Freedom to differ

7th March 1997 at 00:00
Brian Cox finds the English curriculum is still a battleground. WHERE WE'VE BEEN:ARTICLES FROM THE ENGLISH AND MEDIA MAGAZINE Edited by Michael Simons English and Media Centre, Pounds 12.95

During the past 10 years, politicians and professionals have often disagreed sharply about the teaching of English. The most striking example took place in 1991 when Tim Eggar, then the Minister of State for Education, suppressed the Language in the National Curriculum (LINC) materials designed by Professor Ronald Carter and his team. The materials were intended to help teachers to understand the model of language recommended in the Kingman Report of 1988, on which the 1989 English curriculum recommendations were based.

The irony of these disagreements is that the politicians rely on the professionals to implement their policies. Kenneth Baker, then Education Secretary, appointed National Curriculum Working Groups whose proposals often turned out to be anathema to Mrs Thatcher. The problems continue today as the profession tries to prevent politicians from imposing methods of assessment which damage children's education.

In Where We've Been, a collection of essays from The English and Media Magazine, Alastair West writes most intelligently and forcefully about LINC and the confusions created by this clash of views. We are witnessing, he says, a struggle between those with knowledge but no power and those with power but no knowledge.

He quotes the Russian proverb that you do not set a goat to guard the cabbage patch. But when it comes to the practical implementation of the government's ideas there are only goats available to do the job: "The dilemma for the government is real: on the one hand, plenty of simplistic ideas about language education which they wish to see imposed, on the other, a dearth of people who could make them work."

The obvious way forward might be to create a powerful General Teaching Council whose professional advice could not easily be set aside by government. But is this solution really so simple? Are the professionals always right? Even today is there a consensus about how to teach reading or grammar or literature?

The English Magazine (now The English and Media Magazine) was started in 1979. This selection includes essays from the opening issue to the mid-1990s. It covers the great controversies of the period, with lively sections on the English curriculum, reading, media and new technologies, and language issues.

By and large the essays are written from a left-wing and progressive point of view, though such definitions shift and change as years go by. I am repeatedly criticised in them, though it has recently been suggested in The Guardian that my ideas are more left-wing and progressive than those of New Labour. The essays include many descriptions of good classroom practice, and the collection is valuable for these in their own right. But interspersed are many contentious arguments about the purpose of English studies. In the opening article by Mike Raleigh and Michael Simons we are given a brief history of English teaching from 1920 to 1970.

The authors believe that the ideas of F R Leavis and the Scrutiny group were severely limited, and they later include illuminating interviews with Raymond Williams and Stuart Hall.

These two are said to have been critical of the Leavisite view of literature and culture because its interest was focused on the "middle-class grammar school curriculum and because the attitudes and practices it fostered were meaningless to working-class children". This pronouncement seems to me contemptuous towards the working classes.

Two of the most interesting essays in this collection are Ken Jones's "Revolution and Restoration: A Critique of English in the National Curriculum" and Jane Coles's "Will it End in Tiers? Shakespeare in the National Curriculum".

Both are strongly critical of my writings. Ken Jones argues that the Cox curriculum "does not in any serious sense establish a coherent cultural perspective, still less adopt a dissident political role". The Cox curriculum is "conservative", because it says that children are entitled, via Standard English and knowledge of the lit-erary tradition, to access to a national culture.

Jane Coles insists that "the teaching of Shakespeare is a political matter". Shakespeare is part of an ideological struggle "partly determined by whether teachers regard the plays as timeless ('universal') presentations of the world based on individual subjectivity, or as historical constructions increasingly laden with specific cultural and class values".

I do not see these views as mutually exclusive. I am happy with Jane Coles's argument that teachers need to be explicit in the classroom about Shakespeare's cultural status, about the danger of bardolatry, but both she and Jones do not make clear how they assess the quality of a work of art. Are they saying unequivocally that greatness is culturally determined?

If so, there is no reconciliation, no consensus possible, between their views and mine. I argue, as Leavis did, that some artists are greater than others, and that Shakespeare's pre-eminence, his insight into character and his use of language, transcend cultural boundaries ("I wasted time, and now doth time waste me," or, more obviously, "To be or not to be".) And so would a General Teaching Council resolve these disagreements? I believe that there are many areas, such as how to teach reading, where professional views based on research could approach consensus.

But, and I speak as an unrepentant liberal, it is vital that we acknowledge that teachers hold different political views and these inevitably influence their teaching of literature and the new media. We need a simple fixed framework (the importance of Standard English, of high standards in the practice of writing and so forth) in which such freedoms can thrive. This is what the Cox curriculum tried to achieve.

Brian Cox chaired the National Curriculum English Working Group that reported in 1989. He has just edited African Writers, published by Scribner's

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today