It's the way he tells them

8th March 1996 at 00:00
Culture, morals, national identity. Nick Tate, chief executive of the Schools Curriculum and Assessment Authority, has an opinion on them all. Which not everyone wants to hear. Lucy Hodges met him

The Government's custodian of the curriculum, Nick Tate, was a bit beleagured. He had just learnt that minutes of a meeting in which he had been referred to in less-than-flattering terms had been leaked by colleagues to The TES. Some of them were unimpressed by his pronouncements on national identity, moral and spiritual education and culture, saying these had damaged the organisation's public image.

Smiling bravely, he said the leak at least showed that open debate was alive and well within the Schools Curriculum and Assessment Authority. "I expect to be disagreed with," he said. "I would hate everyone to agree with me either in the organization or outside it" Nick Tate, 52, chief executive of SCAA, is keen on debate. In recent months since the slimmed-down national curriculum was finalised he has been grabbing the headlines with a series of thought-provoking speeches in which he has demonstrated a most un-English penchant for ideas.

We need to transmit a cultural heritage in schools which is rooted in Greece and Rome and Christianity, he said in one speech. In another he bemoaned the flight from narrative history (good, if erroneous, stories like King Alfred and the cakes) in favour of a "brave new world of relativism and deconstruction".

In a third speech, sponsored by SCAA, he talked about how education should promote the moral and spiritual well-being of society. "We lack the everyday language that traditionally helped to maintain a moral structure to our lives," he said. "What has done most to undermine our surviving moral language has been the spread of an all-pervasive relativism."

Examples of such relativism include the view that Neighbours is as good as King Lear or that the latest Blur release "excellent in its own way though it might be" is on a par with Schubert's "Ave Maria".

All of which is the stuff of excellent soundbites. The speeches, thoughtful and qualified though they were, did not make the news. Many teachers seeing the headlines, sighed heavily and thought they were being got at again.

The leaked minutes reveal that some of Nick Tate's subordinates at SCAA believe he is leading the authority into "new and difficult territory" and are "embarrassed to be associated with such views". Depressingly, some advocate the need for more secrecy. "If SCAA wants to move the thinking forward in the debate about values and culture, discussions should take place in small groups and not in the public arena," say the minutes. "To do the latter only hits headlines."

Quite so. But like it or not, the world of education has moved on apace. Nick Tate, and the chief inspector Chris Woodhead, are the marshals in charge of a new curriculum and testing arrangements, in Tate's case, and a revamped inspectorate, in Woodhead's. They are a new breed of public servant, energetic, wanting to call a spade a spade and to engage with the wider world, as opposed to simply talking to educationists.

In so doing, they are blazing a trail which is not to everyone's liking. Richard Pring, professor of educational studies at Oxford University, asks from where Tate derives his authority to pronounce on moral issues. "How can he claim to tell people what is good literature and what is the right and wrong thing to do?" he wonders. "I think to some extent he is going beyond his authority as chief executive of SCAA. He has no more authority than anyone else, yet he is using his position to claim he does."

Professor Pring is a fan of the old Schools Council which looked after curriculum and assessment until the early 1980s. He harks back to an educational tradition in which teachers, politicians, parents, civil servants and business people discussed issues of value. He believes in what he calls a democracy of decision-making and thinks the present set-up is too authoritarian. "I don't think it's got any philosophical justification, " he argues. "We need a forum where the ends of education are discussed and not just the means."

Members of the Secondary Heads Association are also concerned. John Sutton, SHA general secretary, thinks Dr Tate's speeches could persuade schools to form policy based on mere opinion. And Peter Downes, past-president of SHA, is worried about what he calls the ethnocentricity of his declarations. "He seems to be concentrating more on a nationalist curriculum than a national curriculum," he says.

Other educationists see it differently. Peter Smith, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, thinks the new boss of SCAA is raising legitimate issues and has a genuine desire for debate.

One does not get the impression Tate goes out of his way to make mischief. A mild-mannered fellow, he professes some amazement that teachers would take his opinions as gospel. "It is up to schools at the end of the day to have their own vision of the curriculum," he says.

What he's been trying to do, he explains, is to stimulate debate about what that vision should be in relation to things like identity, culture, and moral and spiritual development. To this end, he has put forward his own views views consistent with SCAA and not contrary to government policy. "I'm not trying to impose my views on the country."

The English have a great tendency to opt for fuzziness, he believes. We blur the issues. We push them under the carpet. But society is becoming so complicated and the pace of change so great that openness and clarity are vital.

For someone who is so keen on openness, Tate is curiously coy about his own children's education and chooses not to reveal where his two daughters and one son went to school. These are private matters, he says. On the other hand, he is more candid about money and discloses that his salary is Pounds 64,000 a year. And that his wife is a teacher at a maintained sixth-form college.

Born in Stoke on Trent, the son of a civil servant who worked for Customs and Excise, his own education was grammar school, followed by Oxford University. He sat O-levels at 14 and read history at Balliol College at 16. Which begs the question, is he a genius?

"No, no, not at all," he hastens to add. "Just fast track. On the basis of the fast track I was put through I wouldn't recommend it. I think one was intellectually forced before one was socially mature."

His relative youth didn't seem to do him much harm. At Oxford in the early 1960s he lapped up Dostoyevsky, Proust and Gide. He is a serious reader. Interviewed about his holiday reading by the TES a couple of summers ago he listed Cardinal Newman's Apologia Pro Vita Sua, St Augustine's Confessions and Marcus Aurelius's Meditations. Last summer he lightened up his list with Anita Brookner.

After Oxford, Tate briefly taught English in Spain before completing a PGCE course at Bristol. After which he began work at an old-fashioned, and now defunct, Roman Catholic boy's grammar school in Sheffield, De La Salle College. He is open about his early difficulties as a teacher in a regime characterised by fear, violence and bullying.

In a recent letter to The Guardian a former De La Salle pupil, Jake Piergies, revealed that "Some newly-arrived teachers managed to seize the initiative and survived." But, he wrote, "Dr Tate failed to do so and suffered the consequences . . . The top-stream form behaved for this particular teacher like predatory animals. There would be the initial pain of entering the classroom to be greeted with a gradual build-up of abuse and insults, and an exasperated outburst from Dr Tate."

Does this mean the Government's chief curriculum adviser failed to keep order in his own classroom? Tate does not put it like that, and indeed has corresponded with Jake Piergies whom he does not remember as a pupil. "He is suggesting that I had the sort of difficulties in my first term of teaching, at the age of 21, that large numbers of trainee teachers have," he says. "Who's ashamed of that?" Although he could and did on occasion administer corporal punishment, which was employed freely at De La Salle, Dr Tate admits that "I didn't like it. I very much welcomed the move to abolish it."

While he taught in a Catholic school, he does not regard himself as religious in the conventional sense. He calls himself high Anglican, but doesn't attend church that often and would not describe himself as a stalwart of the parish. But he is concerned about the teaching of religious education saying it has been "dreadfully neglected" in schools. Under him, SCAA has issued model RE syllabuses, as well as guidance on the teaching of RE in the sixth form, and has developed a new GCSE course. After six years teaching history in Sheffield, Tate moved on to train teachers at the City of Birmingham College of Education, and thence to Moray House College in Edinburgh, the big college of education in southern Scotland where he remained for 14 years. He ended up administering the PGCE course as well as teaching it to history students, and was seconded to the Scottish Office to supervise the development of the history curriculum in Scotland.

Having chaired a national working party in Scotland that was revising history syllabuses for the post-16 age group, he was a natural for the new National Curriculum Council in York where he went in 1988 to oversee the history curriculum. That was a heady time. Tate and his colleagues were working long hours, staying up all night writing documents for the demanding NCC boss, Duncan Graham.

Tate's former colleagues relate how he refused to be bullied by Graham. He would not buy a house in York. Instead he commuted back and forth to Edinburgh at weekends to see his family, and lived a kind of student existence in York during the week, devoting himself entirely to his work. "It was certainly odd living in one country and going to work in another," he says with a smile.

It was shocking to Tate the way no one in England or the NCC wanted to know what was happening in Scotland. Rest assured, things are now very different. Today there is considerable interest. Sir Ron Dearing and his team have been back and forth to Edinburgh looking at post-16 qualifications. "They're fascinated by what's happening in Scotland." he says. "There's a feeling that the Scots have cracked it. I don't think they have necessarily."

Eventually Tate moved to London in 1991 to a position at the former School Examinations and Assessment Council as assistant chief executive responsible for key stage 3 matters. To start with, that job was fairly quiet, but it began to heat up when the chairman and chief executive Philip Halsey was replaced by Lord Griffiths, formerly of Mrs Thatcher's policy unit.

The latter was a controversial figure, as were his views on testing. Tate's job became more difficult because English teachers were hostile to the Government's plans for testing. Boycotts were threatened, and Sir Ron Dearing had to be brought in to get the Government off the hook. Sir Ron is now chairman of SCAA.

Critics say that Tate seems rather too willing to do the bidding of political masters. He emphasizes that SCAA is independent of government, though it has to work within the broad outlines of government policy. "Within those broad outlines we have considerable autonomy, and of course we always have the freedom to give whatever advice we wish to give to the Secretary of State, " he says.

Why is he raising issues of national identity, and the moral, spiritual and cultural development of pupils? Not because he thinks schools are not doing these things or because he wants to attack teachers, emphasizes Tate. Nor because SCAA is planning to introduce change. It isn't. There is a five-year moratorium on the curriculum.

But if a revision is to take effect in the year 2000, SCAA needs to be preparing now. Hence the series of conferences being held at which Tate's famous speeches are made."We're raising the issues because we didn't actually have a proper debate about them back in the late 1980s when we introduced the national curriculum," he says. "It was all rather rushed."

In the end, he is is philosophical about the media's tendency to simplify his speeches and is prepared to risk being misunderstood because "the debate about the curriculum should not be confined to education professionals.

"If the curriculum is and I think to a large extent it is this what one generation decides is sufficiently valuable to transmit to the next generation, this is a matter for the whole community to talk about. Therefore getting coverage of some of these issues in the newspapers, including popular newspapers, is a good thing."

A champion of Latin, Tate is appreciated within SCAA for his agile mind, and for being a good, even-handed administrator. Those who know him say he doesn't come to things with a set of prejudices, and is able to listen to a range of differing points of view. As the NCC experience bears out, he also has a tremendous capacity for hard work.

He may be a bit too thin-skinned for his own good. Hence his feelings of betrayal at the leaked minutes. But the lack of worldliness can be endearing and a buttress against cynicism. It would be sad indeed if Tate became dull and boring, and began to speak in weasel words like the education leaders of old.

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