Educational Reform (in 1989)

Educational Reform:

Does the Right have all the best tunes?

by Christopher Winch

The Centre for Policy Studies (hereafter CPS) is a right wing ‘think tank’ founded by Sir Keith Joseph and Margaret Thatcher some fifteen years ago. It has recently published a series of pamphlets on education which in some ways are at odds with the policy effects of the 1988 Education Reform Act I wish to look particularly at Oliver Letwin’s The Aims of Schooling: the importance of grounding as a clue to the thinking of the Thatcherite right on education in order to see if the left can learn anything from it. The other pamphlets I shall consider are Correct Core by Sheila Lawlor and English our English by John Marenbon.

All three pamphlets are well written and well thought out and contain penetrating criticisms of some of the educational orthodoxies in this country which are also, by implication, criticisms of this government, to the extent that its educational policy, particularly in the matter of the content and range of the national curriculum, has involved a surrender to ‘progressive’ educational orthodoxy. At the same time, the refusal of Letwin and his colleagues to take seriously any of the views of people professionally involved in education gives the CPS’s educational vision a stunted appearance.

It is my belief that socialists can live with many of the criticisms of current educational fashion and practice made by Letwin and his colleagues and yet adhere to distinctive educational aims which can and will raise the aspirations of many who now see education as having little to offer them.

What is education?

Talking about the aims of education in a speculative way is a dangerous business; one is apt to end up talking high-flown nonsense, which is what many liberal educators succeed in doing. What is called ‘education’ is best seen as a series of practices, more or less systematic, designed to develop the knowledge, understanding and skill of people in a vast range of different activities. Since these practices are so varied in their nature and designed for different purposes, there is little point in trying to produce a definition of an educated person which would be completely satisfactory. A better strategy would be to ask what would be a desirable outcome of each of the various activities that go under the umbrella heading of ‘education’.

Letwin belongs to the school of thought which sees an educated person as having almost mystical qualities; for him, being educated means having

“an understanding that no knowledge is complete, that one does not and cannot in any ultimate sense have ‘the whole answer’ to any complicated question. And we recognise, with this, a certain intellectual tact, a sense of how to approach a new set of ideas, a certain capacity to feel at home in the world of thought” (p.9).

While this is fine as a description of the ideal outcome of a certain kind of education, it will not do to define an educated person in these terms and then expect that such a definition will cover all that we call ‘education’. Letwin is in danger of acting like Humpty Dumpty and making words mean just what he wants them to mean. The use of terms like ‘education’ and ‘educated’ is complicated and unsystematic and little will be gained by trying to produce a neat definition which corresponds to one’s own preferences. Letwin jeers at civil servants for producing a hold-all definition which tries to cover all that people mean by ‘education’, calling it a “grandiloquent but entirely incoherent melange”. At least they, unlike him, have tried to take account of reality in giving an account of education. Letwin acknowledges the elitist nature of his own definition in the following passage:

‘The real trouble is that this highly desirable condition of being an educated person is not, and could never be, the aim or result of schooling for most people at most schools. It depends too heavily on fortunate circumstances” (p.9).

The “fortunate circumstances” presumably will obtain most readily at one or more of the country’s old established independent schools. Fortunately, this is not all that Letwin and his colleagues have to say about education and it is the least interesting part. Having given his mystical definition of education, Letwin goes on to argue that the only absolute duty that schools have is to provide children with a ‘grounding’: that is, basic literacy, numeracy, and an acquaintance with the main scientific knowledge of the age – curiously, they do not include historical and geographical knowledge in their account – which will allow them to take their places as independent members of a liberal democratic society (pp.10-11). What a grounding looks like is spelled out in more detail in Sheila Lawlors’s pamphlet Correct Core.

Grounding, basic education or whatever you wish to call it, is fundamental, not just to being an independent member of society, but to being educated in any sense at all. The charge of the CPS is that schools are failing in their duty to provide children with a grounding and that the introduction of a national curriculum will make them more, not less, likely to fail in that duty. It is to the fairness of these charges and the relevance of the national curriculum to them that we must now turn.

The Right’s critique of British education

The main criticism of post-war British education by Letwin and Co. can be summed up in the phrase ‘the best is the enemy of the good’. In aiming at a romantic conception of a liberal education for all. the education service has neglected its basic, absolute duty to provide a grounding for all pupils and it has done this because it has thought, mistakenly, that a grounding does not matter and that a liberal education can be given without a grounding. A further charge, made partially by Lawlor in Correct Core, is that, in attempting to make the National Curriculum go beyond grounding or basic education, the government is repeating the mistakes of the past and, in giving power to educational ‘experts’ to draw up the curriculum, it is likely to compound rather than reduce these mistakes.

These are serious charges and there is a great deal of substance in them. In particular, Letwin makes use of the work of the Assessment Performance Unit (APU), set up by the last Labour government, to demonstrate how low standards of literacy have fallen in secondary education. There is no doubt that the idea of providing all pupils with a grounding or basic education has come under attack in the last twenty or thirty years. A major part of the reason for this has been the lack of any national consensus on what is to be taught, which has left the field wide open to the propagators of notions of ‘creativity’.

Creativity is held to be something that we all have (particularly when we are children) until it is crushed out of us by an oppressive school system. Jn order to avoid this happening, non-creative disciplined activity must be dispensed with in favour of activities that promote creativity (which, incidentally, is rarely if ever defined in a satisfactory way). This has meant that all those activities which have depended on discipline, routine and rote learning have come under particular attack from the progressives precisely because they stifle creativity. From this follows the attack on the teaching of spelling, grammatical knowledge and number facts such as the multiplication tables, together with basic historical and geographical knowledge, which form the foundation of any education.

What the ‘progressives’ have never realised and probably would not wish to understand is that any creative activity worthy of the name cannot be a matter of undirected impulses dictated by the whim of the individual, but must be measurable by certain standards of quality. Jn order to achieve that quality in mathematics, writing, art, science or any other area of the curriculum, a basis of skill and knowledge has to be provided, as have habits of sell-discipline, persistence and self-criticism. None of these can be achieved with any confidence without a certain degree of rote learning and systematic practice.

Nor have the progressives given up their struggle; having seen off, in large parts of the country, the learning of spelling, grammar, basic number facts, the study of good literature and the learning of basic historical and geographical knowledge, they are now concentrating their fire on the systematic teaching of reading and writing (in favour of these ’emerging’ through spontaneous activity) and demanding the abolition of basic teaching equipment such as desks and blackboards (on the grounds that these put up ‘artificial barriers’ between teachers and children).

These pressures have been particularly strong in the primary sector, which has to a large extent, but by no means completely, resisted them. The situation has become so bad in the last few years that it would be disastrous if the influence of the ‘progressives’ was not reduced drastically. The most effective way, in general terms, is through the implementation of a national curriculum.

L&TUR agrees with Letwin et al. that basic education is an absolute priority for any school and that the failure to provide it is inexcusable. Incidentally, we see eye to eye on this matter with certain figures on the left wing of the Labour Party. Paul Boateng, MP for Brent South, has spoken recently of the betrayal of children by the application of progressive ideology:

“Black parents are bloody angry. They feel and I feel we have been betrayed by the education system. The sort of attitudes that deny the importance of excellence and academic: rigour are a betrayal of black children. Those who, for some wishy-washy, upper-class or sentimental or ideological reason, think you must deny the importance of academic excellence to achieve equality do black children and all working class children a tremendous disservice. I know my own children are threatened by this.” (The Independent, April 4, 1989, page 6).

Very often, those children who live in working-class areas are the most vulnerable to the ‘progressives’. Knowing that they cannot force their ideas on schools in middle-class areas where outraged protests would occur immediately if it was thought that the education of children was being damaged, they have tended to target schools in areas where parents are less confident about protesting about things they do not like going on in the schools.

Being pro- or anti- ‘progressive’ about education is not a straight left-right political issue. Education is a political issue, however, and the Labour Party needs to be very sensitive to any innovations which can help or hinder the advancement of working-class educational opportunity. Education reform should be judged on that criterion. Jn particular, Labour needs to be very wary of the siren voices of the educational establishment, particularly its academic end, despite their traditional association with leftish and liberal causes. Educational positions need to be judged in terms of whether they are cogently argued, rely on good evidence and receive a degree of support from outside the ranks of the professionals.

There are two questions which need to be considered in relation to the policy documents of CPS. First, should a National Curriculum aim only to provide a grounding? Second, if it should do more, what exactly should this extra element be? First of all, let us look at the evidence provided by Letwin that schools are failing to provide many of their pupils with a grounding. Letwin makes use of the APU data on children’s literacy, giving examples of appalling, ungrammatical writing done by fifteen year-olds, which is nevertheless rated as ‘average’ for the age range. Bad as these examples are, and a horrible indictment of wasted years of secondary schooling as they seem to be, we really need to take a look at the APU data on eleven year-olds as well in order to get a true picture of what is going on in our schools and what may be going wrong in them.

When we look at this, a somewhat different picture emerges; the standard is by no means marvellous, but work rated at the same grades for eleven-year-olds compares well with the work of fifteen-year-olds rated at the same grade. My own experience of working in a primary school in a variety of areas in the North of England also bears this out. Most primary teachers would be indignant at being served up with the standard of work that the fifteen-year-olds sampled by the APU produced. The ‘progressives’ have certainly done a deal of damage in primary education, but they have not been able to dislodge a hard core of stubbornly traditional teaching, which very often goes on with a ‘progressive’ top dressing so as to satisfy the local authority advisers and other hangers-on of the education system who wish to introduce half-baked innovations so as to further their own careers. Primary school teachers have something else going for them; they are able to teach relatively motivated and enthusiastic pupils up to the age of eleven. After that, motivation seems to fall away for many pupils and they cease to care about the work they do and care more about what their contemporaries think of them. Letwin’s examples of fifteen-year-old writing are the work of young people who could not care one way or the other whether they are communicating effectively in the written word.

It appears, then, that there are two related problems with which a national educational reform should be capable of dealing. One is that of providing a good basic education for all pupils. The second is that of providing them with a challenging and relevant extension of their abilities which will be of use both to them and to society in their later lives.

It is fairly clear that the first is being achieved (just) at primary level in most cases, but that the gains then fall away at secondary level. This is not necessarily a criticism of the teachers who work in such a system but of the ideology and curriculum within which they teach. To the extent that both primary and secondary . teachers have been willing accomplices to the introduction of ‘progressivism’, they have been making a rod for their own backs as well as for many pupils, perhaps nearly half. That is a great wrong which the Education Reform Act is not necessarily going to deal with.

What is going wrong with educational reform?

The Education Reform Act is a very ambitious but hasty piece of legislation. The National Curriculum is only part of it, the introduction of assessment and market forces into education is the other aspect. Because it has been introduced in such a hasty way, but also with such high ambitions, it is being botched to a large extent by the very people it was intended to circumvent, the dreaded ‘educationists’. John Marenbon, in a third CPS pamphlet, English our English, describes what has been happening very well:

‘There is a common tendency for government to look to experts for guidance about specialised matters. It is questionable whether such expert advice can ever be free from fashionable or political bias, even where the subject is apparently scientific or technical. To look in this way to experts for advice about the teaching of a subject such as English is unquestionably to invite confusion. The experts can merely provide theories, and information collected and interpreted in the light of those theories. They are not to be blamed for following the theories which have happened to be prevalent in learned circles (although their partiality to every fashionable folly should not, perhaps, go without censure); but rather those who endorsed their recommendations as if they were readily observable fact or indisputable scientific knowledge.” (p. 39)

Marenbon goes on to describe the political dangers of pursuing curricular innovation with the aid of the ‘experts’ it was intended to circumvent as follows:

“Ministers of government, preoccupied with the external politics of education, have repeatedly been defeated in the more important internal politics of what is taught and how: defeated by an enemy they do not recognise, in a battle they do not know they are fighting.” (p. 40)

Jn many cases, it has not been quite so bad, but not much less so. Baker has recognised the enemy and tried to fight it, but has been hamstrung by his own tight timetable. Once committed to his ‘experts’, he could not afford to let them resign en masse before their work was completed, as this would make a mess of the electoral timetable which dictates that a glossy new curriculum be in place before the next election.

What should be taught?

The core curriculum proposed by Sheila Lawlor would give pupils many of the elements of a good grounding or basic education. It is evident that many of her recommendations will not appear in the National Curriculum, for example the learning of grammatical terms in English. Jn other respects, her version of the curriculum is very much less ambitious than the actual national curriculum. Primary science merits a paragraph, for example, rather than the page upon page of different scientific concepts that appear in the working party documents.

The CPS core curriculum has the great merit of being practical and commonsensical. The omission of history and geography is surprising; basic knowledge of where we are, where we came from and our main institutions seems to be a necessary condition of understanding the world around us. Jn this area, primary schools are not doing a terribly good job, but it is one that they should be well equipped to do with good curriculum guidance. It remains to be seen what Baker’s (or MacGregor’s) working parties will finally come up with in this area.

When we turn to the National Curriculum itself, the terms ‘practical’ and ‘commonsensical’ are less easily applied. Many elements of basic education are there, but some are not, for example the specification of knowledge of grammar that pupils should have at various ages.

Instead they are offered some woolly and irrelevant socio-linguistics. It is ironic that the Black Paper author Brian Cox should be the chairman of one of the committees which has been most comprehensively ‘got at’ by the educational establishment This incident has shown quite clearly the dangers of an over-hasty and amateurish approach to the design of a curriculum and means that the job will have to be done again, piecemeal, over the coming years.

More worrying still is the inclusion of a detailed science and technology curriculum in the primary years. There is nothing wrong with this in itself. This journal has advocated better technical education in the past and will continue to do so. The fact is, however, that this country does not have the human resources to deliver a comprehensive scientific and technological curriculum at the primary level and will be hard pressed to do so at the secondary level. No amount of in-service training of teachers who are not knowledgeable or confident about science and technology is going to make them more so unless they go away and do GCSE, A Level or degree level science and technology, and no government is going to pay for that. There is a danger that science and technology, taught rigidly and without confidence or enthusiasm at the primary level, will kill off pupil enthusiasm at secondary school.

The inclusion of a modern language in the curriculum up to the age of sixteen for all pupils is likewise a foolish mistake. This country has the greatest difficulty in motivating pupils to learn foreign languages. That difficulty will not be overcome by making reluctant teenagers learn one for two more years than they already do, from staff who are not properly qualified to teach it. However, the greatest lost opportunity is the failure to provide a wider range of curricula from the age of thirteen or fourteen onwards, when a good basic education and shared cultural knowledge should already have been achieved. It is not surprising that so many children allow their literacy and numeracy to die away when they have nothing much to apply them to that would interest them in a practical sense. The provision of high grade, high prestige technical, scientific, commercial, aesthetic and artistic education in specialist schools and colleges with their own strands of the national curriculum would be the most effective way of dealing with the problems that Letwin outlines in his pamphlet. The City Technology Colleges are a step in the right direction but a pitifully inadequate one, and they will be too restricted by a single national curriculum to do the job they were set up to do properly.

One final point about the CPS pamphlets. There is much that is admirable in them. Consider the following passage in Correct Core for example:

“Teaching should not be a form of salesmanship; and pupils will not necessarily learn through games and puzzles or without hard and conscious effort. Very many things in life – at school and later including the acquisition of knowledge, require effort and concentration. Unless pupils are trained to concentrate and ma/a! the effort to master knowledge they will suffer in two ways: they will not necessarily master the required information and they will not become trained to cope with the demands of adult life.” (p.19)

While all this is very true and needs to be emphasised. it is still the case that education at all ages needs to be enjoyable and varied. Giving enjoyment and variety is not incompatible with giving children a good basic education. So concerned are the CPS authors with ‘grounding’ that they at times lose sight of other possibilities. For example, one practical way of seeing the point of writing effectively (and hence using spelling and grammar to good effect) is to practise writing in a variety of different styles from an early age. Marenbon, however, complains that tests of reading or writing assignments that require pupils to put a case in a persuasive or cogent way, or which require them to handle and reclassify information and draw conclusions from it, merge into tests of general intelligence and are thus beyond the scope of English teaching and its assessment (English our English, p.15).

This revealing comment suggests that the CPS may have an agenda, not expressed outright in any of the pamphlets, which relies on another, now unfashionable, educational orthodoxy, namely that of general intelligence. This orthodoxy, of pseudo-scientific origins (in psychology), formed the intellectual justification for selection at eleven into grammar and secondary modem schools. It would be ironic if the CPS were to plump for one bogus ideology (the cult of general intelligence) in place of another (the cult of creativity), the practical consequences of both being ones both they and we are concerned to avoid, namely the wasting of opportunities for those children with a practical, artistic or technical rather than a theoretical or academic bent, that we continue to allow to occur.

Even a basic education at the primary level may not survive years of perceived irrelevance at the secondary level. But that is no reason for restricting the primary curriculum to mechanical learning. Teaching children to read and write in a variety of ways as well as mastering the basic literacy skills of spelling, punctuation, handwriting and grammar, is something that primary teachers can be reasonably trained to do. Similarly, they can be trained to teach children to put mathematical knowledge to practical use. It will not do just to throw up one’s hands after teaching the ‘basics’ and let ‘general intelligence’ take over. Low aspirations lie down that road as well, and the aim of providing a basic education is put in jeopardy if the hard won knowledge is not used by the children in ways that are seen by them to be useful and even enjoyable.

It is a sad comment on the cynicism of Thatcher’s government that even after an important reform, they have not succeeded in either putting a satisfactory basic education in place or providing an appropriate variety of secondary educational opportunities for all children. The battle over the national curriculum will continue for many years as the consequences of the current legislation unfold. A contribution to the political debate from all sections of the trade union movement would be very welcome. It is their members who have to train and work with school-leavers and they should have some ideas on what is working and what is not working in the schools. We hear a great deal of opinionated comment from directors and industrialists about the state of our schooling. Some contribution from those in the offices and on the shop floors is now overdue.



Oliver Letwin, The Aims of Schooling: the importance of grounding;

Sheila Lawlor, Correct Core;

John Marenbon, English our English;

All three available from the Centre for Policy Studies, 8 Wilfred Street, London SWl 6PL, price £3.90 each.


This article appeared in September 1989, in Issue 13 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs.  For more from the era, see