One man and his mission

27th February 2004 at 00:00
Nicholas Pyke profiles the defender of the conservatives' faith

It is a one-man band, run from a bedroom in a suburban house in York. And its pronouncements seem to come straight from the Daily Mail Encyclopedia of Educational Thought.

Yet the Campaign for Real Education is still going strong, and after nearly 20 years its founder, Nick Seaton, is one of the most frequently-quoted people in the country. The CRE world view may be uncomfortable for TES readers, but many people seem to share it.

Since 1986, when he first started campaigning against educational bureaucrats and trendy ideology, Mr Seaton, now in his sixties, has become a prolific and skilled articulator of parental disquiet.

He is invaluable to journalists on deadline and editors on a quiet weekend, always available on the phone, a man who can be relied on for a stout defence of conservative values in pretty much any aspect of schooling you mention.

His typically robust view on teacher training is: "Young trainee teachers are brainwashed into the brave new world of efficiency, excuses and political correctness."

From something controversial such as sex and drugs education (bad) to something no longer contentious, say the abolition of O-levels (bad), you know what you will get from Mr Seaton and the CRE.

The two are pretty much interchangeable as, sitting in his son's bedroom with a computer and a telephone, he is overwhelmingly the motive force.

This is not to ignore the membership - he says there are 3,000 associates - nor to dismiss the help he gets from the redoubtable Katie Ivens, the former Westminster borough councillor who does the radio and TV appearances in London. But without Nick Seaton there would probably be no CRE.

If you ask him where it all began, he says that it started when York's grammar school system voted to go comprehensive. He was against the change partly because his son was in a selective school (he was educated at the private St Peter's school, on a scholarship). But he was also angered to discover that - as he puts it - the governors who voted for abolition were academics and lecturers from the city's university.

He started with a York parents' action group which then became national, and the rest we know. Except of course this is only part of the story.

Despite a reluctance to talk about himself, Mr Seaton is a keen and effective networker.

He was, for example, a regular presence at the educational concern groups organised by Baroness Caroline Cox in the late 1980s and that, in some ways, is where the CRE was truly founded. It was part of a loose but influential coalition including Fred Naylor, the campaigner for selective education, the National Grammar Schools Association, the Institute of Economic Affairs, Dr John Marks and Baroness Cox herself. He has written at least one pamphlet for the Centre for Policy Studies, the right-of-centre think tank.

The CRE first came to national prominence in the dispute over history at Lewes Priory school, in Sussex, when the attempt by Chris McGovern and Anthony Freeman to teach an extra O-level course led to their suspension and the eventual loss of their jobs.

The GCSE had recently been introduced amid complaints that it was insufficiently rigorous.

The Campaign for Real Education also helped to orchestrate complaints about the way reading was taught, complaints which eventually led to the introduction of phonic teaching methods and the national literacy strategy.

A quietly spoken, diffident man, Mr Seaton had been a paratrooper and a local car salesman before becoming a full-time education campainger. He says the CRE is run on a shoestring budget of a few thousand pounds with contributions from supporters. "We rely on donations and sometimes helpful firms."

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