Those responsible for overseeing the national curriculum have been placed in a peculiarly influential position. In a number of subject areas, academics supposed trustworthy have proved less than pliable to political will, local authorities have been undermined, unions and subject associations sidelined. The effects of this might have been predicted even if they had not been intended. They have been to place an enormous degree of trust and power in the hands of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority and the Office for Standards in Education.
Such thoughts have been focused for me by a speech given recently in Cambridge by Dr Nicholas Tate, chief executive of SCAA. It was a lament for the decline of the teaching of Latin and Greek and classical studies, as indicated by the number of exam entries and teachers trained.
His concern was broadly of two kinds. The first was a general heritage one, centring on our national sense of identity; the second was an argument about the continuing functional role of such knowledge (or information) in modern society.
There is heritage as fact and heritage as value, a distinction which Dr Tate might have made. The case for Latin as he puts it is not that something of lasting value and interest can be found in Virgil, or even in Roman jurisprudence, but that there are scraps of classical culture which have become embedded in ours. I shall avoid the question of whether the persistence of these cultural artefacts renders the origins of purely antiquarian interest. I am concerned, however, with the trend which this speech presages in the new circumstances.
The question of value is one that especially seems to confuse Dr Tate. Challenged on value, there appear to be two fall-back positions: you either plead functionality or you declare the matter to be wholly subjective and therefore something on which SCAA can make up its own mind. In English, for example, having rejected much of the advice of the committee chaired by Professor Brian Cox, SCAA then went on to reject the views of the National Association for the Teaching of English, the body representing the active professionals, not to mention the major report of the committee chaired by Lord Bullock.
Chris Woodhead, now the Chief Inspector, defended this decision in these columns by saying simply that NATE's view had not won the day. Dr Tate, speaking on late-night television, countered a NATE representative's views on the suggested English reading list by saying that it was only suggested, and that anyway English teachers might think this or that but that someone else in the future might think differently. (Among other things, NATE had complained that black and female writers seemed to be remarkably under-represented. ) The first defence is disingenuous. A list of suggestions can be just as eloquent, sometimes more so, than a prescription, and almost as powerful if your OFSTED inspector has it in his briefcase. As to value, it is of course true that assessments will change, perhaps radically, over time. It is true that theoretical physicists will have to re-write physics at some time in the future to deal with those incompatible elements of the general theory of relativity and quantum mechanics. Whether it is true of the assessment of the calibre of such internationally-feted writers as Derek Walcott and Nadine Gordimer is much less clear.
Where decisions over matters of uncertainty have to be made - and make no mistake the world would be uncontrollable chaos if they were not - then the views of those who have studied, thought and taught should surely have a primacy which Dr Tate and Mr Woodhead assume to themselves.
It seems likely that Dr Tate would regard this as dangerously close to cultural relativism, which is where we meet the not-so-hidden agenda of his defence of Latin and Greek. Dr Tate quotes his colleague Chris Woodhead as pointing up the era of 1964-74 - "that era of progressivism, flared jeans and Dusty Springfield" - as "the source of some of our educational ills". This period Dr Tate detects (aha) as coinciding with the decline of exam entries for O-level and GCSE in Latin and Greek.
I would like to think that Chris Woodhead's vacuous remark will gain the same place in educational history as wondering whether your servant should read Lady Chatterley's Lover has in legal history. (What on earth can he mean. . . Nuffield science, language across the curriculum, informalisation of pupil-teacher relations?) Faced with historical accounts of progressivism, I always remember the belief that overtook America in the 1960s that Dewey's notion of education had dominated the school system in the 1930s and had been seen to fail, when of course it had scarcely ever existed.
Dr Tate has his own list for those important English institutions which cannot be understood without a knowledge of the classics. It goes like this: Chaucer, Shakespeare, TS Eliot, the Bank of England, Hadrian's Wall, the National Gallery, Blenheim Palace, the Reformation, the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary. As with suggestions for English teachers, all lists speak; it takes the quirky genius of Lewis Carroll or WS Gilbert to create one which feels truly random.
But it is very difficult to interpret this one. If you leave aside Chaucer and Shakespeare (which are probably reflexes) and Hadrian's Wall (which the Romans built anyway), what are these things doing together? TS Eliot (and not DH Lawrence), the Bank of England (and not the BBC), the National Gallery (and not the Tate), Blenheim Palace (and not a Wren church), the Reformation (and not the Church of England), and why, oh why the Shorter OED?
Readers can make up their own mind. I will simply register my fear that this represents a kind of middle-brow obsequiousness towards the Establishment that is distinctly un-English. Ask an informed foreigner about the distinctively English and my experience has been that two principal things emerge. The first is the culture's relative freedom from prescription and its readiness to accept disparate stimuli. (Shakespeare, Ben Jonson sniffed, "had little Latin and less Greek".) English culture exploited with reasonable consistency a readiness to absorb whatever it felt like, especially in linguistic terms.
The second, and perhaps paradoxical, feature our sample of foreigners would observe is that in spite of everything - rhetoric, institutional change, world-wide communication - the English still retain a commitment to the practice, if not the theory, of a class system, however modified.
Dr Tate ought in fairness to have reminded us that for centuries one of the principal uses of Latin in our culture was to differentiate privilege, as it remains to an extent in the law and medicine.
Of course there is a case for more teaching of Latin and Greek in a freed-up curriculum, but these subjects form part of a long queue. The real question is whether the guardianship of our curriculum is in safe hands.
Martin Lightfoot is a company director and educational consultant.