Labour and the grammar schools: a history
New Labour - New Values?
© copyright Derek Gillard 1997
ABSTRACT Written a few weeks after the general election of May 1997, this piece was an early attempt to assess the education policies of Tony Blair's 'New Labour' government.
The idea that education should be the vehicle for creating moral citizens is not a recent one. The White Paper Educational Reconstruction, which preceded the 1944 Education Act, for example, 'called upon the schools and religious education in particular "to revive the personal and spiritual values of the nation"' (Cox and Cairns 1989:10). Many of the Agreed Syllabuses of the post-war years had such aims. Surrey's (1945) wanted children to 'seek for themselves in Christianity principles which give a purpose to life and a guide to all its problems,' while that of Middlesex (1948) said that 'the chief task of the school is to train for Christian citizenship'.
By the 1960s such attitudes were being questioned. Edwin Cox (1966:54-5) asked what the aims of religious education should be: would teaching the Bible produce faith and moral character? Or should religious education help pupils make up their own minds on religious questions? 'Propaganda is not the aim of teaching, but the production of a ripe capacity to judge the truth of what is propagated' (Smart 1966:97).
The philosophy of the 1960s is now out of fashion. Baroness Blatch, (speaking on Independent Radio News 4 August 1992), said 'we want them to have high moral values.' Education Secretary John Patten's White Paper Choice and Diversity: A new framework for schools (published on 28 July 1992) underlined the point and, once again, linked it to religious - especially Christian - education. In the following year the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority (SCAA) conducted a consultation on a list of values to which, it was hoped, we would all subscribe and which teachers could then teach. (Most of the debate centred on the wording of the section on the nature and importance of marriage). There is no doubt, then, that governments want our children to have values.
The problem for the Tories is that their philosophy of education (such as it is) militates against effective values education and also that their behaviour in government appeared to be based on a set of values few would want their children to adopt.
Conservative educational philosophy
For Conservative governments, education is utilitarian: its aim is to produce efficient workers who will contribute to the economic success of the nation and so enable the Tories' friends in business to get rich - or even richer. The only place for values in this model of education is as a means of producing compliant citizens. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr George Carey, commented at a conference on Values and the curriculum at the London Institute of Education earlier this year:
It is precisely because there are many pressures to make education more utilitarian - a better bargain for UK plc - that all of us, including teachers, need to insist on a balanced and rounded concept of education.The Conservatives believe in selection as the best way of achieving this utilitarian goal. The educational elite - those in private schools, assisted places, grammar schools - get a 'good education' while the rest get an education that teaches them to know their place and not cause trouble.
They see education as the passing on of straightforward 'facts' from informed teachers to passive, ignorant pupils. One of my (many) complaints about the National Curriculum is that it is almost totally content-based. It relies on 'outcomes' which must be behaviourally observable and publicly testable. Mike Bottery challenges the popular myth 'that there are "facts" which are solid, permanent and unchangeable ... it is important to nail this myth if the important part that values education can and must play within education as a whole is to be understood', and he suggests that the curriculum should include an element 'which concentrates on the degrees of subjectivity, the tentativeness and temporality of human knowledge ... it is the teacher's duty to educate the child away from his or her authority' (Bottery 1990:46).
And Paul Hirst argued:
We can escape merely passing on our values and beliefs by passing on as far as possible the most fundamental capacities to challenge those values and beliefs and by not presenting them as having a status that is not defensible (Hirst 1974:83).The Conservatives regard moral issues as contentious and therefore to be avoided. It is quite disgraceful, for example, that AIDS education has been removed from the compulsory curriculum. Surely children have a right to discuss such issues: how can they possibly make sensible choices otherwise? Education is not just about being fed facts, it is about developing value systems and making appropriate choices.
Finally - and perhaps most significantly - Conservatives don't believe in society. For most people nowadays, the values they practise are 'derived either from a revelationist approach, usually within a particular religious tradition, or from the adoption of principles which it is believed enable people to live together within a certain kind of society' (Bottery 1990:46). But for the Conservatives, as Margaret Thatcher herself said, 'There is no such thing as society'.
Is there a common set of values to which we could all subscribe?
Perhaps we could agree on the following:
In his speech to the RE Council of England and Wales (7 May 1992) David Pascall, then Chair of the National Curriculum Council, said 'I expect [my children's] school to have a clear vision of the moral values which it and society hold to be important. These include trust, fairness, politeness, honesty and consideration for others.'
More recently, the SCAA list includes 'accepting diversity and respecting people's rights to religious and cultural differences; providing opportunities for all; contributing to, as well as benefiting from, economic and cultural resources; making truth and integrity priorities in public life.'
There is now increasing concern about the lack of democratic values taught in school. Many of our young people seem to be blissfully ignorant of how our democracy works and the dangers facing it.
The National Curriculum
You would think, then, that the Tories' National Curriculum would promote such values. However, apart from a consideration of how citizens can participate in action or decision-making on environmental issues in the Geography curriculum, the rest of the National Curriculum contains virtually nothing which would contribute to education in democratic values. As Judy Dyson (Humanities Inspector for Oxfordshire) pointed out at the conference on Values and the curriculum 'perhaps the consensus about the need to raise environmental awareness makes this particular issue a safe bet.'
Although values education should permeate the whole curriculum, an important vehicle for such teaching is personal and social education. Yet this has never been a National Curriculum subject. Most schools do it, but it is an optional add-on, without the status of the other subjects. I would argue that it is the most important subject and should be a central part of any decent National Curriculum.
Equally worrying is the lack of any mention of values education in the training of teachers.
In February the Teacher Training Agency sent out for consultation proposals for 'Standards and Requirements' for teacher training in England and Wales. This is a frightening document - it says nothing about a teacher's role in moral education and even lacks any indication of the educational values underpinning its own proposals - perhaps because there aren't any.
Aspiring teachers, it seems, are not to be allowed to consider the purpose of education. They are to concentrate almost exclusively on what has to be taught (the National Curriculum) and how this should be done. The creativity, spontaneity and originality which made English primary education the envy of the world are out. No wonder teachers are getting bored.
Conservative values in evidence
Finally - and perhaps most tellingly - there is the Conservatives' own record in office. Everything they did tells us something about their own values.
Competition is clearly an important Conservative value. Competition between schools - promoted by the paraphernalia of testing, exam results and league tables - has led to increasing division between the 'good' schools and the rest.
Honesty and truthfulness were casualties of the Conservative years. From the lies about taxes at the 1992 election ('no VAT on fuel' etc) to the countless examples of deceit ('cash for questions' et al) there seemed to be no end to it. Cuts in income tax were paraded as a triumph. But they were a deceit, too. The price was increases in other taxes and even poorer public services.
The method of calculating the unemployment figure was changed thirty-two times in the Conservatives' eighteen years in power. Some analysts estimate that there may be double the official number of unemployed. And many of the 'new' jobs are part-time, low-paid, casual work. Yet, right up to the election, Michael Heseltine was still trumpeting the government's 'success' in this field. If not lying, he was at least being disingenuous.
Social justice was a major casualty. The gap between rich and poor widened enormously in the Conservative years. Those in the poorest tenth of the population now pay £3 a week more tax than in 1979, while the richest tenth pay £30 a week less. What sort of social justice is that? To make matters worse, many of the services on which the poor depend have been cut or abolished altogether. Job Centres have been closed (presumably Norman Tebbit's cyclists now have to pedal further for that elusive job) and old people have been thrown out of their council-run homes. Meals-on-Wheels and Home Helps cost more. Profit replaced nutrition as the criterion for the school meals service - where it still exists at all. The mentally ill were left to fend for themselves - sometimes with fatal consequences for themselves or others - and the homeless were left to rot in their cardboard boxes. There have never been so many beggars on the streets.
Peter Lilley was cheered for his mocking imitation of foreigners at a Conservative Party conference. He blamed the ills of society on single mothers. Gay households were sneeringly described as 'pretend families'. What sort of values underpin such attitudes?
The quality of public life was cheapened. Libraries, museums and art galleries were starved of funds, ITV licences were sold to the highest bidders. Music teaching in schools is disappearing. The only success story is the National Lottery - a tax on fools and a fitting memorial for a government bankrupt of decent values.
Democracy itself is in danger. Britons living permanently abroad - mostly Conservatives - were given the vote. (Not a particularly successful move, apparently - of the two million potential expatriate voters, fewer than 24,000 registered to vote this year). Constituency boundaries were moved, largely benefiting the Conservative Party. A huge proportion of public expenditure is now controlled by unelected quangos stuffed with Conservative Party supporters. Public assets were sold off and the newly privatised companies then gave money to the Tories (one water company gave them £25,000 in the run up to the 1992 election).
A fresh start?
The Labour victory in May 1997 had a remarkable effect. The nation felt as though it had had an enormous weight lifted from it. But will it last? Will the new government espouse and promote a decent set of values?
It made a busy - and promising - start. The Queen's Speech began with a commitment to govern 'for the benefit of the whole nation' and ended with a determination to see integrity restored to public and political life. Support for the Social Chapter and the National Minimum Wage demonstrated the new government's commitment to social justice. The proposals to ban tobacco advertising and set up an independent food safety agency signalled not only a commitment to improve the health of the nation but also demonstrated the new government's determination not to kow-tow to sectional interests. The banning of all privately owned handguns was an indication of its commitment to a civilised society. The Foreign Office was given a Mission Statement with clearly stated values.
But all is not well - especially in education.
I was appalled that, within a month of coming to office, Education Secretary David Blunkett published a list of eighteen failing schools. What was this supposed to achieve? What did it do for the self-esteem of the staff - and children - in these schools? The only tangible effect has been the inability of these schools to recruit new teachers.
Elitism is no longer to be promoted - hence the phasing out of the Assisted Places Scheme - but neither will it be rooted out. I would like to see a much greater commitment to deal with the inequalities and social injustice resulting from selection. What is to be done about the Grammar Schools, Grant Maintained Schools, City Technology Colleges and the independent sector? Precious little, apparently. Indeed, David Blunkett is now talking about more 'sponsored' and specialist schools.
We are told that cooperation will replace competition as a core value. In his interview with John Carvel in The Guardian (6 May 1997) David Blunkett promised teachers a 'summit of educational practitioners' and said of the Local Education Authorities 'We want to liberate them'. A General Teaching Council is promised, demonstrating the government's understanding of the need for a consensual approach and its desire to show that it values the teachers. This will make a welcome change from the rubbishing of the profession which has taken place on an almost daily basis for the past eighteen years. Yet it is accompanied by more pseudo-Tory rhetoric: 'If they are not doing what we want we are not going to sit around waiting.'
Excellence in Schools
The White Paper Excellence in schools published in July, is an interesting - if depressing - indication of the new government's thinking on education (if thinking isn't too strong a word).
The new government's policies, we are told, will be designed 'to benefit the many, not just the few'. According to The Guardian (8 July 1997), 'this will inevitably mean smaller classes, more equitable funding and fairer admissions'. Comprehensives will not be allowed to select pupils on the basis of ability. So far, so good. Indeed, the White Paper was initially greeted with enthusiasm, the teacher unions describing it as 'ambitious and refreshing' (John Carvel The Guardian 8 July 1997).
But the rhetoric has not changed. 'Raising standards will be at the heart of the White Paper' (The Times 7 July 1997). In The Guardian (27 June 1997), Decca Aitkenhead said 'A successful school will be measured above all by reference to a set of GCSE results.' What sort of teachers will the successful school employ? They will 'apply the strictest traditional teaching methods ... grind good exam results out year after year ... surf the internet ... give out detention and correct spelling all at the same time.'
Unbelievably, schools will get new funds for repairs and maintenance only if they can show they are improving standards (The Guardian 7 July 1997).
Mixed-ability grouping is to be replaced by setting and streaming. We learn nothing from the past.
There are to be more parents on governing bodies and parents on education committees. God help us! As John Rae pointed out in The Times (4 July 1997), a fundamental reason why fewer and fewer people are prepared to take on the role of Head Teacher is the 'increased tension between the head and the governing body.' Heads must be
given the freedom and authority to do the job without amateur intervention ... a national professional qualification for headship may improve the head's management skills, but it is the men and women with that extra quality - vision, charisma, force of personality - who are most likely to be deterred if the head is expected to be the governing body's poodle (John Rae The Times 4 July 1997).Tony Blair's article in The Times (7 July) sheds more light on the thinking of the new government. 'Education throughout life is central to our economic and social policy.' Is this the same utilitarian view of education which underpinned so much Conservative policy? 'There is proven best practice for the teaching of literacy ... based on the use of phonics to teach children words.' Is there? Or is this just another example of what happens when politicians see themselves as experts in education?
NAS/UWT leader Nigel de Gruchy suggested that many older teachers would 'smile wryly with the official acknowledgement that some of the methods imposed on them in the 1960s and 1970s were either wrong in themselves or impossible to operate' (The Times 27 June 1997).
In a letter to The Times (4 July 1997) Alan Millard summed up my feelings about the present situation perfectly:
Some, like me, will be weeping over his (de Gruchy's) readiness to abandon those ideals which many believed were right and could have been operated had they been properly understood and adequately resourced.
Bottery M (1990) The morality of the school London: Cassell
Cox E (1966) Changing aims in religious education London: Routledge and Kegan Paul
Cox E and Cairns JM (1989) Reforming religious education London: Bedford Way Papers/Kogan Page
Hirst P (1974) Moral education in a secular society London: University of London Press
Pring R (1984) Personal and social education in the curriculum Sevenoaks: Hodder and Stoughton
Smart N (1966) Secular education and the logic of religion London: Faber and Faber
This article is a modified version of that published in Forum 39(3) Autumn 1997 86-88.