1. THE NATIONAL CURRICULUM OF ENGLAND AND WALES
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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)
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
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
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?’.
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’:
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
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
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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