England and Wales


In the history of British education thought and practice, as in other aspects of British life, individualistic rather than communitarian assumptions have been dominant on the whole. As a discourse of power and bureaucratic rationality, the National Curriculum of England and Wales reflects this culture of individualism not the least in being based on separate subjects structured by attainment targets and programmes of study.
In exploring the background to, and likely consequences of, the Education Reform Act of 1988, this paper contests the notion that the formulative political designs which culminated in the prescription of a subject-based curriculum were motivated by 'pure and unalloyed' considerations related to the possible improveability of children's learning and believes they were rather more to do with the perceived threats to economic power and stability arising from recession, unemployment and inflation in the last three decades of the twentieth century.
Furthermore these processes which led to the ERA have been accompanied by the emergence of the new managerialism and the surveillance of teachers and are effectively uncoupling the linkages binding education to its contemporary context.
A process of individualisation has occurred whereby individual schools and individual families become responsible for the education which they provide and obtain. The state, conversely, is progressively distancing itself from responsibility for the education system, since the logic of the market demands that individual schools will be held responsible for their own success or failure, a paradoxical situation since the Secretary of State under the ERA accrued over three hundred new powers over the system.
Teachers' initiatives over the curriculum and control over assessment procedures have been noticeably subverted, thus continuing the insidious crypto-proletarianisation of the teaching profession.
The increased bureaucracy of the National Curriculum is not only unacceptably intensifying the work of teachers but is also limiting their energy and opportunity to follow goals other than those which are centrally prescribed and externally monitored.
Through the crude mechanism of testing at increasingly earlier ages, children are steadily being sifted and sorted into the various rôles sedimented throughout the fabric of an advanced 'post-industrial' society under disorganised, free-market capitalism.
The advent of city technology colleges and grant-maintained schools will further add to the long-standing hierarchy between state and private schooling as elite schools for the articulate and rich in society become increasingly differentiated from the less 'successful' schools that will inevitably offer an inferior education creating the personalities for a low trust, low skill economy.
As such, the incipient disillusionment that so many of the young display over formal education and schooling with increased rates of school suspension, truancy and growing classroom disruptiveness can be seen as testimony to the needs that children have for something more than that which is on offer by the National Curriculum.


Does the National Curriculum enhance the quality of the learning of children? Was that specific consideration central to the formulative designs and processes that gathered momentum throughout the 1980s and which culminated in the prescription of ten foundation subjects with the passing of the Education Reform Bill in 1988? Were the formulative processes honestly guided and motivated by ‘pure’ and ‘uncorrupt’ notions of the possible improvability of children’s learning? Is there a ‘hidden agenda’ present? In short, does the National Curriculum support learning at all?

The very title, admittedly, postulates an ‘either/or’ viewpoint, a dualism of intent and purpose, an ultimate irreconcilability of function and objective, and, as such, explicitly manoeuvres the reader into a pre-ordained position of agreement with the quotation’s second half. Certainly, the relationship between ‘educational statement’ and ‘political gesture’ is problematical to say the least; one wonders as to whether any kind of synthesis might be allowed, whether, in fact, the prima facie case is as closed as is being suggested here. Is there fundamental mutual exclusivity between these posited contraries? Can political gestures ever be educational statements? And are ‘educational statements’ never ‘political gestures’? I raise the question because there is an assumption of the non-identiticality of the two propositions in the title; what is inferred is nothing less than an antagonism, an alienation from educational concerns, an undisguised incompatibility of aims and objectives.

White (1990) draws attention to the statements of the larger and fundamental aims of the National Curriculum in the Education Reform Act of 1988 and in other official documents as having ‘no more than two or three lines of the utmost platitudinousness’ and laments what he sees as an aims-vacuum lying at the heart of the documentation, an indefensible minimalism which, in a democratic society, must invite speculation as to what the covert aims might possibly be, those that might be ‘politically inexpedient to reveal’. There is a sparsity of statements of rationale. There is no indication of what sorts of people pupils are expected to become or of what kind of society they are expected to live in. White sees the words ‘balanced and broadly based’, and the claim that the Act ‘prepares such pupils for the opportunities, responsibilities and experiences of adult life’ as bland, indistinct, inadequate as a rationale and capable of meaning virtually anything - or nothing. ‘Three lines of text scarcely provides a fully worked out underpinning’ he writes, and pinpoints the failure of the framers of the National Curriculum to say anything about alternative means of realising aims than through the pursuit of traditional subjects.

Janet Maw (1993) has drawn attention to the narrowing of the ‘whole curriculum’ discourse with the passage of the Education Reform Act. In the decade from 1977 Her Majesty’s Inspectorate in England and Wales had developed and refined an influential discourse of ‘the whole curriculum’ but which had become sadly marginalised by 1988 and replaced by a discourse of the National Curriculum conceived as a list of subjects structured by attainment targets and programmes of study. As well as mentioning writers who have employed methods of discourse analysis derived from structuralist and poststructuralist theory to try to come to an understanding of curriculum documentation, she cites Ball (1990) who has given an account of how particular groups of agents within the New Right actually created a powerful ‘discourse of derision’ about education by using all the authoritative and allocative means that they could command. Janet Maw demonstrates that the model of the whole curriculum as constructed by the National Curriculum is differently built from that which the HMI had produced in their series of texts from 1977, the year that they had produced their first ‘Red Book’ (HMI, 1977). The central role of HMI in the discourse of the whole curriculum was affirmed by Keith Joseph in the White Paper, ‘Better Schools’ (DES, 1985) and was demonstrated in practice by the fact that from the point when they were required by law to publish curriculum policy documents, a great many local education authorities had based their curriculum statements on the HMI model, centred on holistic concepts such as ‘coherence’, ‘balance’ and ‘breadth’. The reconstruction of the notion of the ‘whole curriculum’ by the National Curriculum Council is an inherently unstable one; the ambiguities and contradictions in the texts require some recognition of the political nexus in which the institutional site of the text's production is located (p.56), and Maw makes reference to the problematical division of responsibilities and the divergences of viewpoints and consequent power struggles between the NCC and the Schools Examinations and Assessment Council. Her paper also refers to Bernstein’s theory of curricular organisation whereby two fundamentally different principles are characterised: the collection code and the integrated code (Bernstein, 1971) and suggests that a reconciliation is not possible because curricular structures are not simply the result of educational decisions, but reflect basic societal differences in power-distribution and in the principles of social control. ‘At first sight’ she writes, ‘the national Curriculum Council’s Circular No 6:

Attainment targets and programmes of study are the bricks with which the curriculum must be built. Cross-curricular strategies bond these bricks into a cohesive structure. (NCC, 1989, para 19)

would seem to reconcile the two codes into an accommodation based on an equilibrium of power’ (page 70). Bernstein’s two curriculum types could have been considered as a choice for schools under the HMI matrix model of the curriculum which suggested nine areas of experiences set against an axis of learning (knowledge, concepts, skills, attitudes). The NCC framework has prevented schools from adopting this model.

Discussion of the implications and effects of power is never very far from Janet Maw’s paper. ‘Political gestures’ must of themselves speak the language of power. For some people social arrangements and processes which are devised or reconstructed to foster or inhibit personal and group development are instruments for use in the pursuit of interests, while for other, less effective people, they constitute aspects of reality to which they can only accommodate. However, at the same time, situations are rarely if ever resolved solely on the basis of power: a degree of compassion or altruism, or a sense of justice, operates so that people take less for themselves or their group than they could do. Even so, any sense of justice is often severely circumscribed, relating to particular people such as members of one’s family, group, community, tribe, organisation or other social entity.  Nevertheless, given the common scarcity of resources and opportunities, then tensions and even conflict between people can be expected as they contest for advantages, opportunities, and superior achievements; power is a crucial element because success or failure at achieving personal or group goals will be related to the possession of competence, knowledge and skills or other elements of power. Hunt (1987) extensively explores the thesis that people, acting individually and collectively, contest with one another in the exercise of influence over educational issues and practice, with power a major factor as the basis on which people pursue their interests. However, it is not held to be the only factor; consideration for others operates to some extent, and far more in some situations than in others, to modify the means by which advantages and disadvantages are distributed. His approach accepts much of what conflict theories maintain but goes further in emphasising development, a sense of justice or compassion. He rejects Burrell and Morgan’s analysis of perspectives in which they postulated that all theories of social reality are based on a ‘philosophy of science and a theory of society’ (1979), and concludes that their analysis of the perspectives of social reality was not a satisfactory one because they separated human reality from social reality and so from the domain of ontological assumptions. Convincingly, Hunt maintains that it is assumptions regarding the ontological character of human nature that are used most frequently to distinguish social reality from other forms of reality, and to justify distinctive epistemological approaches to social research and practice. Burrell and Morgan’s four positions of functionalism, interpretivism, radical humanism and radical structuralism to which they related an extensive range of conventionally conceived perspectives in an attempt to offer a concise statement of possibilities, is limited and limiting in scope; by postulating the two polarities of regulation and radical change and by selecting objectivity and subjectivity as alternative responses to a key issue in social science, they overlook central moral assumptions that are crucial to social research and to the formation of ideas as to what it is that can be said to constitute social reality.

Thus, in his study Hunt holds to the view that human and social phenomena are an interrelated part of a much more extensive reality, believing that the distinction between the two should be extended to take into account the essentially developing nature of human beings, a view that holds that humans are characterised by particular attributes having capacities for development and taking such forms as intelligence, language, cognition, creativity and motor skills in performance. Further attributes, such as identity, wealth and status arise out of social circumstances and interaction, but collectively these constitute concerns and themes which people pursue both individually and collectively.

He addresses the question as to whether economic slowdowns would be accompanied by, say, the re-establishment of differentiated schools, streaming, and an increased usage of examinations to sift and to sort, to differentiate between children and youth, strategies, in other words, which would either facilitate or undermine and possibly obstruct the development of young people and hence their access to further opportunities. As I implied earlier, one’s own perspective stance is a key factor when attempting to disintricate the multivariate forms of social reality; clearly, if people are perceived as being compassionate and altruistic then one would reasonably expect to see a world that was caring, one in which schools would increase in humane qualities and in enlightenment. On the other hand, if one perceives people as being very much preoccupied with the pursuit of personal or group interests and concerns, even if to do so is as a cost to others, then one’s expectations might be of a world growing increasingly harsher and less egalitarian as people struggle to achieve or to maintain themselves in difficult circumstances and push burdens and costs down onto weaker groups.

As Hunt observes, powerful people can shield themselves from observation, perhaps by working through other people or through organisations. They can employ symbolic means or even exercise great influence by not acting at all. Hunt's study took place at a convenient time because it was then that one would observe more powerful people and groups in action. One could also observe the development of rationales and ideologies which would affect the operational processes of education. He sees the tightening of the grip around the system not just as a simple consequence of economic slowdown but as a response to a perceived decline in the efficacy of schooling itself; besides reacting to the growing feeling that schools were harsh places, too readily prepared to label children and to denigrate poor performers, there was a perception that the consequences of comprehensivisation and more informal teaching styles that had been developed were unsound and were to be countermined, despite the evidence of the Cockcroft Report (1982) which did not find any indication of a decline in numeracy but argued that deficiencies in educational provision were long-standing and due to inadequately qualified teachers. Furthermore, a Commons Report (the House of Commons Science and Arts Committee, 1982) which said they were disturbed by 'anecdotal evidence' of a fall in standards in fact felt bound to report that the evidence they received did not support that interpretation. Yet comprehensivisation had always been regarded in a problematic light because of the existence of selection operating from within schools. While cases of disadvantaged children were indeed recognised in the 1960s and 1970s (see Wedge and Prosser, 1973) the very extent of truly committed effort in respect of them appears to have been extremely limited. The area of multiculturalism was hardly even addressed. There were no monitoring programmes overseeing the government's policies in terms of equal opportunities and such neglect would be enough to raise serious doubts about the overall national-political-administrative liability and responsibility towards the solution of the complex adversities experienced by the disadvantaged, usually the first group to feel the brunt of cuts in services as true then as it is now.

Even so, doubtful though the evidence was that standards were falling, the attacks went on with the DES suggesting to Callaghan, the Prime Minister, that he should indicate the seriousness of the situation (Ruskin College speech, 1976) and open the 'Great Debate'. The speech generated much interest and gave rise to regional conferences in early 1977 (DES, 1977a, DES 1977b). The Green Paper advocated a national consensus on 'core' or 'protected' parts of the curriculum and nominated aims which would 'revolutionise' schooling saying how wrong it would be for the Secretary of State to 'abdicate his responsibilities of leadership on educational issues which had become a matter of public concern'. The 'core' was taken a step further by the request for information for LEAs in respect of English, Mathematics, Science, Foreign Language and Religious Education. It was 'the inescapable duty' of the Secretary to press for a common curriculum (DES, 1981) and, as we all know, the subsequent acts of the drama were played out in the last decade and culminated in the Act of 1988. While it was far from clear that schooling was in the crisis as its detractors had claimed, some people used the state of affairs and the prevailing situation to gain support for even greater central intervention. As Hunt wryly observes, (page 61) 'to their advantage was the fact that school achievements are never as good as they might be or need to be, a state which has increasingly been used as a fall-back position when earlier unsubstantiated claims have been demolished.’ There is no hint of this deployment disappearing; indeed, it is stronger than ever.

Hunt then pulls all this together with accounts of rapid technological change, declining prospects for prosperity, high labour costs and the high inflation of the 1970s, seeing the sudden and steep rise in the oil price in the earlier 1970s as a source of aggravation to other trends. These and other factors triggered off anxieties for parents and students and focused their attention on to schooling itself as a major mechanism for ensuring the access of children to favourable opportunities in employment.

Hunt’s analysis of the developments of the 1980s highlights the insistent claim that education was felt to be in need of radical qualitative transformation into a more dynamic arrangement with reform and competitiveness between schools to emerge as a major feature. The lively participation of the 1960s and the 1970s collapsed with the adoption of a national syllabus to replace the diversity long characteristic of schools in this country. Examinations were overhauled, and as Lacey (1985) noted, mechanistic models of accountability, bureaucratisation and quantification were to be harnessed to educational transmission with the disrating of contextual studies (e.g. peace studies) which had served to extend understanding of the immediate social situation. In this way the attention of those involved in the educational process would be focused on the technical, rational aspects of tasks and diverted from the contexts, including the politics and ideological dimensions underlying them. Thus, a fundamental thrust in policy was evident, one involving the use of an economy production model as the footing for operating schooling. Furthermore, in noting the disparity between utterances and practices, Hunt had expected a conflict to have developed between an expansionary Department, and a government allegedly committed to ‘small’ government: on the one hand, on the basis of scepticism about the perfectibility of people, they have argued against the concentration and centralisation of power in public institutions whilst concomitantly aggregating major concentrations of power in private institutions. Hunt seems to think that many who take the identity of conservatism use conservative principles as a mask for more predatory activities, including exploitation and repression, an interpretation supported by the criticisms of monetarism in the Archbishop’s Commission on Urban Priority Areas (1985).

Allied to these processes and probably related to them are a range of other factors having deep implications for people and for particular systems of activity such as education: the rapid development of technology, fundamental changes in the productive capacities of societies, cost-cutting, competitiveness and the operation of ‘market forces’ and managerialism, all set against the background of the multi-national corporations which are increasingly steering the production process and dominating the planned sector, and able to move about freely between societies, seeking out low-cost labour and materials often in conflict with broader community interests as when they relocate production facilities and leave behind a wake of unemployed. This is the setting which provides the backdrop for any consideration of the educational merits of the National Curriculum.

The British educational system cannot be understood in isolation from the national circumstances that shaped the modern state. The Whig notion that it was Protestantism and the Enlightenment that were the intellectual crucibles responsible for the need for a national system does not stand any test of comparison with other countries, for it was Britain that was the last to develop a national system even though it was a pioneer state in the 19th century. The struggle of the ruling class to survive by getting the consent over whom it rules in this country is permanent and structural. In the early 19th century Prussia needed administrators and so set norms for secondary education; indeed on the Continent a variety of causes stimulated universal education, principally to do with national unity and the desire to create an educated work force. But Britain, the great industrial leader, the richest nation in the mid-19th century, was different, and the last to rationalise education provision, lagging behind her neighbours by some fifty years. Governments were slow in convincing the public that the public administration of education was in any way necessary, and even then it was elitist, with the churches being the main provider. The revolution had been a peaceful one in this country; there was never a continental-type middle class separated from the aristocracy and prepared to instigate such values into a system. Silver (1973) has maintained that in various ways the relation between the educational system and social stratification has been 'the most prolonged issue in education of the 20th century'. The US had shown a commitment to the secular common school with leading schoolmen arguing for the structural correspondence of schools to the differentiated functionalist structures of industry. A case in point is a report submitted in 1890 to the National Council of the NEA. The section on 'School Superintendance in cities' began with a quote from Herbert Spencer: 'a differentiation of structure and a specialisation of function is the law of all growth and progress', and continues with : 'the marvellous industrial progress of the present century ... The specialist is the most characteristic product of modern civilisation.' In Britain, by contrast, there was mistrust of Germany's technical and military advances at the close of the 19th century, a fear which expressed itself in a desire to expand technical education, always provided the existing class structure was to be left undisturbed. Thus the demands of industrial society were met by the two countries, although the rhetoric was different between them: basically, the separation of 'dull' children who needed special treatment from those who did not and a battery of tests to be developed and applied which would be devoted to the measurement of individual differences across the Western world. These tests would come to dominate the sorting and selecting of pupils on both sides of the Atlantic and by the 1950s would come to provide the only way in which teachers and administrators thought of human ability. Indeed, during the 1950s, the launching of Sputnik, in symbolising Russian technological expertise, rekindled the demand for 'quality' education with an assumption that selection and testing must be improved nation-wide.

At a deeper level we could ask whether the elite tradition in Britain has ever really come to terms with the idea of mass education at all, let alone mass higher education; for those who make up what someone called (I forget who) ‘the thin clear stream of excellence’ or who are said to possess, in that equivocal phrase, ‘first class minds’, an education that sustains and promotes high level skills within the humanist, Platonist tradition is seen as entirely fitting. By the same unconscious reasoning, it holds that such an education cannot be right for the majority of pupils for it would encourage an intellectual autonomy which in a very unequal society could not be matched by an equivalent personal autonomy and so would become a source of discontent to them. Were this liberal project to fail, the outcome would be that many pupils, denied any finer compensations would become vocationally illiterate school-leavers. Such are the arguments which, discretely articulated, inhibit British democratic education. Moreover, the pragmatism of the British philosophical tradition which shades over into philistinism values a solidarity of manners at the expense of explicit coherence of ideas and expertise with initiation into this informal and exclusive club of intellectual manners substituted for a liberal education. I believe that the educational system has expressed the cultural norms of English society but the very source of the norms cannot be laid at the door of the educational system; the system just reflected those values, and, by so doing, reinforced them. The subtext of any educational reform has historically appeared to have been its ability to ensure Oxbridge entrance: since, of course, there are only a limited number of places at Oxbridge, the conservatism of the culture reinforces the elitism of the provision.

To some, the thesis outlined above might appear extreme in the way it would appear to imply that the 19th century reformers of education, those who were resolved to make educational provision and opportunity more egalitarian, were, nevertheless, themselves part of a conspiracy to preserve the status quo, either knowingly or unknowingly. It would be wrong to deny that there have been individuals genuinely committed to egalitarian reform; indeed, as Halsey (1977) has said, ‘looking back over the history of official policy in Britain, there is an unmistakable thread of egalitarianism’, but he continues, ‘no less striking, however, is the fact of failure to realise egalitarian ends by educational means’, and he offers by way of a reason for this the idea that the theory which has formed the foundations of British policy is a false one, predicated on liberal concepts that have not stood the test of historical experience. In tracing some of the obstacles to equality, Halsey argues for a more serious reconsideration of the structural theories, both Marxian and non-Marxian, believing that there is no reason to suppose that because it is apparently not possible to identify the causes of a result we should infer that they are random rather than integrant to some systematic feature of society. Indeed, I would argue that his view seems all the more compelling in the light of the current political dominance of ‘cultural restorationism’ in British education at the present time (Ball, 1993), a regressive traditionalism that is inherent in the details of the National Curriculum’s formulations and content, having, as its basis, in what Jones (1989, page 32) terms ‘cultural rightism’.

The sudden replacement of Thatcher by Major as UK Prime Minister in 1990 and the cabinet reshuffle which followed it provided the restorationists (those who have reworked at a reassertion of traditional forms of education and curriculum) with an opportunity to respond to Major’s attempt at some sort of populist politics with a search for ‘new’ policies. Aronowitz and Girouz have noted a similar policy turn in the United States in Reagan’s second presidential term: ‘The importance of linking educational reform to the needs of big business has continued to influence the debate, while demands that schools provide the skills necessary for domestic production and expanding capital abroad have slowly given way to an overriding emphasis on schools at sites of cultural production.’’ (1991, page 24) Ball has stated that the National Curriculum is intended to put ‘real’ knowledge back into school and to discipline teachers. He notes that the ‘will to truth’ underlying the reform has been far from easy to bring about, despite the enormous range of new powers accruing to the Secretary from the 1988 ERA, and he presents three examples in his paper (from music, history and geography) where even the very careful selection of members of the Subject Working Groups has not prevented the occurrence of public disagreements over the tone, content and orientation of the Working Group Reports. Swanwick too, in the section entitled, ‘Musical Knowledge and the Politics of the Curriculum’ (Musical Knowledge, 1994) describes the problems the Music Working Group faced over the whole area of the relationships between intuitive knowledge and analysis in the wording and epistemology of the Attainment Targets: ‘Teachers’, he writes, ‘were told that Ministers had ‘views’ while educators had only ‘theories’’ (page 55) and he examines the various formulations that ensued, showing the very considerable differences in the definition of what counts as knowledge and how it is to be acquired, assessed and revealed. ‘It seems curious that decisions with statutory force affecting children in schools should be finally in the hands of people with no musical credentials and little relevant experience of music education.’ (page 59)

Ball also charts the development of the battlelines between the ‘old’ ‘educational establishment’ and the cultural restorationists over the whole area of assessment; the former ‘group’ who espoused (and rightly still do so) process-orientated, diagnostic, problem-solving and open-ended teacher assessments have been confronted with measurement-based, competitive, externally-set tests and examinations that reflect the restorationists’ belief in testing as a means of differentiating between pupils and identifying ‘poor’ schools. Assessment takes on the guise of performance indicator of teacher effectivity. Thus, coursework assessment is taken as ‘a call to abandon a fundamental principle of natural justice - that no one should be judge of their own cause’, (Flew, 1991, page 29) a view that Ball sees as an indication of the restorationists’ psychology of distrust, one that is ‘rooted in a belief in the worst in all of us, on a norm of rational self-interest, which gives rise to the need for discipline and incentives as the only possible bases for social order and motivation.’ (Ball, 1993, page 206) The restorationist philosophical underpinning of the National Curriculum emphasises an approach to knowledge rather than to enquiry. The complexities of the statements of attainments requiring continuous monitoring and recording in detail across the attainment targets is unwieldy and bureaucratic, the teacher being asked to produce a series of freeze-frame photographs when the value of such ‘microscopic’ recording does not lie in its execution but in the occasional diagnostic use when the teacher’s or the learner’s ‘sixth sense’ detects a learning block or a learning opportunity; it is as though a champion pole-vaulter were invited by his coach to consider every centimetre of the initial approach run, the take-off, the swing round the pole and landing, rather than concentrate on a few key features when pole-vaulting. Indubitably, when something goes wrong with the vault, a minute analysis is called for - but not all the time. The main flaw in the National Curriculum is that it manifestly fails to recognise the common need for teaching that is inspirational. In practice, any curriculum, of whatever kind, represents an attempt to reconcile two areas: received wisdom and the established orthodoxies of scholarship on the one hand, and on the other, naive enquiry as displayed by children’s developing interests, understandings and abilities; the excitement of teaching and facilitating children’s learning continually involves us having to revise, re-examine and re-appraise our own understanding of the subject matter in response to the children’s understanding as their engagement emerges with the very same subject matter. There is no hint of this excitement in the National Curriculum. Nor was it present in the reports of the Working Parties; theirs was a comfortable world, over-determined and culturally restorationist, a world where the healthy intellectual confusion of the classroom, inseparable from its vitality, was never allowed to disturb the prescriptions they produced.

Restorationism, with its distrust of theory and research, its nostalgic belief in ‘traditional’ pedagogy organised around notions of discipline, authority and learning, its attempt to remove education from its contemporary context, and its competitiveness and individualism, sees the progressive movement in primary education as having led to a neglect of knowledge in primary schools and to a sentimental idealisation of the child. Kenneth Clarke, in 1991, lectured to the Tory Reform Group, and mounted a critique of ‘child-centred’ education and progressivism, arguing that Dewey and Rousseau were ‘hostile to traditional learning’, encouraging the child to ‘discount custom and tradition’, and ‘overlooking the way in which any field of human activity (including the scientific) will contain a mass of customary and traditional knowledge and skills’. (Westminster Lecture to the Tory Reform Group, 12 June 1992). Ball sees this account of Deweyian thought as unrecognisable but makes the point that within the particular discourse that had been established by Clarke and others it matters little as to whether it is accurate as an account of what Dewey and Rousseau actually thought. The effect of the speech indicated a robust opposition to any recognition of the child as active within the learning process. Clarke’s statement was followed by the summary ‘announcement’ of a ‘debate among primary teachers about how children can most effectively be taught’. (Letter, 11 December 1991), as well as a 'Statement on Primary Education’ dated 3 December 1991, which said:

Let me quite clear that questions about how to teach are not for the Government to determine. I have no intention to seek to extend my powers in that direction. My purpose is to initiate a discussion, not to impose solutions I am asking every primary head teacher and every primary classroom teacher to join in the radical rethinking now needed as to how best to teach children in our schools.

Clarke’s statement here is a language game, a discursive platform from which he can make pronouncements about things that he acknowledges as being beyond the scope of his powers; there is no collection of evidence here, no authentic debate at all is being inaugurated, no real invitation to teachers to make their views known or to face the question honestly as to how the outcomes would be decided.  As Ball ironically notes, ‘no recourse to tradition and custom for teachers!’. It would all seem to depend on the ability to make oneself heard. In effect, the debate was opened, judged and closed in the same document with child-centred methods, the Plowden Report and the reputations of Dewey and Rousseau subjected to deconstruction and with the groundwork well and truly laid for a reintroduction of traditional teaching methods for the preservation and delivery of agreed knowledges based on fixed notions of teaching and intelligence.

The National Curriculum, then, embodies a step back into the world of the 1950s with the core and foundation subjects hardly looking out of place in a grammar school timetable of forty years ago. It came about largely as a result of selective, arbitrary and coercive conclusions and judgements indicating an attitude to the profession and showing how the curriculum expertise of teachers that had been developed over the last twenty years, from Lawrence Stenhouse (1975) onwards, had been systematically and coolly disregarded. In place of the Professional model of development which Stenhouse had advocated, the ‘objectives’ model was reintroduced with the emphasis on the supposed feasibility of predicting precisely educational outcomes; with its belief in the possibility of translating the deep structures of knowledge into behavioural and other clear objectives; with its concentration, when applied to knowledge areas on improving teaching as instruction without increment to the wisdom or scholarship of the teacher, and its assumption that knowledge is hierarchically organised and always capable of being reduced and broken down into fragments.

Reich in ‘Tales of a new America’ stated that, ‘managers must continually retrain employees for more complex tasks, automating in ways that cut routine tasks and enhance worker flexibility and creativity.’ John Knight (1995) goes further, seeing mass schooling as increasingly characterised by a ‘split referentiality’ in which the introduction of post-Fordist forms of schooling, allied with current thrusts towards efficiency and effectiveness, is leading to a ‘thorough-going commodification of knowledge and workers’. Ricoeur’s (1981) notion of the process of ‘split referentiality’ involves a metaphoric framing whereby one thing (here, humanistic assertions of an individual’s intrinsic worth, the value of ‘our’ cultural heritage, and the development of the human through education) stands for something other (here, an attempt to produce personalities and bodies that are subjected and made docile for the needs of work and the practices of power, the infinite reproduction of schooled workers).  He speculates on what he sees as the replacement of ‘education’ by the (re)production of ‘flexible human units of production and consumption’ and the diminution of even ‘the representations of humanism from schooling’, invoking the somewhat gloomy, but none-the-less pertinent (and percipient) prognostications of Baudrillard (1988):

It is no longer a question of a false representation of reality (ideology), but of concealing the fact that the real is no longer real (p.172).

With the disappearance of the referent (the human-educational) in this (post)-‘political economy of the sign’ there are only simulacra. There will be displacements from the massified reproduction of Fordist forms of schooling to the flexible simulations of post-Fordist production and a restructuring of the inflexible strictures and archaic fixtures of state bureaucracies to a more devolved and ‘self-managing’ system of social formation. As state schooling becomes more adaptive, responsible and ‘private’ and ‘autonomous’, it becomes the more extensively monitored and directed with the range of accountability mechanisms far more searching and thorough than any earlier processes of inspection: national goals, league tables, performance indicators, outputs, student profiles, student records of achievement, the publication of examination results, testing, appraisal features of a growing conjunction of corporation and market in posteducation and the all-embracing message/medium of the postmodern. As Lyotard has observed, the very nature of knowledge undergoes a transformation:

The question now asked is no longer ‘Is it true?’ but ‘What use is it?’. In the context of the mercantilisation of knowledge, more often than not this question is equivalent to: ‘Is it saleable?’. And in the context of power-growth: ‘Is it efficient?’. (Lyotard, 1984, p.51)

No longer is knowledge (if it ever was) an end in itself; it has become commodified - produced, sold and consumed, the major stake in the worldwide competition for power.

More recent analyses of the rise of corporate power and economic policy in education (Codd, 1992: Lingard, Knight and Porter, 1993) portray the rise of the New Right (‘the enemy of this decade’, John Freeman-Noir, 1992) and the emergence of a new managerialism in schools. These analyses concentrate on the functions of new codes of conduct and the ways in which the behaviours of staff are measured and placed under surveillance. Miriam David (1991) also charts the origins of the movement to the Right (in this country, as well as in the US) and sees the objectives of the reforms are to do with declining international competitiveness and the raising of standards through consumer or parental choice, concluding that the outcomes are likely not to be a raising of standards but rather a serious bifurcation in terms of a complex mix of gender, race and class. Right wing movements stress excellence, standards of performance, ability, parent choice, deregulation and competition over equity, needs, access, social and welfare concerns, regulations and enforcement. Boyd (1991) has talked of a ‘new lexicon’ which consists of the 5 Ds and the 3 Cs and represents a shift from equality to ‘quality’:

Disestablishment         Deregulation         Decentralisation

Deemphasis         Diminution

Moral Character         Core Content         Choice of school

Miriam David believes that the National Curriculum may, in the 1990s, end up by being the specification of minima rather than what was initially intended as the raising of standards, and stemming ‘defects in the education system’. This may be because of the effect of other government legislation on local government finances and demographic and economic trends. It is also because, as the ERA had been developed, school diversity to grant maintained schools, city technology colleges and magnet schools of other kinds has been pursued almost in preference to the National Curriculum. Indeed, it is grant maintained schools which are being promoted by the current administration as a solution to the problems of local government finance through the community charge (Halpin et al, 1993). Put another way, it is likely that the effects of the reforms are going to widen social differences between schools and therefore social inequalities as well as to recreate serious disparities between children on the basis of their parents’ socio-economic circumstances (p.104). The Conservative dream of individuality, consumerism and competitiveness will create a patchwork of educational provision in this country with chances for a good education depending on parental area of residence and ability to make demands upon individual schools, as well as intellectual ability and the parents' socio-economic position.

The National Curriculum is, therefore, an expression of New Right notions of standards, notions which harbour the debilitating effects of standardisation - the selection and packaging of knowledge into arbitrary, narrow and discrete areas; the selection and rating of students in terms of their competence in these subjects; and the accumulation of qualifications as symbols of academic excellence. These are the features that have characterised bureaucratic education in the past. Brown and Lauder (1991) have recognised the link between the attempt to establish a market system of education and the growing tendency towards standardisation; the former reinforces the latter, precisely because of the need to offer consumer information about the relative performance of different schools. In secondary schools success in examinations has already become the main criterion used by parents to differentiate between schools, while in primary schools, benchmark tests have been proposed to give parents an indication of the school’s quality. Nuttall (1989) and Torrance (1991) have both agreed, however, that the latter are of little educational value and will simply serve to de-skill teachers and lead students to cram for the narrow range of skills that will be demanded by the benchmark tests.

If the claim over standards is problematic, the proposition that educational standards are directly linked to economic success and failure, is even more so. What the precise connection between educational standards - as defined by the New Right - and economic decline, has not to my knowledge been adequately explained anywhere, yet the assertion of such a link has repeatedly been made. Despite all their claims to be ‘radical’, the educational proposals of the New Right are profoundly conservative in both their appeal and their consequences. They would appear to take a dim view of the abilities and motivations of the average person and they share most of the assumptions which have characterised bureaucratic education in the past, with the exception that the state should no longer seek to fulfill the conditions of a meritocracy (Brown, 1990).

The culture of individualism which marks this country off from many others makes British education emphasise atomistic working rather than corporate working together; examinations are perceived as opening doors to a life of greater personal well-being based on the cut-throat competitiveness of the job market and on the semi-private pleasures offered by the consumer society. If one has the misfortune to fail, then endless toil stretches out, a Hobbesian life, maybe not ‘poor, brutish, mean and short’, but of diminished well-being centred around work that may be useful to others but which lacks much in the way of personal rewards and is, to some extent, relieved by the private and semi-private pleasures which an advanced capitalist consumer society throws at its proletariat: shopping, watching television etc. Shared, corporate activities are devalued in British formal education, both in its formal designs and objectives as well as in its pedagogy. Both Marx and Dewey favoured corporate activities; but the key word in the British attitude to education has been, and still is, ever more so, ‘separatism’.

It has been suggested to me that, in an important sense, the society is right for this tendency towards individualism in education because the society itself is geared towards this individualistic approach to so many different areas of life. In some ways, it can be argued, the very individualism (or is it selfishness?) has allowed for something like the National Curriculum to be taken up. This suggestion is not far removed from another that has been made to me recently, namely, that a modern economy only requires a high level of education for a middle class elite, and that a market led education system will deliver precisely what the economic conditions of the 1990s demand. For some conservatives this division of labour and learning is perceived to be inevitable because of the shrinking pool of talent (Scruton, 1984).

The assumption being made here seems to be that the only viable capitalist economy is one that is characterised by low wages and low technology, or, in other words, a low trust, low ability society. Why is an alternative model of high wage, high technology economy apparently not possible? Scruton’s thesis deserves a rebuttal for it embodies so many of the routine and generally unquestioned assumptions that have underpinned bureaucratic educational systems in industrial societies, namely, that, 'out there', there is only a ‘limited pool of talent’ in the vast desert of mediocrity. These Fordist assumptions have usually held to bureaucratic notions of intelligence that have significantly overlooked the very real ways in which intelligence can be collectively structured by the form of production itself. Brown and Lauder’s powerful and optimistic advocacy of a high ability society (1991) is premised on the belief that 80% of the population are capable of achieving the intellectual standards necessary to obtain a university degree. Seeing an urgent need to 'jack-up the normal curve of human intelligence’ they deplore the fact that the vast wealth of talent for too long has been allowed to go unharnessed. Moreover, the ideology of meritocracy has served as a mere administrative tool of convenience enabling teachers and employers to explain away ability differences in students, differences which usually have been as a resulting consequence of socio-economic inequalities, Often patronisingly termed ‘late developers’, ‘mature’ students show how false some of these unquestioned assumptions are: in their case it is assumed that had they been capable of earlier achievement they would have shown it.

Any nation state which denies its students the opportunity to examine the key issues of the day at school or which does not give help to them in making linkages between all the various aspects of their studies is helping to render them into being less intelligent than they need be. It is not enough just to reorganise a system on ad hoc lines, whether on free market principles or otherwise. Given the current rate of change there is hardly any point in teaching non-transferable skills that may soon become obsolete.

The National Curriculum fails, moreover, to cater for the individual learning needs of students; it values the Theorist and the Pragmatist learner more than the Activist and the Reflector. It is modelled on social constructivist terms yet strangely tested in Piagettian ways. There are significant areas which are under-represented in the National Curriculum - study skills, metacognitive skills, note-taking skills - and the less that poor learners develop these skills, the more slowly they will advance in their learning. Learning to think is as crucial as thinking to learn; and the emphasis on testing should be replaced by the teaching of critical thinking skills involving hypothesising and conceptualising.

The disillusionment that so many of the young show over formal schooling, the widespread increases in vandalism, drug addition and the other forms of antisocial behaviour that are gloatingly mulled over with monotonous insistence by the national press all testify to the needs that the young have for something more than that which is on offer by the National Curriculum. Despite all the exponential advances in today’s technology, too many humans still live ineptly, without purpose, without meaning, and too many schoolpupils are ‘trained’, ‘learned’ and ‘schooled’ for ‘manpower’ and ‘womanpower’ rather than educated for humanhood. The resultant moral disintegration, the drug culture and the neglect of value education is the reverse side of the coin of ‘Kentucky Fried Schooling’ and the incipient, but all pervasive ‘McDonaldisation of Society’ (Ritzer, 1993) with its pressures towards homogenisation, its predictability, calculability, control and drive for efficiency. The emphasis on individualism and ‘separatism’ so endemic in Britain and which has so many undesirable consequences must be somehow replaced by a greater sense of collectivity; instead of constantly poaching each other’s skilled labour, employers should develop a greater sense of obligation towards training people. Value standards are needed which will do justice to the lives of people.

I will conclude this study with a call for a critical appraisal of the political and social machinations of the recent reforms in the curriculum and its related areas and offer the following as a list of issues emerging from the reform developments which are meant as a means of contributing to such appraisal.

  • In what ways do schools, and the pupils in them, connect to the processes of the wider culture?
  • Who are the winners and losers as a result of the structural and curricular changes over the last few years?
  • Do the reforms significantly disadvantage certain groups in Britain?
  • How to the reforms account for the emergence of large numbers of students who experience ‘no financial help, no future, no job’?
  • What forms of curriculum practice appear to consolidate dominant interests, and which forms challenge the status quo so as to effect democratic transformation?


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