Scanty justification for political briefs

4th November 1994 at 00:00
Public appointments, payments to MPs and the role of quangos are under scrutiny. The TES examines the likely impact of the Nolan inquiry on the world of education. No one makes much money from obscure curriculum groups. But apparently partisan appointments to official committees cause anger just the same. This is due less to their weight in numbers than to the extraordinary influence that a few individuals appear to wield with newspaper editors and ministers of the Crown.

English, history, RE, teacher training: in all cases the policy debate has been coloured by dramatic press reports, founded frequently on the minority views of one or two quango members.

It is alleged that the Government has appointed its own, highly unrepresentative friends to committees purportedly in the business of achieving consensus. Further, say the critics, their traditionalist opinions and hostility to the teaching profession have polarised the arguments andultimately fouled up attempts to produce workable guidance.

There have been quite a list of educational appointees who seemed too close to political influence. Lord Griffiths, for example, former head of Mrs Thatcher's policy unit, became chairman of the School Examinations and Assessment Council. David Pascall, another member of the policy unit and keen moralist was chair of the National Curriculum Council.

Dr John Marenbon, English don at Trinity, Cambridge and husband of Sheila Lawlor, deputy director of the right-wing Centre for Policy Studies, found himself on the SEAC, charged with the task of revising the English tests.

Dr Marenbon would never claim to hold the same views as most in the teaching profession, favouring a highly traditional diet of established authors for pupils. But he did endorse the Government view that a simple set of tests was needed, the quest for which led to the greatest dispute of the whole curriculum and eventually to the mass boycott of tests.

It says much that Dr Marenbon eventually resigned, declaring the task set by the Government to be impossible.

Chris McGovern, a traditionalist historian, is a particular target of teacher ire. He has fought hard for the side of European rather than world history and became scourge-in-chief of the New History favoured by the bulk of the profession. Mr McGovern is much liked by the right-wing Campaign for Real Education. He was appointed to the history committee of SEAC and then to the history advisory group of its successor, SCAA. His influence has been traced by some in the extent to which SCAA has attempted to cater for British history in its latest report. It laid down a much bigger proportion than suits the history teachers' professional body, the Historical Association.

But this was not enough for Mr McGovern, who published his own dissenting report, attacking the inclusion of non-European material. This in turn led to such informed coverage as that in The Sun, headlined "You're History - Britain's glorious past banished from lessons". In fact the proportion of compulsory British history had increased slightly.

Professor Anthony O'Hear of Bradford University was another right-wing member of that history committee, but one who accepted the group decision.

His performance in the area of teacher training has been less than consensual, however, where his newspaper columns have maintained a steady line of fire at teacher trainers. Mr O'Hear, a member of the former Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education and the new Teacher Training Agency, has suggested that would-be teachers could cope without the benefit of higher education training: a belief that informed the school-based reforms. The schools and university training departments are struggling to cope.

He was one of the first to suggest that a Mum's Army of non-graduates could be recruited to teach children at key stage 1: a proposal which provoked massive opposition and a humiliating climbdown. His usefulness was confirmed again this week when he was appointed to an external advisory group with the Office for Standards in Education.

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